WHEN you make a name and a (very good) living from the spoken word, it’s hard to make the case that a recording of your voice is a forgery. This is the dilemma Hamid Mir, the popular anchor of the TV chat show Capital Talk, is facing today.
Having heard the leaked conversation between a person who sounds uncannily like the TV personality, and another who is apparently very close to the terrorists then holding Khalid Khwaja, I will take a lot of convincing that it is a fake. However, in this day of technological marvels, anything is possible. As this newspaper suggests in a recent editorial, it would be a simple task to check the tape for authenticity.
So where do we go from here?
Hamid Mir’s connections with Islamic militants are hardly a secret. Indeed, he first made a name for himself by interviewing Osama bin Laden, and writing a book on the Al Qaeda leader.
Clearly, it is a journalist’s job to develop contacts among all manner of people, including criminals. However, to talk to terrorists to get a story is one thing; to virtually tell them what to ask somebody they are holding is to transgress all limits of journalistic licence.
The fact that Mir is still at liberty, issuing legal notices and proclaiming his innocence to the world, is a comment on just how powerful the electronic media has grown. Predictably, he has called this entire episode a conspiracy to silence him and the media group he works for. According to him, it is the group’s opposition to this government and President Asif Zardari that has made it a target.
It is true that the newspapers and TV channel in this media stable have waged an unrelenting campaign against the PPP-led coalition. Other anchors have gone to the extent of forecasting when the government will fall. For me, even more odious than the political mudslinging is Mir’s allegedly taped fulminations against the Ahmadi sect. In this prejudice, he echoes his colleague Aamir Liaquat, the religious chat show host who has now moved to a rival TV channel.
Another refrain in the taped conversation is the allegation that Khalid Khwaja, the ex-ISI operative, is actually a CIA agent, and should therefore be further ‘questioned’ by his kidnappers. Confusingly, Osama Khalid, the murdered man’s son, has demanded action against Hamid Mir, branding him a ‘CIA agent’. It would appear that there is civil strife among agents of the American agency in Pakistan.
For such people to wield so much power over the airwaves should give us pause for thought. It is an open secret that many journalists in Pakistan are on the payroll of various intelligence outfits. This became most obvious during the acrimonious public debate over the Kerry-Lugar Act last year when all hell broke loose over our TV channels.
It was no secret that our army high command had been annoyed by the legislation’s bid to strengthen democratic institutions, and to prevent future coups. The quick activation of the media brigade in support of the military’s position exposed their ties and their loyalties. Nor is the army’s distaste for this government concealed; and its reflection in TV chat shows is hardly a coincidence.
There was a recently blogged article on this newspaper’s website that suggested a rivalry between agencies that spilled into the media, citing this as a cause for the leaked tape. This makes eminent sense, and again underlines the need for bringing these intelligence agencies under control. However, this will not happen by just issuing a notification placing the ISI under the interior ministry as Rehman Malik tried to do in the early days of this government.
The role our intelligence agencies — and especially the ISI — have played in Pakistan’s politics is a matter of public record. From rigged elections to the disappearance of scores of citizens, much has been laid at the doors of our spooks. Such is their reputation for unsavoury deeds that even when they have nothing to do with some incident, they are considered guilty. For precisely this reason, it is in their interest to be less secretive.
Their use of journalists as pawns in their murky games erodes the media’s credibility. On the other hand, public memory is notoriously short, especially when an anchor’s slanted views coincide with the audience’s.
Thus, when certain anchors support the Taliban or denounce the Ahmadis, they can always be sure that many viewers will applaud them. Clearly, it is for media groups to control what is being said on their channels: after all, there is a responsibility higher than the search for ratings and advertising revenues.
Unfortunately, as our TV channels have mushroomed, there has been little effort to regulate their content. I am not talking about political censorship here. But surely we must draw the line somewhere: TV anchors should not be allowed to justify terrorism in the name of religion. Many of us have fought hard over the years in the cause of a free media. What we did not fight for is the licence to brainwash the public for an evil cause.
While Khalid Khwaja had a murky past as a supporter of the very militants who killed him nobody deserves the end he met. If a healthy debate about the role and power of our media emerges from this sorry episode, his death will not have been entirely in vain.