Famous Sri Lankan editor, Lasentha Wickrematunge of The Sunday Leader, who was killed in January 2009, had predicted his death in his last editorial, “And Then They Came for Me”, written two days before he was killed, in these words: “When finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me”. The editorial was published two days after his murder.
So some journalists around the world have predicted about their possible assassination.
Hamid Mir, one of Pakistan’s most powerful media voices, had feared and faced death threats due to which he had moved his children abroad recently but refused ‘asylum’ offers for himself. These threats, he claimed, came from different quarters and groups, including the intelligence agencies.
In the same editorial, Wicrematunge talked about official inquires. He was very critical of the then president of Sri Lanka and addressing him he said: “In the wake of my death I know you will make all the usual sanctimonious noises and call upon the police to hold a swift and thorough inquiry. But like all the inquiries you have ordered in the past, nothing will come of this one, too. For truth be told, we both know who will be behind my death, but dare not call his name. Not just my life, but yours too, depends on it.”
Hamid Mir is not the only one who had expressed his fears in writing to his family, close friends and concerned news managements. Hayatullah did this, so did Saleem Shahzad and Musa Khan Khel. At least, two of them Hayatullah and Musa Khan Khel had confided in Hamid Mir of the possible threat.
Hamid Mir is alive and will soon be back to talk about his possible assassins and his fears. The truth is that the bullets may have spared his life but we ‘killed’ him by questioning his patriotism in the post-attack discussions on tv talk shows. The 67 years of this country’s history is replete with issuance of certificates of ‘traitors’ for those who are said to be against the ‘ideology of Pakistan’ etc.
Now, the Ministry of Defence has moved the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) with a detailed charge sheet against Geo group. Last year, another channel and nine newspapers were charged for sedition in Balochistan. The cases are still pending in the sessions courts. But you cannot brand journalists, newspapers or channels as ‘traitors’ unless you have evidence to prove it in a court of law.
One also wonders about the veracity of the Minister of Defence, Khawaja Asif’s consent to the complaint before Pemra. Once late Mir Ali Ahmad Talpur who happened to be Gen. Zia’s minister of defence was asked about his role as minister and he had said: “Baba, I am not minister of defence. I am minister of self-defence.”
According to Pemra rules, the authority has to first refer the matter to the Council of Complaints, comprising 13 to 17 members, which also includes members from the civil society. The council can call Geo’s management and later if it feels the case is fit to be proceeded, can issue directives to Pemra Chairman for action.
However, in the absence of Pemra chairperson, a three-member committee will investigate charges levelled by the defence ministry against Geo and will apprise the Pemra board of the facts of the case.
It is pertinent to note that the existence of the three member committee is already challenged in the court.
In this case, the ministry has gone a step ahead and asked for prosecution of Geo’s editorial and management, meaning it should initiate criminal proceeding. How can Pemra do that, I am at a loss to understand.
The ministry and the military should have waited for the outcome of the judicial inquiry before drawing any conclusion because the accusations levelled by Amir Mir, brother of Hamid Mir and the alleged hype created by Geo were all linked with the attack. All sides must show restraint and refrain from accusations and counter-accusations till the investigation is complete.
Hamid Mir, as I have known him for the past 25 years, has a reporter’s nose that smells the news, a powerful pen to express it in words and a voice to say it loud and clear. Like any true journalist, he believes in expressing his own opinion and in allowing the opposite view as well. He was critical of both retired General Pervez Musharraf and Asif Ali Zardari but interviewed them both. He was the first person to interview Zardari as president of Pakistan. His interview with al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden generated a lot of controversy but hit the headlines around the world.
All these qualities made him a dangerous journalist too. Some people and groups in this country don’t like those who can influence public opinion and thereby create problems for the decision-makers. So, when such journalists don’t listen to their ‘advice’, other means like the one that we witnessed in Karachi are adopted.
The fact that Hamid Mir is such a sharp journalist was evident from his first reaction. As soon as the first bullet was fired on his car, the immediate thing he did was to call Geo’s ace crime reporter Afzal Nadeem Dogar and asked the driver to rush to the hospital. He knew his assailants were following him and may do so till he reaches the hospital. He knew that only a crime reporter could inform the police or rangers.
