In Solidarity | Editorial

World Press Freedom Day has just passed: An apt reminder of the very real dangers that journalists face. We take this as an opportunity to reflect on the peculiar debate that seems to have unfolded in the Pakistani press in the last few weeks, in the aftermath of the attack on GEO TV’s news anchor, Hamid Mir.

First things first: We take the attack on the freedom of the press very seriously, and we stand in solidarity with Hamid Mir. He is the latest in a line of journalists attacked for doing their job in the best sense: reporting the unpopular truth.

Sometimes, the attackers are insurgent organizations—as with fellow journalist Raza Rumi. At other times, it is elements of Pakistan’s security establishment. Recall that Hayatullah Khan, a journalist from FATA, was killed in 2006 only a few months after he exposed that American drones were bombing Waziristan by releasing photos showing the remains of a U.S. Hellfire. His body was found dumped in the Miranshah market.

Saleem Shehzad, the Pakistan bureau chief for Asia Times Online, was killed after he broke a story saying that Al Qaeda was responsible for the 2011 attack against PNS Mehran, after the Pakistan Navy refused to release lower-cadre officials suspected of operating a cell within its ranks. Human Rights Watch pointed the finger squarely at the ISI. After a judicial commission set up in the wake up Shehzad’s killing failed to even question the security agencies, Brad Adams, the Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said that the process “illustrates the ability of the ISI to remain beyond the reach of Pakistan’s criminal justice system.”

Now Hamid Mir believes that he was attacked by elements within the ISI for raising the missing persons’ issue. And, as we have pointed out, the dismaying fact is, most of us find this credible.

This is why the debate that occurred after the attack is especially disturbing. The attack on Mir quickly turned into an inquisition of the journalism of the Jang Group. Let us be clear: the journalistic practices of media houses—whether they meet our standards for fact-checking and other methods—have no bearing on the question of solidarity with journalists under attack.

Standard delusions

Particularly problematic for us have been the calls for “balance”. Invoking the standards of neutral, fair and balanced journalism, such calls have tried to argue that while the ISI’s demand to shut down Geo may be excessive, the television station deserves some censure for its on-air accusations. These critics charge that, without evidence, Geo should not have so forthrightly named the Director General of the ISI. For proof, some point to the “first information report” (FIR) that was filed in Mir’s shooting which does not name the ISI but rather “unknown persons.” The critics recommend greater legal regulation from the Pakistan Electronic and Media Regulation Authority (PEMRA).

We are less concerned with the reputation of the DG ISI—at worst, if Geo is wrong, it would be a case for libel—than in the ethics and politics of the argument about fairness between Geo and the ISI. We find that far more unwelcome.

To us, these expositions display a stunning lapse of memory about Pakistan’s history and an equally awesome obliviousness to its present. Mir’s attack did not occur in a vacuum. It happened in the context of a country that has had several coups, whose largest province is effectively under military occupation while another segment, FATA, is under extreme military measures and whose security establishment has literally sold Pakistanis to the US. We all know this, and that is why we find Mir’s claims plausible.

Not only that, but we also know that the police and civilian government are so frightened of the security establishment that they often do not register FIRs naming persons within the ISI. Nor is evidence gathered or processed. That is routine. Ask anyone from Balochistan. (And, let’s not even think about what happens in FATA.)

So, it takes an inordinate amount of magical thinking to pretend that the registration of an FIR against “unknown persons” is anything other than proof of this dismal reality.

Rather than appreciating the consequences of Pakistan’s past and present, these critics hallucinate an alternate reality in which they imagine they are suddenly living in a state that works, with a civilian government that is independent, and a police force that’s well-paid and enforces the law even against security forces—a state that gathers evidence and prosecutes offenders whoever they may be. No state actually looks like this; the Pakistani state even less than many.

The head-trip would be funny if were not so dangerous. This fantasy is used to argue for a false parity between Geo and the Pakistani security establishment, and its function—whether the critics themselves intend it or not—is to mask the material workings of the Pakistani state and the dominance of the security establishment within it.

Liberal rule

The structure of such arguments—attacks on relatively weaker parties masquerading as arguments about standards of neutrality and fairness—is one of the hallmarks of modern liberalism. Observe that liberalism rose in tandem with the rise of the British Empire, and that J.S. Mill, its foremost proponent, was a career servant in the East India Company. He was intimately concerned with the problems of imperial rule. His celebrated tract, On Liberty, was in fact first drafted as a dispatch that he wrote in response to Lord Macaulay’s “Minute on Indian Education.”

It is therefore not accidental that Mill could argue that all people had inalienable rights just by being born, but then find Indians and other imperial subjects were wanting because they did not meet his “neutral” standards of fully civilized beings.

Today, the alleged neutrality of standards is used to destroy weaker parties. Katchi abadis are assaulted because they don’t meet the ‘neutral’ standards of law and order. Drone survivors are told to endure because their suffering does not meet the standards of international law. Poorer communities, particularly African-Americans in the U.S., are imprisoned at greater numbers because they are unable to meet the standards of American law.

(Of course, one can use the law as a tool to defend weaker parties without thinking of it as a neutral standard.  As we go to press, Rashid Rehman, the human rights lawyer who took on a controversial blasphemy case, has been shot dead.)

So, the support thrown behind the ISI on the basis of neutral standards of fairness squarely follows a well-worn path. This is not “so-called” liberalism. This is liberalism.

And, when push comes to shove in Pakistan or the U.S., liberals repeatedly find themselves on the same side as right-wing nationalists. In the U.S., for all their queasiness, liberals ultimately threw their weight behind the various American wars and occupations. In Pakistan, the nationalist arguments may begin with the idea of loyalty to the ‘nation’ and the liberal arguments may begin with protecting balance, neutrality and fairness, but they end up in the same prescriptive ballpark: stop accusing the security establishment.

We live in a country (and a world) that is neither neutral nor fair. We should admit that, and engage with the actual context rather than figments of the liberal imagination.

One need not agree with Mir or Geo. But, we must unequivocally stand in solidarity for the freedom of the press.


M. Tahir & M. Ahmad


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