Did GEO News and Jang Group bite off more than they could chew?  

Pakistan Media WarOn April 19, 2014, senior news anchor and journalist Hamid Mir was attacked by gunmen when on his way to the GEO Karachi office from the airport. The attack made breaking news headlines on all Pakistani news media outlets, and many were praying that Hamid Mir survived this dastardly and cowardly attack by multiple gunmen. During the shooting, Hamid Mir’s driver displayed unparalleled courage, bravery and intelligence by continuing to drive – instead of being startled and shocked by the attack – and hurriedly drove the vehicle to the hospital. Emergency medical staff immediately tended to Hamid Mir, who had suffered multiple bullet wounds: the number of bullets that he sustained is under debate even to this day. It is pertinent to note that this is the second attack on a senior Pakistani journalist in less than a month: on March 28, respected columnist and anchorperson Raza Rumi was attacked by unknown gunmen, who sprayed his car with bullets fired from automatic weapons. Rumi escaped unhurt but his driver, Mustafa, perished in the attack that occurred in Raja Market in Lahore.

Since the attack on Raza Rumi, journalists – individually, and through bodies and organizations composed of journalists – rallied to the cause of maintaining the independence and freedom of the press, and the right to free speech: they urged the government to provide protection to journalists and media persons, many of whom have died as a result of targeted terrorist attacks against them over the past year. Dozens of electronic news and print media journalists have been killed in Pakistan, which is deemed one of the most dangerous countries for journalists to live and operate in. But the focus of this article is the attack on Hamid Mir, and the aftermath: the attack on the Pakistani military and the ISI, which backfired on GEO News and Jang Group in a very, very big way.

After the attack, Hamid Mir’s brother and senior reporter for The News International, Amir Mir, said that his brother had told him previously that if he were attacked, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency, and its incumbent Director General in particular, would be behind it. This assertion became part of the news story that covered the assassination attempt on Hamid Mir, and newspapers the next day carried the story of Hamid Mir’s attack as well as the allegation on the ISI and its chief in particular.

Even on the previous day – the day of the attack – The News International’s senior investigative journalist, Ansar Abbasi, continued to urge vehemently that the DG ISI should step down from his post: the next day, he wrote an article to that effect, claiming that even if the ISI chief was not involved in the attack or had not ordered or sanctioned it, he should resign his command of the intelligence agency “in order to keep its sanctity and integrity intact”. Saleem Safi, a senior journalist for GEO News and anchor for the program “Jirga”, hosted Hamid Mir’s “Capital Talk” news show the day of the attack: among others, he had invited Ansar Abbasi to air his views on the attack and on what should happen. The Director General (DG) of the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), the Pakistani military’s official media relations wing, was also invited to participate in the show via telephone link: he condemned the attack on Hamid Mir and said that he and the entire military institution, in addition to the nation, were praying for Hamid Mir’s full recovery – but he also stated that attacks and baseless allegations against the ISI and its chief were “regrettable” and should not be made. He offered an independent and impartial judicial inquiry into the attack on Hamid Mir, which would make the facts clear to all and sundry: and this mode of dealing with the aftermath of the attack would obviously have been more mature and result-oriented than the immediate mudslinging carried out by Amir Mir, Ansar Abbasi, and other newspersons of GEO News, The News International, and almost all outlets of the Jang Group, one of Pakistan’s oldest and currently most powerful news media organizations, if not the largest. It is this kind of capacity and ability that has taken Jang Group, its owners and journalists to a unique level of hubris: they allegedly enjoyed very “cordial and close” relations with former Chief Justice of Pakistan, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, who frequently allowed his statements during court proceedings to be carried on air as breaking news snippets, and allowed only GEO News – instead of any other news outlet – to cover the outgoing ceremony the Supreme Court gave in honour of his retirement. GEO News in particular, and Jang Group in general, considered themselves to be the torchbearers of the free and independent electronic media in Pakistan, and assumed that all other news outlets would blindly follow suit and toe GEO’s line against the military – if not the government – when it came to “retaliating” against the attack on Hamid Mir. But subsequent developments continued to prove them wrong, and reduced not only the credibility, but also the viewership, of GEO News, to ashes.

