Media freedom is under attack in Pakistan, declared Hamid Mir, one of Pakistan’s most prominent journalists. He had six bullets pumped into him by bike riders in Karachi on 19 April. TV anchor, Raza Rumi, was similarly attacked in Lahore in late March. In May 2011, investigative reporter Saleem Shahzad was murdered following his allegations of links between the Pakistani military and al-Qaeda.
These are just three of the many Pakistani journalists who’ve been victims of a wave of threats and violence in recent months and years.
Even foreign journalists covering Pakistan from inside the country dare not write about certain issues for fear of being killed, or that their visas will be revoked at the behest of Islamabad’s military and security establishment - the dreaded Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI). New York Times correspondent for Pakistan, Declan Walsh, for example, now files many of his stories on Pakistan from London. He was thrown out of the country last year after displeasing the ISI with his upfront reporting.
Hamid Mir, who is recovering at home in Islamabad, with two bullets still lodged in his body, fears that Pakistan is slipping back into de facto military rule and that the country’s media is under threat from the ISI.
Mir, a star reporter with Geo TV, was shot in Karachi on his way to the channel’s headquarters. His family blame the ISI for the assassination attempt because of Mir’s vocal support for human rights and criticism of military abuses. His assailants have not been caught and although a judicial commission is probing the attack, there is little hope that his would-be killers will ever be caught. Some Pakistanis believe, like Mir’s family, that the ISI was behind the attack, or at least allowed it to happen and is protecting the perpetrators. It must, however, be said that none of the allegations against the ISI has been proved.
Geo TV is Pakistan’s leading broadcaster. After it broadcast claims that the ISI was responsible for the attack on Mir, an unprecedented wave of apparent revenge attacks was initiated against the TV channel and its sister print group, Jang publications – the largest media house in Pakistan.
On 6 June, the country’s electronic media regulator, PEMRA, suspended Geo TV News’s license for 15 days and fined it 10 million Pak Rupees. This happened with the seeming indifference of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government, presumably out of fear of the ISI, which many Pakistanis see as the real power in the country.
It is widely believed that by punishing Pakistan’s most powerful TV channel a deterrent message has been sent to all media organisations: don’t dare criticise or accuse the ISI, otherwise the same will happen to you.
Cable system operators, apparently under ISI pressure, have taken four other Geo TV channels off the air illegally since 23 April - four days after Geo accused the ISI of complicity in the attempted assassination of Hamid Mir. The shutdown is now nearing 60 days; causing the once dominant Geo an 80% fall in audience share and a huge loss in advertising revenue.
Pakistan’s supreme court has ruled that downing Geo channels is illegal and should stop; but, the cable operators have refused to obey. It is suspected that the ISI have warned them to block Geo TV or face severe repercussions.
In addition, the distribution and sale of over 30 Jang daily and weekly publications - such as Daily Jang and The News - have been halted in large parts of Pakistan, allegedly as a result of pressure from the ISI. These once mass circulation publications have suffered massive falls in sales and readership.
Many of the group’s staff have been threatened. They are accused of being anti-Pakistan and anti-Islam.
Warnings have been issued to distributors not to transport Jang publications - or they will face consequences. Four vans carrying Jang publications for distribution have been set on fire and their drivers attacked by armed men.
Several Jang employees have been attacked, including local editor of the Daily Jang in Multan, Zafar Aheer. He was almost beaten to death on 31 May. ‘They (the attackers) called me an agent of India and Jews, and a traitor,’ he said.
Amnesty International has said that several Jang media group journalists have received daily threats and harassment by unknown individuals. Many dare not enter their offices or identify themselves as belonging to Geo TV or Jang Group for fear of being attacked.
It is feared that rival media groups have colluded with the ISI, although nothing has been proved.
Blasphemy allegations have been made against Geo and one of its female anchors, who has now fled the country. Over two dozen blasphemy cases have been registered against Geo TV executives. There are fears that if these cases are brought to court, the accused will face the death penalty or be murdered by Islamist extremists, as has happened to a number of liberal politicians in recent years.
Fundamentalist religious groups have been holding anti-Geo rallies across Pakistan. One group, the Sunni Ittehad Council, declared that watching Geo TV was haram (forbidden).
Former cricketer turned politician Imran Khan condemned Geo and demanded that it apologise to the army and the ISI, which it did last month, adding that its coverage had been ‘misleading’. But since then Geo has launched a defamation suit against the ISI.
Throughout this period, Pakistan’s intelligentsia and left wing commentators - and even the rival Dawn newspaper - have criticised the ISI for a disproportionate reaction, for attacks on free speech and for attempting to destroy the Geo and Jang media group by financial strangulation.
The campaign against Geo and Jang is so strong and well-orchestrated that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is steering clear of it, presumably for fear of further angering the ISI, which is already gunning for his government for allowing a treason case to be brought against former dictator and military strongman, Pervez Musharraf.
Amnesty, along with nine other human rights organisations, have demanded PM Nawaz Sharif prevent attacks on Geo and Jang. But they are mistaken. Sharif is helpless. He’s in office but not in power. He can’t afford to anger the ISI.
The Geo/Jang-ISI standoff has exposed the weakness of the civilian government and reinforced Hamid Mir’s assertion that the ISI are in control. They pull the strings. The civilian administration can do little without its approval.
The international community needs to take a tougher line with Pakistan when the ISI shows such apparent disrespect for freedom of expression and the rule of law. UK and US military cooperation and arms sales to Pakistan should cease until attacks on Geo and Jang have ended. Likewise, aid should be withheld and diverted to NGOs instead.
Most obviously: why are David Cameron and Barack Obama silent while free speech is curtailed in Pakistan and journalists face violent attacks?
Peter Tatchell is Director of the human rights organisation, Peter Tatchell Foundation.