In its annual report launched on December 19, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) “did not identify anyone singled out for murder in Pakistan because of journalist work” for the first time since 2001. Although this is a welcome sign for the freedom of the press in the country, media persons continue to be threatened, intimidated and harassed by both state and non-state actors, forcing them to leave “danger zones” or quit the profession altogether to avoid the grave risks involved.
But the intimidation could not discourage every one, as for some, the risks are worth running to keep a free press alive and kicking. A close call with death gave Hamid Mir, one of the most popular television talk-show hosts in Pakistan, firsthand experience of the perils of exercising his profession.
He was critically injured on April 19, 2014, when unidentified suspects opened fire on his car along Karachi’s Sharah-e-Faisal. He was being driven from the airport to the Karachi offices of Geo TV. He was shot thrice, with bullets piercing through his body, including his right thigh, stomach and bladder.
Mir says his life, however, changed in 2012 when police defused a bomb planted under his car in Islamabad.
Freedom of the Press
“My life actually changed after the attack on Malala [Yousufzai] in 2012. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) threatened me after my outright support for her,” he told The Express Tribune in a telephonic interview. Mir was the first television journalist who interviewed Malala before the military offensive against Taliban militants in Swat in 2009. “They defamed, and used derogatory language against her. Since she’s like my daughter, who came in the limelight because of me, I reacted strongly against the TTP. Perhaps, I overreacted…it was an emotional reaction.”
However, he continued to practice journalism in Pakistan while keeping a low profile outside his professional life. “Thereafter, there were many problems for me…I changed my residence and started living in different places; then came 2014.”
A recipient of the state honour Hilal-i-Imtiaz for his journalistic work, Mir also won the Most Resilient Journalist Award 2016 by Free Press Unlimited for demonstrating “extraordinary strength of character, courage and perseverance in reporting the news” in November this year.
“I was acknowledged because despite being backed into the wall, I never left Pakistan. I had an opportunity but I stayed here,” he says. “I had many offers. In 2014, a reputed, international publication pitched me an idea for a book, offering huge amount in royalty. They were not interested in my struggle but to malign some state institutions [of Pakistan]. I have no fight with any state institution … there were some individuals, who had misunderstandings … they were a part of a conspiracy against me but I don’t want to malign any state institution.”
Mir refused to leave the country because did not want to discourage many young journalists. “I’m very well-connected with journalist associations, and have been part of the struggle. They all requested me to stay. ‘Ap chaley gaye to buhat problem hojayega…buhat se log hosla haar jayenge [There will be many problems if you leave. Many will lose hope],’ they told me. And my response was: ‘OK, if you’re with me, I won’t go’.
Though things have improved, Mir says pressure from banned outfits still exists. “State actors do not pressurise us (journalists) much but still non-state actors, especially proscribed groups … they exert pressure on the media, not only in Karachi or tribal areas but in Lahore and Islamabad as well.”
At least 59 journalists have been killed in Pakistan in the last 10 years. Many of them, at least five or six of them – including Musa Khan Khel, Saleem Shehzad and Hayatullah Khan – often sought advice from Mir on whether they should flee the country. “I always advised them not to. Unfortunately, they were slain.”
The senior anchorperson now wants to work for the welfare of the victims’ families, as well as devote resources for the training and safety of mainstream newsmen.
“I’m donating the reward money of my award, 15,000 euros, to those six to seven families,” he says. “I have also formed a journalist support fund, which will become operational in December 2016.”
57 journalists killed worldwide in 2016: rights group
Asked if he planned to open his own TV channel or newspaper, Mir said: “I have a plan to open a media university. Rather than electronic, one should form an institution, which should have a newspaper, as well as a TV station such that when students graduate, not only should they know the basics of production and reporting but also be familiar with editorial writing." He adds, “Media university mera ek khwab hai [establishing a media university is my dream]. It will not be in Punjab but in a neglected region, most probably Balochistan.”
There is another development Mir claims to be a part of. The country ranks at number 8 on CPJ's 2016 Global Impunity Index, which highlights countries where murders of journalists go unpunished.
“We have forced some members of Parliament, both from the opposition and the government, to introduce a journalists’ protection bill. While measures should be taken for the protection of journalists, it will also mandate the publishers and media owners to train their journalists for coverage in risk-zones, as well as provide them with protective gear. It will be their responsibility,” says Mir. “This will be first step in ensuring media freedom in the country.”
Published as part of The Express Tribune's year-ender series, Making Waves
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