IN the bizarre, whiplash-inducing fallout of the Hamid Mir shooting, an alarming new twist has occurred: the Ministry of Defence — really, the army/ISI leadership — has petitioned Pemra to cancel the TV licence of Geo News while also calling for action against the Jang group’s flagship newspapers under the defamation and press laws of the country. Cloaked in indignation, outrage and outright fury at the allegedly scurrilous coverage of the ISI, the army’s move — and the government’s acquiescence — is deeply troubling because it takes aim at the existence of an independent and free media. Certain basic issues need to be reiterated first. To begin with, Hamid Mir was shot in a targeted attack because of his work as a prominent journalist — and there seems to be little to no concern any longer about who may have been behind the attack and why. Next, the wildly emotional, over-the-top and accusatory coverage by Geo News after the attack on Mr Mir was clearly misguided and far from the best practices of a responsible media.
Yet, for all the missteps and violations of responsible conduct by the Jang group, the army itself seeking to shut down the country’s largest media house because of direct allegations against ISI chief Gen Zahirul Islam is a step too far — and ought to unite the media and the public against this step. For decades, anti-democratic and authoritarian elements have kept the public from choosing who it wants to lead the country and muzzled the media from holding the state to account for its deeds and misdeeds. Now, when a transition is under way and democratic continuity is on its way to becoming irreversible, there is more of a need than ever to have an independent and free media that can operate outside the still-present shadow of anti-democratic forces. The ISI and the army leadership may be rightly aggrieved, but seeking the cancellation of a media group’s TV licence is also a hostile move that can have a chilling effect on the media far beyond just the Jang group — even if Pemra in the end only slaps the group with a fine.
There is though another sad spectacle playing out in the midst of this clash between the state and media: the media at war with itself. Fuelled seemingly by ego, old and new rivalries and, surely, commercial interests, the electronic media has cannibalised itself in recent days. It has been unseemly and worse. With several media groups falling over themselves to denounce each other while simultaneously swearing fealty to the ISI and the army, the core journalistic mission of informing the public and holding the state to account has all but been forgotten. It is time for representative bodies of print and electronic media to come together to defuse tensions and lay down the rules of ethical journalism.