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Asia

Pakistani broadcaster risks ban for upsetting ISI

A private news channel in Pakistan has come under sharp criticism for accusing the country's military of attempting to kill one of its journalists. The country's most popular channel now risks going off air.

Pakistan's Geo TV channel is owned by the country's largest and arguably the most powerful media group, the Jang Group of Publications. Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman, the media magnate and owner of the group, is Pakistan's equivalent to Rupert Murdoch, and is known for his overwhelming influence over Pakistani politics. The many newspapers and TV channels that Rahman owns have historically been close to the Islamic republic's powerful security establishment. Though the Jang Group had been critical in its reporting of the Pakistani army, no one expected an all-out war between the two until Hamid Mir (shown above), a renowned Geo TV anchor and journalist, was shot in the southern Pakistani city of Karachi on April 19.

It wasn't only Mir and Mir's brother who categorically accused the military's spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), and its chief Zaheerul Islam of carrying out his assassination attempt; Geo TV itself came out and publicly endorsed that theory as well.

Mir has been critical of the country's intelligence agencies and military for their alleged role in the kidnappings of thousands of people in Balochistan. Mir's aides say the journalist's stance had irked the ISI.

Pakistan's ISI chief, Zaheerul Islam (EPA/PRESS INFORMATION DEPARTMENT / HANDOUT)

Geo TV flashed pictures of the ISI chief, Zaheerul Islam, while accusing him of Mir's murder attempt

Geo TV now risks going off air as Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's government has asked the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulation Authority (PEMRA) to revoke Geo TV's broadcasting license.

A shot at muzzling the media?

Pakistan's liberal sections and rights activists consider the attempt on Mir's life as part of the state's coercive methods to muzzle the media and silence opposition, whereas the religious right-wing and supporters of the army call Mir and his organization "traitors" who have "no regard for national interests." At the same time, rival media groups of Geo TV have started running shows which portray the ISI in a positive light.

ISI - The sacred cow

"This is the first time the ISI has been accused in this manner, and that is why it was bound to create a controversy," Farah Zia, an editor at the daily The News, which also belongs to the Jang Group, told DW. "Even if the ISI's name was not mentioned, the fact that a journalist of Mir's stature was attacked would definitely be a big issue," she added.

TV anchor Arsalan Khalid believes it was highly irresponsible on the part of Geo TV to accuse the ISI. "The Pakistani constitution clearly says the country's armed forces and secret services cannot be blamed for such crimes. It is true that people criticize the ISI more often than before, but what we saw on April 19 was a news channel running shows for eight hours maligning the ISI," Khalid told DW from Islamabad.

Khalid added that the attack on Mir should not be regarded as an assault on the press and that Geo TV should apologize for its accusations.

Journalists under attack

The attack on Mir came less than a month after gunmen tried to kill a liberal journalist, Raza Rumi.

"So many journalists in Pakistan have been killed yet nobody has ever been brought to justice for these murders. The recommendations of the judicial commission investigating Saleem Shahzad's murder [a high-profile investigative journalist who was allegedly killed by the ISI in 2011] have never been implemented," Imtiaz Alam, secretary general of the South Asia Free Media Association, told DW.

Karachi-based journalist and human rights activist, Akhtar Balouch believes that Pakistan's independent media is trying to assert itself as a major actor in the South Asian country's politics but it is unlikely that it can compete with the army.

Clash of institutions

"The Pakistani military is the country's most powerful and organized institution. It is the generals who call the shots. In comparison, other institutions are too weak and are in disarray," Balouch told DW, adding that after many decades of infighting, Pakistani politicians were finally working together.

But is Pakistan's media united enough to take on the army and its spy agency?

A Pakistani journalist flashes victory signs from inside the lockup of a police station after several journalists were arrested for protesting against the Emergency rule and curbs on media outside the Hyderabad Press Club in Hyderabad, Pakistan, 20 November 2007 (Photo: EPA/NADEEM KHAWER +++(c) dpa - Report+++)

Journalists are threatened by both militants and Pakistani security officials

"Nobody from the media wants to see the Geo TV shut down, but it is true that there is a rift within media. Many journalists in Pakistan believe what Geo TV did was wrong," said Khalid.

Who's crossing the lines?

Even those who do not agree with Khalid believe that the Pakistani media should act more responsibly and that there should be some regulations on it.

"There should be some ethical codes. Pakistani media has crossed all lines. The way Geo TV ran a campaign against former President Asif Ali Zardari's government from 2008 to 2013 is proof that media is not impartial in our country," said Balouch.

"I am not surprised that Geo TV authorities now feel that they are not being backed up by others on Mir's issue."

Advances at stake

However, experts agree that the Pakistani media generally enjoy a great amount of freedom to criticize the government, politicians, the military and its intelligence agencies in such a way that would have been unimaginable just a decade ago.

But, many agree that the freedom of Pakistan's press is at stake, and that those who are demanding greater control of the media are directly or indirectly trying to protect the ISI and its alleged crimes.

"The struggle to report independently and objectively will continue," said Nasir Tufail, a senior producer at the private news channel, Geo TV. "What we have achieved is the result of our decades-long battle against suppression, and our longing for freedom."