Within minutes, the news of his attack hit the headlines. Those who wanted to silence his voice on Geo and Jang are now dealing with over two dozen tv channels who have been discussing Hamid Mir, whether in support or in opposition.
Hamid Mir is a now like a wounded lion. Having known him for so long, I know that his response would be cool but tough. Those who wanted to silence him will be disappointed. His critics within the journalist community who could not beat him in ratings or writing have tried to malign him. Interestingly, they are referring to his criticism on army’s political role in 1971, his stance on Balochistan and Mehran Base attack etc. — causes that should be dear to every journalist.
True, there were some shows and columns that one found fault with but you have to learn to respect difference of opinion. People who have branded him as ‘traitor’ and ‘Indian agent’ etc. are also the ones who are trying to ‘rescue’ a military dictator for facing such charges.
As for the accusation of brother Amir Mir, himself a reputed journalist, he did what his brother had reportedly told him. Ideally and as per journalistic norms, the name of the DG ISI should have been edited. DG ISPR’s reaction should have been taken soon after the brother’s allegations. Having said that, the reaction of the family only came after and not before the incident; Hamid Mir had informed his family and his group and they had also alerted the prime minister about it. So, editorial errors apart, one should not completely negate the allegations which need proper and independent probe.
At the time when 9/11 happened, I was bureau chief of AFP, Karachi. I was watching the happenings on my television screen in the office, when a Press Release on the letterhead of Lashkar-e-Taiba was faxed. I also got a call from an unknown person, saying “we have sent you a fax”. The fax said, “Our commandos had carried out the attack on the World Trade Center, and we claim the responsibility”. At first, I got excited as it was about to become the world’s topmost story. But I wanted to delay carrying it because I had to check with the spokesperson of Jamaatud Dawa, Yahya Mujahid whose phone was switched off. I tried calling Hafiz Saeed who did not pick up his phone either. I then informed my bureau chief Rana Jawad in Islamabad. Our ‘gora’ chief got angry when I told him that I had got this fax but want to hold it. He did not wait and released the news. From BBC to CNN, it became the headline but knowing the sensitivity they gave credit to AFP.
Ten or fifteen minutes later, I got a call from Yahya Mujahid who asked me to issue a denial. “It’s a conspiracy against us,” he said. The AFP was left with no other option but to issue a clarification, something which never goes well in a wire service. But I was a relieved man.
Sometimes the editors do and should withhold stories in print and tv which is a little frustrating for journalists but that safeguard is important. Today, we lack strong editors in print and the situation is even worse in television.
Hamid Mir is alive and will be on air in one or two months. His statement before the 3-member Judicial Commission would be most crucial. This commission is going to be different from the ones constituted on Hayatullah and Saleem Shahzad because both were not alive to record their testimonies. Hayatullah’s widow was a brave woman. She recorded her statement before a one member commission of Peshawar High Court but she could not survive to see its finding and was killed. The report was never made public.
Journalists should neither have nor work for any agenda. They should only follow what is assigned to them by the editor or director. They need to have a political outlook but not affiliation. Maintaining objectivity often secures you from many threats. At the same time, taking risk to gather news is an essential part of journalism that can get you killed. The only thing we expect from the state and the government is a fair probe and prosecution in case we get hurt.
Nine crucial questions
It is possible that by the time this article is published, police and intelligence agencies would have reached some kind of conclusion and arrested possible suspects. But here are some important questions and points that need to be raised and probed by the judicial commission as well as by the investigators:
- How was the information about Hamid Mir’s travel plan leaked?
- Was he being followed from Islamabad and someone also travelled with him?
- Was someone standing on the arrival lounge informed the assailants as to which side of the car he was sitting?
- How come only that CCTV was not working at the turning there he was attacked?
- What did the government and agencies do about Hamid Mir’s fears and complaints?
- Look at his most critical shows and columns in the last two or three months
- Possible beneficiaries of the attack
- Record of threats he received through his sms and emails
- How come, despite high alert in and around airport because of retired General Musharraf’s arrival, such an operation become possible and why was CCTV out of order?