“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Outdated notions of national security and national interest and an unflinching commitment to entrench them oppressively are alive and well and dutifully being served by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.