A recent failed assassination attempt on one of Pakistan's leading television presenters has triggered a debate over the role of the country's powerful military in manipulating the media and threatening journalists.
Just hours after Geo Television presenter and columnist Hamid Mir was shot and wounded on April 19, his younger brother, Amir Mir, told Geo Television that Pakistan's premiere military-controlled intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI), had plotted the assassination attempt.
Mir said the ISI head, Lieutenant General Zaheerul Islam, and other ISI officials will be responsible if his brother dies from the gunshot wounds.
The controversial statement divided Pakistani media. Some journalists openly criticized the military for trying to manipulate the media. Others questioned Hamid Mir's accusations, and are allegedly using the issue to settle scores with Geo Television, their commercial arch-rival.
While the ISI’s role in fighting proxy wars, infiltrating jihadist organizations, and torturing and killing journalists has been quietly debated off the air by Pakistanis for years, the attack on Hamid Mir brought these discussions to prime time television talk shows and newspaper columns.
Islamabad-based journalist Matiullah Jan said the divisions within media ranks were caused by some journalists working to safeguard the military's interests. He labels these television presenters and columnists "non-professional."
"There have been disagreements between professional and non-professional people in the media for a long time," he told Radio Mashaal. "Now this issue has exposed those taking kick-backs from the security establishment and safeguarding their interests under the cloak of journalism."
He said that for decades the intelligence agencies have been a “sinister” force, manipulating and dividing journalists.
"Equally sinister is the role of those journalists who are taking money from the intelligence agencies and playing into their hands."
Jan said Pakistan's powerful military has never accepted civilian rule and has always schemed to control politics by using the media to manipulate public opinion in its favor.
Many Pakistani journalists believe that Hamid Mir and Geo Television annoyed the ISI for discussing what it considers sensitive issues. Among those issues are the enforced disappearances of hundreds of suspected ethnic Baloch separatists and the military's efforts to protect former dictator General Pervez Musharraf from standing trial for treason.
Veteran journalist Najam Sethi said Geo seems to have "crossed the red line" in its reporting and discussions of such issues. "The [Pakistani] intelligence agencies have their limit of tolerance [for the media]," he said in his popular news talk show on April 25.
Imtiaz Alam, a senior journalist and president of the South Asia Free Media Association, acknowledged that Pakistan’s security establishment is very sensitive about media. But he emphasized that the current divisions within the media are caused by commercial competition among the major media companies who own most private news channels and newspapers.
"In my view, journalists are fully united, and they must be, mainly because of the grim threat they are faced with as a community," he told Radio Mashaal. "It is the owners of the media companies who have differences because of the collision of their interests."
Writing in the daily "Dawn," columnist Abbas Nasir calls the infighting among major media brands a "needless distraction." He blamed both the ISI and the media for the current controversy. "Both have over-extended themselves and even colluded with each other, as well as with some over-extended members of the judiciary, to undermine elected governments in the past."
Journalist and Director at the Civic Action Resources research firm Adnan Rehmat said the safety and security of journalists in Pakistan is a crucial issue.
"I believe that the coming months are really dangerous for journalists, as threats to them have increased."
The global media watchdog, Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), agrees.
Reacting to the April 23 complaint lodged by Pakistan’s military asking for the closure of Geo Television, CPJ called on the Islamabad "not to act on this spurious complaint,” and on Pakistan’s security services to “recognize the critical role of the media and exercise tolerance and maturity."
CPJ considers Pakistan one of the most dangerous countries for journalists. Since 1992, 54 journalists have been killed in the country.
Sethi believes that pulling the plug on Geo will be difficult because of the greater awareness about the importance of the media in Pakistani society.
"The army is no more the sacred cow,” he said. “The media, judiciary and civil society have considerably strengthened over the years."
Siraj Gul and Riaz Gul contributed reporting from Islamabad, Pakistan.