ISLAMABAD -- Hamid Mir, a leading Pakistani television presenter and columnist, survived an assassination attempt earlier this year and continues to be one of the leading voices for press freedom and the protection of journalists in the country.
In an interview with RFE/RL correspondent Ahmad Shah Azami, Mir painted a grim picture of Pakistani media. He accuses journalists and media company owners of bias, promoting conspiracy theories, and serving the will of the intelligence agencies. Nevertheless, he says he is optimistic about the future of Pakistani media.
RFE/RL: How does bias manifest itself in Pakistani media?
Hamid Mir: Pakistani media is divided right now. It is going through a crisis. There is a very visible and clear line. There are pro-dictatorship forces on one side and pro-democracy forces on the other. Some journalists support democracy, while others back political parties who openly invite dictatorship, such as [the party of conservative cleric] Tahirul Qadri. Some journalists even openly invite the military [to take over the government] on their live shows, while others oppose dictatorship. [In such an atmosphere] we cannot be balanced, so I have to be biased and side with democracy.
RFE/RL: Is this bias the fault of the journalists or the wealthy media company owners?
Mir: I think both are responsible because journalists here cannot decide what to cover without the consent of their owners. Unfortunately, some owners don’t have a journalistic background and are business tycoons who have made money running restaurants, in the jewelry business, or in real estate. These people have big stakes in businesses other than journalism, and so, I think, cannot act independently. They will always side with powerful people in this country. And the most powerful people are the army and its intelligence agencies, so they play into their hands.
RFE/RL: How much influence do you think the Pakistani security establishment exerts on the country's media?
Mir: This is an open secret. If you talk to any journalist who is ready to speak his mind, he will tell you that the Pakistani media is not free these days. Pakistani media is facing pressure from state and non-state actors. Intelligence agencies are using some television channels and presenters as their proxies.
On the other hand, the current government is also trying to use some journalists and media outlets to promote democracy. So we journalists face a very complicated situation because if we believe in democracy, then we have to stand with democratic forces, but unfortunately I don’t consider the current administration as an ideal democratic government.
We cannot support the government blindly. We have to identify their mistakes and highlight their problems. We have to oppose and criticize all those who are openly inviting the army to interfere in politics. That’s why pro-democracy journalists and television channels are facing a very complicated situation in Pakistan.
RFE/RL: Is Pakistani media guilty of promoting conspiracy theories, as some observers charge?
Mir: You can monitor the news bulletins and talk shows on various TV channels during the past 30 days and you will notice a lot of conspiracy theories [and rumors]. Recently, some TV channels reported a story that the Chief of the Army Staff General Raheel Sharif demanded the resignation from Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. They also reported another story that the joint session of parliament will adopt a resolution against ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan’s main intelligence service] and the army.
These two stories were not true. They were conspiracy theories. But what happened next? No action was taken against any news channel. The reason is because PEMRA [Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority] and the civilian administration are weak.
RFE/RL: Does the media in Pakistan try to whip up anti-American and anti-Western sentiment?
Mir: When the West, especially the U.S., doesn’t help the pro-democracy movements in the Muslim world, I cannot stop a common man here from repeating anti-American slogans.
If the West doesn’t stand behind a true pro-democracy policy in the Muslim world, if they continue supporting dictators in some countries and oppose other democratically-elected governments, the common man in the streets will repeat anti-Western and anti-American slogans.
RFE/RL: How do you see the future of Pakistani media?
Mir: I am very optimistic and very hopeful. Months ago, while I was being treated in a hospital after I was attacked, I received messages…saying ‘you are finished, you will not be back on any news channel and it is better to leave Pakistan now.’
It is true that we face a lot of problems. But I have survived, my channel has survived, and democracy is surviving. Pakistan will rise again despite all the problems. Pakistan needs democracy because dictatorship cannot save Pakistan, only democracy can.