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Wednesday 4 August 2021

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Radio Azadi Fighting For 'Freedom Of Speech' Amid Turmoil In Afghanistan
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As Taliban militants gain more territory amid the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, Radio Azadi's team of reporters continues to carry out its work across the country. For security reasons, their identities can't be revealed, but one journalist says freedom of the press and freedom of expression are precious gains that must be preserved.

Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir on June 1.

Hamid Mir, one of Pakistan’s most prominent television journalists, was the target of a powerful bomb in 2012 when high explosives were found planted under his car by police in Islamabad.

Two years later, Mir was shot six times -- in the ribs, thigh, stomach, and hand -- by a gunman in the port city of Karachi. Though critically wounded, he survived. Mir still carries two of those bullets inside him.

The host of a daily primetime talk show on Pakistan’s Geo TV, Mir did not receive justice in either case, which remain unsolved. He was even criticized by some in Pakistan -- where the free press is under unprecedented pressure -- for demanding justice.

The 54-year-old then decided he had enough.

At a rally in Islamabad on May 28, Mir lashed out at what many believe was the country’s powerful army and its notorious intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), demanding accountability for an attack on a fellow journalist.

Mir, in a wheelchair, leaves after appearing before a judicial commission that is investigating an attack against him in 2014.
Mir, in a wheelchair, leaves after appearing before a judicial commission that is investigating an attack against him in 2014.

“We [journalists] don't have guns and tanks like you have, but if you continue breaking into our homes, we can expose what goes on in your homes," Mir said during an emotional speech.

On May 25, at least three unidentified armed men had stormed the apartment of journalist Asad Ali Toor, who openly questioned the army’s role in politics. Toor said he was bound, gagged, severely beaten, and interrogated by the men, including one who introduced himself as an ISI official.

The government ordered an investigation. In September, authorities charged Toor for comments he made on social media that “maligned state institutions.” A court later dismissed the charges.

The ISI distanced itself from the attack, saying it was not involved.

Three days later, Mir was banned from hosting his talk show. Critics say Geo TV, the nation's most-popular television channel, was under pressure from the military to dismiss Mir.

Criticism of the army has long been a red line for the media, with journalists complaining of intimidation tactics including kidnappings, beatings, and even killings if they cross that line.

The military maintains a chokehold on domestic and foreign affairs in the deeply conservative and religious South Asian nation of some 220 million. It has directly or indirectly ruled for most of the country's 73-year history and has staged three coups when the civilian government didn't suit it.

‘We Will Not Flee’

Pakistan’s unprecedented crackdown on the press has forced prominent reporters to seek refuge abroad. Authorities have accused many of them of “antistate” activities, a charge watchdogs say are politically motivated.

But Mir remains defiant, saying “I’m not going anywhere.”

“I did not leave Pakistan when a bomb was planted on my car in 2012, when many people advised me to leave the country,” Mir told RFE/RL.

“Then I was attacked in 2014 and an air ambulance was waiting in Karachi to take me out of Pakistan. But at the last minute I asked the doctor if I could get treatment in Pakistan. The doctor said 'yes,' and I did not go.”

Mir is aware of the dangers to his life if he stays in his homeland.

“We [journalists] are hit with bullets but we stay in the country,” he says. “Even then, they label us as traitors, beat us, and break into our houses. It is a reflection of our desperate situation.”

Pakistani journalists rally in support of Mir in 2014.
Pakistani journalists rally in support of Mir in 2014.

Following his ban, Mir has been the target of a social-media campaign calling him an agent of India, Pakistan’s archrival.

Mir does not directly name the perpetrators of the attacks against journalists, calling them “unknown people” who “evade accountability” from the “shadows.”

But for many, the culprits are obvious.

“In the case of Hamid Mir, Geo News does not have a free hand in deciding what to do,” Steven Butler, the Asia program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), told RFE/RL. “They have without any doubt come under immense pressure from the military to take action against Hamid Mir.”

Mir’s firing was widely condemned by rights groups and media watchdogs.

"First journalists are attacked and when media persons protest against such attacks, the government employs fascist tactics to silence them," the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists said in a statement on May 31.

Amnesty International said the "punitive action of taking [Mir] off the air following a speech at a protest calling for accountability for an attack on [Toor] severely undermines the responsibility media outlets and authorities have to protect free speech in an already repressive environment."

"Censorship, harassment and physical violence must not be the price journalists pay to do their jobs," it added.

‘High Treason’

Toor was the latest independent journalist to be attacked.

Before him, TV journalist and prominent government critic Absar Alam was shot and wounded outside his home in Islamabad in April by an unidentified assailant.

In September, Alam was charged with sedition and “high treason” for using “derogatory language” about the government on social media.

TV journalist and government critic Absar Alam. (file photo)
TV journalist and government critic Absar Alam. (file photo)

Meanwhile, an unidentified assailant in July 2020 abducted Matiullah Jan in broad daylight in Islamabad. The incident came a day before Jan was to appear before the Supreme Court for allegedly “using derogatory/contemptuous language and maligning the institution of the judiciary.”

Jan, who was released after several hours, said the abduction was an attempt to intimidate him. A criminal case into Jan’s abduction was launched but no suspects have been arrested.

Unsolved Journalist Killings

Pakistan is one of the world's most dangerous countries for reporters. It ranked ninth on the CPJ’s annual Global Impunity Index last year, with at least 15 unsolved killings of journalists since 2010.

The military, intelligence community, and political groups affiliated with the military have been suspected in the killings of dozens of reporters in the past decade.

Local journalists’ groups, which document attacks or violations against reporters in Pakistan, say there were 148 attacks against media workers from May 2020 to April 2021.

The attacks and harassment of journalists come as the Pakistani press finds itself under unprecedented pressure from authorities.

Since Prime Minister Imran Khan came to office in 2018, the military’s influence has become more overt, with former army officials taking over key government positions.

During Khan's tenure there also has been mounting censorship and crackdowns against dissent, critics, and opposition leaders.

Since 2018, around 3,000 media personnel have lost their jobs in Pakistan, according to local media watchdogs.

Pakistan is ranked 145th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2021 World Press Freedom Index.

Meanwhile, the government has proposed a controversial media law -- the Pakistan Media Development Authority (PMDA) Ordinance -- that has been widely condemned by reporters, media watchdogs, and opposition politicians as unlawful.

“The proposed PDMA legislation would give the government new, direct levers to control all media and mete out punishment for offenders,” says Butler. “It would create a new regulatory body that would supersede existing regulatory measures that are already too intrusive.”

Despite rising censorship and violence against journalists, Mir says he will battle to safeguard the rights of the free press.

“We fought in the past, and we will continue fighting,” he says. “What is clear is that we will not flee, and we will stay put.”

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