Pakistani media under threat from militants

As Reporters Without Borders underpins, the freedom of expression and of information will always be the world's most important freedom. Pakistan as a media ground raises an
interesting spectre.

There is little doubt the South Asian nation boasts one of the most vibrant media in the world, fiercely independent in its ambition to set new benchmarks in the face of sometimes screaming odds. This, while being a source of pride for the practitioners of the kinetic fourth pillar, often comes with a price tag.

In short, it is not always easy to tell the truth, especially if it is unpalatable for powers-that-be. However, this has not deterred Pakistani journalists from sending those postcards from the edge.

The result? For the second consecutive year, Reporters Without Borders, declared Pakistan the most hazardous place to be a journalist — a corollary that was reinforced by an alarming incident late last month.  

The case of Hamid Mir, Pakistan's most recognisable television anchor, and experienced journalist is more serious than meets the eye, however.

His choice as a specific target makes "perfect sense" from the perspective of those who apparently have claimed responsibility for trying to kill him by rigging up his car with explosives, which fortunately failed to go off.

The Tehrik-e-Taleban Pakistan (TTP) has been harassing the media in general and hinting at direct hits at journalists for two years now but have apparently now decided to translate their threats into action. The Hamid Mir case, therefore, should be suspected as the start of a new wave of terror, rather than the culmination of a previous phase.

The mainstream Pakistani media's unreserved and unhesitating condemnation of the attack on now-global icon of courage, 15-year-old education activist Malala Yousafzai, by the TTP last October seems to have taken the proscribed group first by surprise then by alarm and finally angered them.

This prompted an unusually explicit warning that they would directly attack the media if it continued criticizing the TTP by name when even politicians were being pragmatic by being hesitant to say out the 'T' word aloud.

Hamid Mir, to his credit, has been one of those few anchors on prime time TV who have been non-hesitant in showcasing the absurdity of the Taleban's worldview within the context of what people want, what the law says and the world weariness of the average Pakistani and the helplessness that comes with it.

Targeting Hamid Mir and killing him will serve to put a serious dent in the Pakistani media's ability to persist with exposing the incongruous nature of the TTP's well-articulated objective of capturing the state, preferably with its nuclear arsenal, and press into service a browbeaten citizenry to formalise its plan to politically dominate the contiguous Pakistan-Afghanistan geographic theatre.

The impact of media's articulation of unreserved public support for Malala which generated a critical mass of criticism of Taleban and their regressive ideology should not be under-appreciated.

If anything, the TTP attack on Hamid Mir and their threat to do an encore (as opposed to letting the first attempt to merely sink home the coercive message) demonstrates the widening faultline of perceptions over the extent to which narrow interpretation of religion can be taken to explain statecraft.

The attack signals a shift in Taleban strategy to forego the idea of letting the media remain
a 'holy cow.'

It is clear that after the military, politicians, businesses and the average citizens, the media in Pakistan has become one of the last great targets of the Taleban in their increasingly desperate strategy of staying relevant even as their attraction as an alternative version of political Islam loses its charm even among the fringe faithful. And therein lies great danger for the media.

Between the elections on the horizon and the Afghan pullout in 2014 of the Americans lie the latest in a string of opportunities for Taleban and their backers to reboot their franchise of extremism and militancy and fashion a new surge in stakes for itself.

These two themes will be keeping the Pakistani media busy for the next two years and with the stakeholders having to take positions that the journalists must run with, will mean that the media will emerge as the new soft target of the Taleban.

Even though there are enough other threats to the Pakistani media — from intelligence agencies to the military, from the political parties to courts and even the corporate sector, and from other state and non-state actors — the threat from Taleban has been growing steadily and with the attempt on the life of Hamid Mir we may have seen the latent menace finally spilling over into the open.

Assassination is the extreme form of censorship. Some 90 journalists in Pakistan have found this out to their mortal peril over the past 12 years. Dozens of others face this serious risk on a daily basis as they go about their
professional work.

Increasingly, the Hobson's choice for Pakistani media is emerging to be censorship or assassination.


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