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Monday, April 28, 2014

“I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it”

Home Newspaper Column Traitors and national interest Babar Sattar Updated Apr 28, 2014 06:12am9 Comments Email Email Your Name: Recipient Email: Print “WE cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them,” Albert Einstein had argued. The ruckus kicked up by indignant patriots after the assassination attempt on Hamid Mir proves just that. Outdated notions of national security and national interest and an unflinching commitment to entrench them oppressively are alive and well and dutifully being served by servile disciples across our state and society. Will witch-hunts in the name of national security make Pakistan a stronger state? The attack on Hamid Mir, Geo’s response to the attack, the ISI establishment’s response to Geo coverage, and the acute polarisation caused as a consequence of this back and forth is proof of our degeneration into an intolerant lynch mob. We are unable to distinguish between suspicion and conviction, between fair reporting and slander. We have no patience for accountability and due process. Anyone questioning our security state’s version of national interest is a traitor who must be banished. At least three aspects of the Hamid Mir story deserve attention. One, what happened to Mir and continuing attacks on journalists that make Pakistan one of the most dangerous places for journalists. Two, how Geo treated Amir Mir’s accusation against the DG ISI as a key suspect in the attack against Mir. Three, the vilification campaign launched against Geo and Hamid Mir to brand them traitors and ban them. Freedom of speech is not freedom to slander or malign. The right to hold and express an opinion needs to be protected. But presenting opinion as fact is a disservice to journalism. Geo crossed a red line in reporting Amir Mir’s accusation against the DG ISI not because it aired the accusation, but because the manner in which it did amounted to running a media trial, and not just indicting but condemning the DG ISI in the public eye. And this wasn’t the first time. Components of the Jang-Geo group ran a vile campaign against Asma Jahangir on the eve of her election as president Supreme Court Bar Association. They have run similar campaigns against politicos/public officials (Raja Rentals, Mr 10pc, etc) and condemned them in media trials for being corrupt or unscrupulous, without presenting opposing viewpoints. Not only have they gotten away with partial journalism, once the hallmark of evening rags, the practice is now entrenched and followed by most media groups. It isn’t that journalists and media houses don’t know how to do it right. The practice of slander is deliberate, as the power to scandalise is what is used to extort and exert influence. Geo’s news desk could have run Amir Mir’s accusation without putting the DG ISI on trial with sound effects and all. It could have presented the response from the DG ISI or his office simultaneously. It could have highlighted the need to investigate the serious allegation and moved on to other aspects of the story instead of cultivating the melodrama for hours. Just because media houses have gotten away with slander in the past, doesn’t make it right. Slander is condemnable, period. And not just when it involves the DG ISI. The media was wrong when it presented Khawaja Asif’s 2006 speech critical of the army as one delivered by him in 2014 to put Khawaja in the dock, or when it ran a campaign against Hussain Haqqani; just as Geo wasn’t right in drumming up charges against the DG ISI in the Mir case. “I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it”, Evelyn Beatrice Hall had written in Voltaire’s biography. No matter how unpleasant or abhorrent Geo’s presentation of accusations against the DG ISI, it is nowhere close to being as abhorrent as the attack on Hamid Mir. Geo can be prosecuted for defamation and slapped with heavy penalties if convicted in accordance with the law, but it must not be condemned as a traitor or banned just because it had the audacity to voice a victim’s suspicion against a ranking general. The ludicrous claim that Geo or Hamid Mir is a national security threat is a matter of opinion. What is a matter of fact, however, is that someone executed a plan to kill Hamid Mir, who wound up injured in hospital with six bullets in his body. What is a fact is that 29 journalists have turned up dead in Pakistan in the last four years and many more have been attacked for exercising their right to speak freely. What is a fact is that intelligence agencies threaten journalists with dire consequences for reporting unpalatable stories or expressing undesirable opinions. What is a fact is that almost all studies analysing abuse of power by intelligence agencies (starting from Air Marshal Zulfiqar Ali Khan report in 1989 to the Missing Persons, Saleem Shahzad and OBL commission reports recently) highlighted that powers exercised by intelligence agencies were liable to abuse and needed to be subjected to effective checks and balances. What is a fact is that our khaki-controlled security establishment has not heeded any such recommendations. This old game of branding as traitors those critical of failed conceptions of national security and national interest has not served us well. A doctrine of national security that condemns citizens who seek to speak their minds and aims to instil fear in the hearts of dissenters brash enough to point fingers at holy cows cannot possibly help a country in need of urgent reform. The writer is a lawyer. sattar@post.harvard.edu Twitter: @babar_sattar ============= Six bullets and seven nights Qalam Kaman Hamid Mir Monday, April 28, 2014 From Print Edition 1873 312 1547 1 Karachi is the largest city of Pakistan but some consider it the most dangerous city as well. When Geo — the biggest Pakistani TV channel — was launched in 2002 from Karachi, I stayed there for three months for training. During the training, one morning a powerful bombing took place near the US Consulate while I was busy in my training session at a 5-Star hotel not far from the consulate. The explosion was so powerful that many pieces of broken glass fell on me. The deafening sound of the blast gripped me and many of my colleagues. We completed our training in this very incomprehensible fear. When I returned to the capital as Bureau Chief of Geo TV, high-ups in the government followed me and tried to instill in my mind that ‘Geo TV is an anti-state channel and that a patriotic journalist like me should stay away from it.’ My response was very simple: “This country is run by an army chief. If I am shown the proof that Geo TV is anti-state, I would quit the channel.”No proof was shown; however, the torch-bearers of patriotism got angry with me. In Pakistan, the start of private electronic media was not so pleasant. The government in power wanted to keep the channels under its thumb in order to get results of October 2002 general elections of its liking. On the one hand, to please the West, the Musharraf government initiated the farce of giving freedom to the media, while on the other hand dangers for media persons started increasing. The media persons were the most favourite target of extremists as well as the secret agencies. Some journalists became spokespersons for secret agencies in the name of patriotism. Some started supporting the extremists in the name of Islam. Some of them were caught in the cobweb of nationalists. Space started narrowing for media persons in the country conceived by Quaid-i-Azam. Killing and kidnapping of journalists became the order of the day and the media industry started losing the sense of protection. Gen Pervez Musharraf’s emergency of 2007 divided the media in two distinct groups. One group became a plaything in the hands of powerful secret agencies. The other group that stuck to the right was dubbed ‘traitor and anti-state’. This division was not restricted to the media alone, it made its appearance among the politicians too. When on the orders of the Supreme Court, the case of high treason for violation of the Constitution was initiated against Pervez Musharraf, this division assumed the form of confrontation. Musharraf’s trial started sending many important national issues to the backburner. The biggest problem Pakistan faces today is terrorism. Some said if drone attacks stop, terrorism will come to an end. However, terrorism persisted even after no drone struck for 100 days. Some said if talks with the Taliban are held, everything will be hunky dory. Drones stopped and negotiations with the Taliban also started, but still terrorism continued unabated. The Geo TV arranged a special discussion on this vital issue. I proceeded to Karachi by air on the noon of 19 April. I have conducted many programmes in Karachi but I must admit that my every journey to Karachi started with an unspecified fear. It is very easy in Karachi for the sleuths of secret agencies to eliminate unwanted media persons. However, if a journalist like me shies away from going to Karachi due to this lurking fear, how can I claim to represent the popular sentiments? These very thoughts encouraged me to overcome the old fear with respect to Karachi and I decided to go on with the visit. I asked my wife to sacrifice a black goat, as weak media persons like me consider such a sacrifice sufficient for their safety. After this sacrifice, I proceeded to Karachi on Saturday morning. As soon as I landed at the Karachi Airport, I received a message from my co-producer that Asad Umar of PTI who had to represent his party in tomorrow’s special discussion had regretted that he would not be able to attend. I asked the co-producer to invite PTI leader Shah Farman from Peshawar. Engrossed in these thoughts I came out of the airport and got into the car. I asked the driver about the security guard. The driver told me that he was standing outside the airport. After a short while the security guard also got into the car which came out of the airport. Once again, I started sending an SMS to my co-producer asking the time of the next day’s meeting. Meanwhile, I was discomfited to hear firing shots. When I saw the right window of the car smashing, I realized I was the target. A bullet had already pierced my shoulder. I asked the driver to look sharp. But we were caught in a jungle of traffic. Firing continued and bullets were penetrating my legs. When the motorcyclist and car drivers realised that a car was being fired upon, they started making way for us. Firing still continued and I felt another bullet piercing the left of my waist. I started reciting the Kalima Tayyaba. The attackers were still following our car and went on firing without a gap. I started telling my colleagues in the office that I am being shot at. I asked the driver to rush to a hospital as two more bullets had pierced my belly. Wading through a flood of traffic, hounded by the attackers and myself perspiring profusely, we somehow were able to reach the Emergency of the Aga Khan Hospital. Darkness began to appear before my eyes. I mustered the courage to come out of the car and fell on a stretcher. Then I lost consciousness and do not know what happened. On the third day of the attack, I regained consciousness and doctors began to disclose gradually that I had received six bullets but was safe. At that time, I was thinking about the animosity the attackers could have had against me. Then I concluded that the culprit was not the attacker but the one who had planned the attack. Faces of many ‘planners’ flashed before my eyes. I could ignite new pits of fire by narrating incidents taking place within the first two weeks of April alone, and this could ignite a horrible fire and bring more destruction. Then I thought that in that case there would be no difference between me and a terrorist. Those who dubbed Geo TV traitor in 2002 are once again dubbing it traitor today. They neither had any proof then, nor do they have now. I leave all this to my Allah Almighty and to the courts. I only want to share my feelings with you. I wish to tell you about so many ups and downs of the acute pain during the seven days of stay at the Aga Khan Hospital. But one thing is certain: the excruciating pain I passed through has only served to consolidate my faith, my courage and my determination. I express my profound thanks to all those who stood by me in this hour of trial and prayed for my health. I am feeling great pain even now as I write these lines. I am bearing this pain only to promise you that I will use the cuts made by six bullets in my body to illuminate the nation to dissipate the darkness of illiteracy. The six bullets and seven nights spent at the Aga Khan Hospital have convinced me that it is not the common populace of the country that in fact wields the real power and rights. It is someone else. The destination of pure independence is still far away. Disappointment is a sin. The last to laugh will be the common man. We still need lots of sacrifices to reach that destination. SMS#HMC (space) message: send to 8001. Email: hamid.mir@janggroup.com.

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