The DG ISPR offered an independent and impartial judicial inquiry into the attack on Hamid Mir, instead of a media trial that targeted the ISI and its chief. This was a very mature and somber manner of dealing with the childish and inane attacks launched by GEO News and Jang Group even when doctors were operating on Hamid Mir; it was a very mild-mannered and calculated response when compared to the military’s lashing of the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) when its former chief, Munawwar Hassan, put question marks on the martyrdom of soldiers of the Pakistan Army and Armed Forces. In that episode, the ISPR responded to this malicious attack with a sensible but proportionate communiqué, in which it said that the statement of the JI had deeply hurt the sentiments of the martyrs of the Army and of the Armed Forces, and those of the families of martyrs who had laid down their lives and given the ultimate sacrifice for the defense of the nation and for the protection of the people of Pakistan. Furthermore, the ISPR urged the JI to clarify its political position on terrorism and on the state’s actions against terrorists – asking them, in a way, if they supported the terrorists who had the blood of more than 50,000 Pakistanis on their hands, or if they supported the Pakistani military, which had defended (and continues to defend) the institutions and people of Pakistan against all external and internal threats. However, this time the military was sure that – unlike the time when Saleem Shahzad was assassinated and the entire blame was shifted on the military and the ISI – GEO News and Jang Group were digging their own proverbial grave.

As soon as GEO News initiated their barrage of attacks on the military and the ISI, journalists on social media condemned the attack on Hamid Mir, but also urged GEO News to take an impartial and candid assessment of the situation. Journalists from all sides of the spectrum urged the Jang Group to handle the matter coolly, and not overestimate its power, prestige, or its position in the minds of the Pakistani public and its viewers. These sound advices fell on deaf ears. While GEO News continued its attacks, social media began reverberating with attacks on GEO News and Jang Group itself: netizens in Pakistan and abroad condemned the attack on Hamid Mir – as they would condemn a terror attack against any citizen of Pakistan, no matter how important or ordinary – but also criticized (and then reviled) the attitude of GEO News and Jang Group against the ISI. A Twitter hashtag, “#ShutUpGeo”, immediately began “trending” in the days after the attack on Hamid Mir: to the layman who does not understand this internet jargon, it means that Twitter users were using this particular hashtag so often – that they wanted Geo to shut up – that it was trending – rising in popularity and increasing in frequency of usage – first in Pakistan, and then around the world. Through social media, the people of Pakistan expressed their solidarity with the Pakistan Armed Forces, the Pakistan Army, and the ISI: they condemned the attacks against the ISI, after vociferously condemning attacks on Hamid Mir and urging GEO News to adopt a neutral approach to the matter. When GEO News and Jang Group failed to take the overall view and general sentiment of the public at large into account, the people of Pakistan lashed out against these news organizations. And this was only the beginning.

ARY News, another news media outlet based in Dubai, and its anchor Mubasher Lucman, had a longstanding dispute with GEO News and its biased coverage of events: Lucman and ARY News alleged (to a veritable degree) that GEO News and Jang Group were funded by India (by Indian business and media organizations, to be accurate, who have shares in different ventures of the organization and who jointly operate the “Aman ki Asha” conflict resolution and mediation forum between India and Pakistan), and that these news organizations consider themselves to be above the law and not answerable to any code of ethics or morality. In some of his shows, Mubasher Lucman even asserted that GEO News believes that it can topple governments and bring them to power: whether it possesses the capability to do so or not – and thus override the wishes of the people of Pakistan as to who governs them and who does not or no longer has the mandate to govern them – it reflects the kind of hubris that GEO News and Jang Group exhibit and are unfortunately a victim of. It also makes them believe that instead of presenting the views of the public to the government and the world at large, as is the responsibility of any unbiased information media organization, it can mold the public opinion whichever way it wants, and that it can totally present a different point of view as the “view of the general public in Pakistan” than what it actually is or would be. The nexus between information media outlets and the interests of its owners and capitalist masters has never been more obvious and more shameful than what has become obvious because of GEO News: the only comparison from recent history that comes to light is Rupert Murdoch and the now-defunct “News of the World” tabloid – the same newspaper that ran a “sting operation” against Pakistani cricketers and got three of them suspended from international cricket for a significant period of time. But even in that instance, Rupert Murdoch – despite his unquestionable control over a vast media empire that stretch over not only countries, but also continents – had to face the courts and inquiries against the illegal activities of journalists working in media organizations that he owned.

As GEO News and Jang Group failed to heed sane voices and the sensibilities of the general public, it was all but certain that the people of Pakistan would turn against the news channel, and its affiliated newspapers and organizations. While other news channels distanced themselves from GEO News – which had started eulogizing Hamid Mir and carried regular news stories about who had met him and what messages they conveyed for Hamid Mir’s recovery – ARY News launched a full frontal assault on GEO News’ lack of patriotism and the absence of any sanity or balance in its efforts to protect its journalists or to bring the culprits of the Hamid Mir attack to task.

