The attempted assassination in Karachi of one of Pakistan’s best-known television presenters, Hamid Mir, is as unsurprising as it is disquieting. This is not the first time he has been targeted; in 2012, the Tehrik-i-Taliban (TTP) planted half a kilogram of explosives under his car in Islamabad as retaliation for his coverage of the shooting of Malala Yousafzai. And just last month, another journalist, Raza Rumi, had to leave the country after escaping an assassination attempt in Lahore. These incidents are part of a broader trend. Pakistani press freedom has increasingly become collateral damage of the War on Terror and the internal forces it has unleashed in Pakistan. Journalists have found themselves squeezed by both radical elements like the TTP and the State for having the temerity to judge them critically. Mir is a case in point. His brother, a journalist himself, has accused the ISI of orchestrating the attack and alleged that Mir had received threats from the agency for his political views.
As of now, the political establishment is making all the right noises. Senators have called upon the ISI to clear its name and a commission has been formed to investigate the assassination attempt. But judging by Islamabad’s track record, this is no guarantee of justice being served. A previous inquiry, set up to investigate allegations of the intelligence agencies being behind the assassination of another journalist, Saleem Shahzad, ended up as a whitewash. Nor are attempts to muzzle the press the preserve of the military-intelligence complex; they have become institutionalised over the past decade or so. Legislation like the Official Secrets Act and blasphemy laws have increasingly been used to silence the media. Since 2010, the judiciary has gotten in on the action, using ill-defined contempt laws to curb reporting and criticism. And under the aegis of the Pakistani Electronic Media Regulatory Authority, satire aimed at politicians has become verboten.
This, more than the pressure exerted by militant groups like the TTP, is responsible for the current state of affairs. The latter being inimical to the idea of press freedom is to be expected; the State’s sharing that attitude is a betrayal of Pakistan’s much-battered constitutional principles that has deprived the media of the space it needs to function effectively. This is best illustrated in regions like Balochistan and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas where the state is actively at war with insurgent forces. Journalists operating in these areas must navigate a minefield of conflicting pressures. There is a fundamental threat to their security if they fail to report militant activities in a manner acceptable to the insurgents. And instead of receiving protection from the State, they are persecuted by the ISI; there are numerous allegations of the agency warning off, interrogating and torturing journalists.
Pakistan’s political and security environment isn’t going to improve at any point in the near future. With US troops set to withdraw from Afghanistan, in fact, the stakes for the ISI and the military will grow higher — and that means increased pressure on the media when it attempts to examine their dealings in the border regions, their links with the Taliban and the manner in which their policies have enabled the militancy and the Sunni-Shia violence plaguing Pakistan today. The country has slid to 158 out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index 2014. If it isn’t to sink further, the civilian administration must show that it has the intent and the will to change a paradigm where espousing liberal principles and subjecting the organs of the state to due scrutiny is seen as anti-national.