I’ve been hearing about “The List” for about 7 years now. I suspect you have too. “The List” – it is like something from a jihad-inspired Tarantino film – bears the names of people from the news media who have crossed some line and entered the radar of Pakistan’s most feared Islamist terrorists.
High up on this list is the popular Geo TV anchor Hamid Mir, who was shot last week in broad daylight, on one of the largest streets in our largest city. He survived barely (three bullets were taken out of his body; three are still in there). In this case, Mir is considered lucky for being able to attach “attempted” next to “assassination”. That’s how things roll here. The fact that a journalist was attacked is no longer unusual news in our country. TFT’s consulting editor Raza Rumi, who was similarly targeted a few weeks ago, also survived. Not all who were attacked for their work in the media were as lucky. Razik Baloch, Shan Dahar, Ayub Khattak, Waqas Aziz, Khalid Khan, Ashraf Arain. All these men – you may not have heard their names – worked in the Pakistani media and were murdered in the last twelve months in Pakistan. Organizations have fared no better than individuals; Terrorists have attacked the offices of no less than three major news outlets – the offices for Express News, Nawa-i-Waqt and Aaj TV – with apparent impunity.
Let’s say it again: it is no longer news that newsmen are being killed.
What is news, however, is that within hours of the attack on Mir, his brother (also a journalist) was on TV blaming the head of the ISI by name, a freak occurrence in a place where people don’t mention those three letters in public, let alone on TV as part of a shaming campaign. Geo TV went manic and began attacking the Armed Forces of Pakistan, calling out other TV channels for not following suit. (I would just like to say here that it’s nice Geo TV is getting angry about an attack on journalists; it’s a change from the same channel’s hesitance about reporting the attack on Raza Rumi, who happened to work for another channel.) Very soon after that, other TV stations were accusing Geo of being “unpatriotic” and “traitorous” or ghaddar, which is an argument significantly more disturbing than the accusations.
[quote]How, they ask, can anyone even look with raised eyebrows towards our hallowed security institutions as anything but saintly?[/quote]
Most politicians and newsmen have argued that though it may be Mir’s own view (and God knows you’re entitled to one after taking three to the abdomen), it is a matter for an investigative tribunal to decide (yay! another committee!). A few are outraged that local news stations could be so daring as to even look with raised eyebrows towards our hallowed security institutions as anything but saintly. They equate criticism of the Armed Forces – or indeed any of our institutions – as tantamount to treason and being “against Pakistan.” (Can someone please tell me who’s “for Pakistan? I just wanna know…) If “they” wanted Mir dead, the reasoning goes, he would be dead and not wounded. This argument, I wish to state, is based on the fallacious idea that our intelligence agency is one of the most effective in the world. I don’t share that view and haven’t since Osama bin Laden was found hiding out here next to an army base. (Most of the people who buy such arguments also use the term “liberal extremist” without irony.)
That’s the most disturbing part, at least to me, in the coverage of the attack on Hamid Mir. Things are bad enough that we have a score of target murders that we can look back on. What I’ve noticed is that there are degrees of sympathy for those who have been attacked. Collateral damage in a hail of gunfire is sad, no questions asked. A Shia doctor and his son are gunned down and it is accepted that they were killed because of what they are rather than what they did. When someone like Raza Rumi or Hamid Mir is shot, the sympathy curdles slightly, the argument being that by saying and writing the things they did, they were “asking for it.” The logical conclusion of that argument is that we all are under threat, but those who attract attention to themselves by saying what others won’t most definitely “had it coming”. In cases like the late Governor Salmaan Taseer, who was gunned down for speaking out against the blasphemy law, this is particularly true. You still meet people who think that not only was he was asking for it, but that his murder was inevitable for what he said.
Inevitable. That awful, cowardly word. Its use has done more to shatter my faith in any bright future for my country than the attacks themselves. Does most of the nation really think that it’s “inevitable” that anyone who doesn’t espouse fundamentalist hate speech (or apologist variants thereof) should expect to be killed? Apparently, yes. Is it inevitable that life here is so cheap that the most famous faces on our news channels can be picked off one by one, in front of everyone, for what they say? Demonstrably, yes. Is it inevitable that any criticism of our federal institutions actually be considered “against the rules of journalism”, as Shazeb Khanzada, another anchorman, said? Evidently, yes.
The bad news is that you don’t need to be on TV to get killed. None of those dozens killed in Charsaddah last week or Islamabad the week before or Quetta the week before that were media personalities, or “truth tellers” as they are calling each other now. They were regular (i.e. poor and nameless) Pakistanis, trying to get through the day.
Here’s what’s inevitable: one day we will run out of people to fight for an open and inclusive Pakistan. Anyone willing to do this has been or will be picked off; those with some measure of intelligence and luck will be exiled. What remains inevitable, amidst all the committees and tribunals and investigations, is that there will be attacks next week, and the week after, and the week after that. Make no mistake, we are all on that list.
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