Afterwards, people took to the streets against GEO News and Jang Group, openly claiming that they love the Pakistan Army and the ISI, which has done more to defend Pakistan and the Pakistani people than GEO has ever done in its decade-old operations. They even questioned whether GEO News and Jang Group were sanctioned to discredit Pakistan and ruin its soft image in the world – which, according to its own actions, seems like its modus operandi; that, along with the consistent psychological warfare on the people of Pakistan, showing terrorist attacks and giving primetime coverage to terrorists who have vowed to destroy the state of Pakistan and the precarious peace that the Pakistani people enjoy today. Banners, placards and posters of people claiming that they love the Pakistan Army and the ISI are now affixed in almost every city of Pakistan, with people proudly placing their photos with that of the ISI chief. Attacks against such “pro-military attitudes” continue to fall on deaf ears, as the people of Pakistan have made up their minds and have finally learnt of the reality of GEO News, which claimed to be the representative of the people’s voice in Pakistan. GEO News’ ratings have dropped sharply in the past few weeks alone, and the public – especially in Cantonment areas around Pakistan – have asked their cable operators to stop showing GEO News in their areas. Petitions against GEO News in PEMRA, as well as lawsuits by the ISI as well as by other lawyers against Jang Group, are already underway. And in a recent meeting with the Army Chief and DG ISI, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said that he and his government firmly support the Armed Forces, the Pakistan Army and the ISI, which has rendered unimaginable sacrifices for the country and continues to do so in an undeterred manner against miscreants and terrorists as Pakistan fights the War on Terror. The Prime Minister showered praises on the efforts of the ISI against terrorist groups and against the specter of terrorism in Pakistan.

Still not having learnt his lesson, recent news reports state that Hamid Mir blames an “ISI within the ISI” for the attack on him. In his first interview after the attack on his life, Hamid Mir said that the same elements who attacked him are threatening him to leave the country if he values his life. He said that people visit him “in the guise of friends” but leave after “threatening him in the manner of foes” – he also said that a certain “Major Wajahat” had threatened him in a call during a live show. He says that the people of Pakistan who are out on the streets protesting against GEO and in favour of the Pakistani military and the ISI are “jihadist elements”, even though they are members of civil society and of mainstream political parties. But unbeknownst to him, the electronic media is far ahead of the stories continually being cooked up by various organs of the Jang Group – revealed only a day or two ago that a GEO insider is linked to the attack on Hamid Mir. In a primetime show on Express News, Javed Chaudhry lambasted Umar Cheema – another investigative journalist of The News International who acquired fame for his allegations that he was kidnapped by the ISI – and put all his arguments to rest, with the final note that while journalists and freedom of speech should be protected, it is necessary for the people as well as for news media organizations and their masters to read and understand Article 19 of the Constitution of Pakistan: which guarantees freedom of the press, but also prescribes reasonable limitations on the same, and – most importantly – forbids any news organization or journalist from maligning the sanctity of Pakistan’s security forces or threatening the defense of Pakistan or any part thereof (something that is also known as “treason”).

The sane thing would have been for Hamid Mir to come out publicly and state that he did not know who attacked him – which is the truth – despite having received a number of threats from a variety of individuals and organizations – which is also true, since terrorists and extremists also loathe Hamid Mir and his efforts for an independent media, for free speech, and for the freedom of journalism and of the right of association in Pakistan. In fact, he should have apologized to the ISI and to the nation for baseless allegations being leveled against the ISI on his behalf, and should have asked for the nation’s forgiveness that its premier intelligence institution had been maligned because of an attack on him, which could have just as easily been carried out by the nefarious criminal and terrorist elements that pose a continuous threat to the peace, security and stability of Karachi.

It is still not too late for Hamid Mir to adopt this conciliatory approach and be the bigger man by apologizing to the nation and to the ISI in the first “Capital Talk” show that he hosts after he fully recovers. It is not debatable whether the people of Pakistan wish him well or pray for his recovery – of course they do, and they join journalists and mediapersons in urging the government for better protection of those who bring true and unbiased information to light, and add to the knowledge of the people of Pakistan. That the general public – including the disaffected people of Baluchistan – wish Hamid Mir well and pray for his full and complete recovery, is not open to question and still should not come as a surprise. But the actions of GEO News and Jang Group have raised many questions about the loyalty of this massive news media organization to Pakistan, to its security services and to its intelligence apparatus. The years that it took GEO News to develop and sustain the trust of the people of Pakistan has been destroyed in a matter of days and weeks, and will not be restored anytime soon. But the first steps in the right direction must be taken by Hamid Mir himself; a fearless journalist who must prove that he is subject only to the Will of Allah and to the parameters of truth, and not to his corporate masters who gift him with bulletproof cars, large bungalows and even larger farmhouses, and salaries that could choke camels and elephants. Hamid Mir may or may not have the professional credentials to earn that much, but he must now work again to earn the trust of the people that he has slowly but surely lost – and losing that would have been more painful than any number of bullets that his body sustained on that fateful day in April 2014.