Life after attempt on life of one of Pakistan’s top journalists
The first time I went to meet ace journalist Hamid Mir in the last week of May 2014 – after the shocking assassination attempt on his life a few weeks earlier – he was lying at home on his bed. He was in great physical pain although he still had his wits about him. In a follow-up meeting in August 2014 it was a pleasant surprise to see him come down to receive me and later see me off personally. The many alarmed at the attack on him will be pleased to know he is making steady progress health-wise and has already returned to active journalism.
No one would have believed on April 19, 2014 (when unidentified gunmen shot him six times) after the footages that showed him fighting for his life that he would be back in action hosting his popular ‘Capital Talk’ current affairs show on Geo News TV any more. He has proved all his detractors wrong and hosted his first show on July 29, 2014 – within 15 weeks of the murderous attack on him in Karachi.
So, why did he refuse to be scared and quit his dangerous job? “I wanted to send [out] a message [I will not be cowed don],” he says about his dogged return to prime time journalism in an interview with Freedom Network [FN], Pakistan’s first media watchdog organization monitoring freedom of expression, press freedom and online freedom, in August 2014.
Mir’s courage speaks of resilience he is showing to defend freedom of expression despite the heavy price being extracted from him. He is the first and only Pakistani journalist doing journalism with two bullets still in his body after being pumped with six bullets by would-be assassins on April 19 in Karachi moments after his arrival from Islamabad to do a special show on terrorism.
“Yes, the two bullets are still in my body,” he confirmed with his usual mischievous smile. He deems them badges of honor for his profession and shrugged off the cost of freedom of expression. Winston Churchill’s quote comes to mind wherein he said: “You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.”
He, however, does not belittle the threats to him and agrees that the threatening environment he was living in before the attack on him, continues to compromise his security. There is little change in terms of his vulnerabilities.
“The threat level worries me,” he concedes. “It is still very high.” A number of private guards, standing alert outside his residence, confirm his apprehensions. Ironically, the government has withdrawn its protective cover for him, calling back the cops stationed earlier to guard him.
‘Freedom is lost’
He may have braved the tribulations personally but is the professional life the same as before the attack on him? Mir says he’s back in action but revealed that his work is now subjected to a great deal of restrictions and the censorship his channel’s management has imposed on him to navigate safely through “the most difficult times” that Geo News TV channel says it is facing ever since its launch in 2002. “The freedom [of expression] that was our [channel’s] hallmark is lost,” he says wistfully.
“I’m back on TV doing my programs but I have been barred from broaching certain issues,” he discloses with a grim face. The issues that, for now, can no longer figure on his Capital Talk program as well as any other program, at least until his channel survives these difficult times under pressure from the powers-that-be in Pakistan, include, unsurprisingly, missing persons in Balochistan, the military and some others that Mir refused to say. “I cannot do a show on any of these issues,” he says.
He made another shocking disclosure: “My show [Capital Talk] used to be aired live before I was attacked. Now I can only do a recorded show. I’m no longer allowed to be a live journalist.”
These restrictions and censorship come in the backdrop of the TV channel, once rated the ‘top channel’ with consistent highest rating, now struggling to survive making little business because of legal complications and immense pressures being put on the cable TV distributors to either not distribute its transmission, consistently change its transmission numbers in a way that most viewers can’t find it, or to allow only irregular, low quality broadcasts.
“There is also economic pressure. In a long, long while for the first time July salaries of staff haven’t been paid (by August 6). We used to get our pay at the earliest in this sector,” says Mir. Geo News channel, he worries, may begin downsizing shortly making many staff members jobless if no business comes soon. “There has been no [business] booking during the last three months because the channel has been forcefully kept off air. We are under no delusions at all: we are all, including the Geo channel itself, facing a battle for survival.”
The Casualty of Credibility
Mir has no doubt that what happened after the attack on him was well planned and orchestrated. “The establishment wants to control the media,” he argues. “[After what happened to me and the channel] the government was confused. And it was not clear if there should be a case against Geo channel. The deep state was, therefore, successful in its divide-and-rule policy.”
About the fierce onslaught against Geo TV channel labeling it treasonous and blasphemous in the wake of Mir’s family’s accusations that a state intelligence agency had orchestrated the attack on him, the journalist says it was all pre-arranged. “It was created. It was not natural. Some anchors were told to toe the given lines.”
Mir believes the ensuing internecine war of words, allegations and propaganda among the media houses in a bid to take sides of either the ‘accused’ or the ‘alleger’ after the attack on him, “the real victim has been credibility of Pakistani media. How many of us will not agree that this state suits the establishment, which is what it wanted to happen.”