Exclusive blog for Freedom Network by journalist HAMID MIR marking the first anniversary of the murderous attack on him for his journalism work
Six bullets were pumped into my body on 19 April 2014 in the port city of Karachi. I felt as if I had just shook hands with Death and it had all but embraced me into its realm, but then, for reasons beyond human comprehension, I came back to the threshold of life. It was the most excruciating day of my life. The day had some rays of bleakness as soon as it had started for I was supposed to make a journey from Islamabad to Karachi and I wasn’t very keen on that trip because I had received several threats a few days earlier they weighed heavy on my mind.
I wanted to go on leave for a month due to security reasons and had already informed my management in writing about the threats I was receiving. The Director Current Affairs of Geo News TV channel had been persistent that I conduct a special show from Karachi on the issue of suicide attacks – and focus precisely on why the ratio of suicide attacks hadn’t gone down despite a break of 100 days in US drone attacks?
I wanted to conduct that show from by work base in Islamabad but my station lacked some of the technical facilities. I suggested maybe a senior colleague in Karachi could do it in my place. However, my Director Current Affairs thought otherwise. To quote, he could “entrust such a sensitive issue in my journalistic hands only with confidence.” My professional skills, it seemed, were turning out to be a threat for my life.
Geo News was planning a talk show spanning a couple of hours with at least eight distinguished guests. It was not possible to record a program like this in our comparatively humbler office in Islamabad. I agreed to do the talk show from Karachi albeit half-heartedly. I tried to deceive my ill-wishers by booking a flight from Islamabad to Quetta on a private airline in case they were tracking my movements. I only changed the flight in the morning of April 19. And yet I had the sneaky feeling that my enemies were much smarter than me and my cleverness might not work. I shared my apprehensions with my wife. She sacrificed a black goat as sadqa before my departure from Islamabad to Karachi to deter any would-be dangers.
As soon as I landed in at the Karachi airport I sent a message of confirmation to my wife. When I came out of the airport my sixth sense was sending me alerts that “something is wrong”. My office had sent me a car with a driver. I asked the driver about why there was no security guard to which he replied that he wasn’t allowed to enter airport premises because he was armed with a pistol. We picked him up from outside the airport as we made our way to the city proper.
Meanwhile on my mobile phone I contacted a senior producer in our Karachi office and informed her about my arrival. She informed me that they were waiting for me and that I should directly come to office. We started discussing about the guests of the show that I was to conduct. When we reached near the Natha Khan Bridge, suddenly I heard gun shots. I immediately realized that I was the target because bullets broke the car windows where I was sitting. And then in an instant I felt a bullet hitting my right shoulder. I saw my driver was getting nervous. I remember shouting out to my driver, instructing him to “Run, run, try to run away!”
I commend my Pashtun driver for keeping his senses and not giving in to panic. The man with his foot on the pedal raced the accelerator of the car. While I am not one to miss praise where it is due, I must say one of my attackers was also adamant that I die – he exhibited a morbid but motivational skill to pursue me relentlessly. He and his aides appeared trained assassins and kept chasing me even as my driver drove hard to save us.
I remember the chase as it began. Two motorbikes swirling and whizzing past the road’s traffic, buzzing like attacker-bees following my trail, firing their bullets in hope of catching me with at least one lethal one that could complete the mission of their handlers. It seemed like a Hollywood movie. I received more bullet shots on my lower back, right thigh and left leg. My car was running in the traffic of Karachi in zig-zag format and I was calling my colleagues in Geo News Karachi office for help. I was telling them “I am under attack! I am injured”. My colleagues asked me to rush towards any hospital.
I told my driver that “I am bleeding, take me to the hospital”. The guard sitting on the front seat suggested my driver to go to the Agha Khan Hospital because other hospitals were not safe. Attackers chased me for a long, long ten minutes. In the meanwhile, the guard managed to move to the back seat and opening the window a crack fired back a bullet at our pursuers. When we were close to the Agha Khan Hospital, I received more bullets in my stomach, with one shot puncturing my urine bladder and damaging my intestine.
By now I was in so much pain I was losing senses. I received a call from Defense Minister Khawaja Asif. He asked me “what happened?” I told him that I was in the middle of an attack. Then I lost my voice. When I reached the emergency ward of the Agha Khan Hospital, I came round again a while and tried to come out of the car on my feet but fell. I realized that both my legs were damaged. I thought I was going to die. I recited ‘kalma tayyaba’. I was thinking about my daughter – how would she would be able to see her father dead – I started praying for her and passed out.
I regained consciousness the next day but for a brief while. An oxygen mask was placed on my mouth. A doctor told me with a smile on his face “It’s nothing short of a miracle that you have managed to survive. Now you are all right.” Indeed, it was clear I had miraculously survived but I didn’t feel all right. I asked questions to myself: “What was my crime? Why did they try to kill me?” My mind wandered to some security officials who had warned me just a few days before the attack that I should not invite Mama Qadeer Baloch to my show Capital Talk, that I should not touch the issue of enforced disappearances in Balochistan and that I would be better off avoiding discussing the treason case against former military ruler Pervez Musharraf.
I had ignored these warnings in light of my professional responsibilities. And maybe these were the crimes I had committed that required me to be punished. Was I wrong to risk my life over professional obligations? As I thought these thoughts in my hospital bed, I tried to move my legs but failed. It was a shock to me! I tried to speak but failed and again lost consciousness after a while. I was completely unaware, in the meanwhile, that some powerful people had already launched a systematic campaign against a journalist fighting for his life in a hospital after an assassination attempt on him. They were trying to make a villain out of a victim. I and my TV channel were declared traitors. I became the target of hate speech everywhere – the mainstream electronic, print and social media. My TV channel faced fake charges of blasphemy. On the third day of the attack Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif visited me in hospital and told me that he had established an inquiry commission to unmask the conspiracy against me within three weeks. I saw the lines of stress, pressure and tension on his face.
The attack on my life had started a cold war between some army officials and the political government because my family had suspected some ISI officials as the architect of the assassination attempt on my life. ISI officials were angry not only with my TV channel but also with the Prime Minister as he had dared visit a “traitor” in hospital. A UN designated jihadi group, also banned by the Government of Pakistan, Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (now working under the name of Jamaatul Dawah) came out on the roads and raised slogans against Geo TV. They were carrying the pictures of the ISI chief in their hands and were delivering speeches in his defense and support. On the other hand, all the major political parties and the provincial assemblies of Balochistan and Sindh had adopted resolutions in my support. Demonstrations of support for me were organized by journalists and civil society all over the country. I was a villain for a powerful minority but a hero for powerless majority.
Within a few days I was summoned by the inquiry commission of three Supreme Court judges. I requested them to visit me in hospital because it was difficult for me to move on wheelchair with a urine bag and a blood bag in my hands. The Commission regretted and sent me a message that I must visit them otherwise they can’t start their inquiry. I made my first appearance before the Commission in Karachi with two medical bags in one hand and my written statement in the other. I made my next two appearances in Islamabad before the Commission within three weeks on a wheelchair with a lot of pain. I still remember that a famous politician came to see me in those days and said “I feel sorry for you but your channel is finished, some army officials told me that they will not allow the Geo News to work again. The people are with you but not with your channel. Therefore, you better join some other channel.” This was clearly a message from the powerful security establishment of Pakistan for me. I told him “Maybe my ship is sinking but I will prefer to sink with it instead of leaving it.”
Doctors advised me to take rest for at least six months but I came back to work after three months with two bullets still inside my body. I suspended my medical treatment when I joined work because my TV channel needed me. Geo TV was under attack from all sides. Even the political government came under pressure and filed a treason case against us. Cable operators were forced to blackout the most popular TV channel of Pakistan. Some senior colleagues including some top anchors were forced to quit a “traitor channel.” Some colleagues advised me “It’s time for you to move on. Maybe some other place otherwise they will attack you again. Geo TV was struggling for its survival.
It’s a long story how I have spent the year after the assassination attempt on me facing ever more threats. How I have faced pressure from my own family to leave Pakistan. I think my family suffered much more than me. I refused to make compromises on my professional ethics and ultimately my family paid the price for my principled position. Sure, I survived the assassination attempt but I am no more living a normal life. I am still receiving threats. My family continues to remain under pressure.
As if it’s a sign of things, one year has passed and there is no outcome of the inquiry started by the three Supreme Court judges. I understand that Pakistan’s superior judiciary is also facing pressures like the media is. Pakistan is a democracy but parliament, judiciary and media are still struggling for their independence. The Pakistani media is facing the worst kind of unannounced censorship from powerful security establishment for the past one year but we have not given up. We were careful in our criticism and protest because we know that the same security institutions are also fighting against terrorism and extremism. I respect the sacrifices of our soldiers against terrorists. I cannot blame them for the blunders committed by some individuals.
In this one year after the murderous attack against me, I refused to leave my profession. And I refused to leave Pakistan. A majority of the public still trusts the Pakistani media because we made sacrifices for the public interest, being the guardian of public interests. For me, public interest is parallel to national interest and I am proud to be a journalist fighting for public’s right to know by sticking to my duty as a journalist.
The author works for Geo News TV channel and has for several years been hosting the popular talk show ‘Capital Talk’. Arguably the most famous journalist in Pakistan, he was attacked by gunmen in Karachi on April 19, 2014, but survived and continues to work. He is perhaps the only journalist in the world working with bullets still lodged in his body.