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How Free is 'Free'?

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By Beena Sarwar

"The media in Pakistan has never been freer." This is something one hears repeated by government functionaries, by ordinary people, Pakistanis visiting from overseas, foreigners... And it's great for Pakistan's image.

But is it true? Certainly, we are far removed from the times of overt censorship. The Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah's August 11, 1947 speech to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan, in which he talked about freedom of religion, is no longer censored, as it was for years. Nor is this the Zia era, with its terse 'press advices' and blank spaces in newspaper columns denoting the areas from where editors removed censored articles or editorials in quiet protest. Journalists are not flogged anymore, as some brave souls were on May 13, 2020 - Khawar Naeem Hashmi, Iqbal Jaffri and Nasir Zaidi(Masudullah Khan was exempted at the last minute on health grounds), nor are newspapers forced to shut down.

This is not the Nawaz Sharif era, where old tax cases were dug out and used against a major media group and newsprint supplies withheld, almost forcing it to suspend publication -- because it was about to bring out a private television channel that the rulers did not want; where a journalist and activist like Zafaryab Ahmed was charged for sedition for speaking out against child labour (speaking out was against 'national interest', not the child labour itself). Editor Najam Sethi was imprisoned for making 'anti-Pakistan' remarks on 'enemy territory', while a certain Dr Maleeha Lodhi was barred from writing, and an outspoken columnist like Imtiaz Alam had his car burnt right outside his residence in Lahore.

But wait a minute. Wasn't the car of another outspoken reporter burnt outside his residence, also in Lahore? It happened during this government's tenure, on November 22, 2003, accompanied by aerial firing. And hasn't he also been barred from writing in the publication he worked for?

The reporter is Amir Mir. And his trials are far from over.

The Pakistani media largely has ignored his plight. Some journalists feel that he has 'deserved' what he got. But can such tactics be
justified? Certainly Amir, middle son of the late respected scholar Waris Mir, has followed up on issues that it's 'safer' not to touch. But if journalists only report on what the establishment wants them to, no government corruption would ever be exposed (remember Watergate?)

I've known Amir since the time he started reporting at The Frontier Post in Lahore, in 1989, while still a student at Government College; I was Features Editor. He soon established himself as an upright, hardworking, and fiery reporter; he later worked with The News, then went on to become editor of a weekly independent journal, where he continued exposing corruption and dubious alliances.

One time, two men with revolvers got into his car and tried, unsuccessfully, to make him go with them. At one point he was forced to go abroad for his own safety -- he could have stayed there and applied for political asylum like so many others, but he is not one to run away. And he didn't.

However, in June 2003, he was forced to quit under 'government pressure'. But a mainstream media house approached him in his hour of need and he joined their monthly magazine. Now, he finds himself jobless again, for the third time since the year 2000. He has had to resign.

He believes it was his reports and especially his book, 'The True Face of Jehadis', which explored the post-9/11 state of jehad and the jehadi organisations and their links with the intelligence agencies that invited the wrath of the establishment. Amir says he has been intensively questioned, by people wanting to update their file.

Amir subsequently wrote a letter to his management appraising it of the development, This time, he found little support. He was barred from writing and his name was taken off the masthead in December 2004 although he was retained on the pay roll -- for the moment.

He says a senior officer of the Press Information Department (PID) called him on June 2, 2005, saying that the European Union had taken up the issue of his continued harassment by the intelligence agencies with the Pakistan government which wanted a written statement denying the harassment charges. "I refused, saying that I have neither lodged any such complaint nor will I deny the harassment charges. A few days later, I was asked by the management to try my luck somewhere else. I subsequently submitted my resignation."

He remains thankful to the group for hiring him at a time when "no other newspaper was ready to give me a job." But he is again in the same situation.

I.A. Rehman, long time journalist, former Editor of the Pakistan Times and now Director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, finds parallels in Amir's situation with the journalist Zohair Siddiqui in the 1960s, who found all avenues closed for him after the outspoken Civil and Military Gazette where he worked was shut down. The government ensured that no other newspaper hired him, and he found himself either unemployed or forced to take up public relations jobs.

One would hope that today, under a government that prides itself on allowing a free media and repeatedly states its commitment to freedom of expression, Amir Mir will not be forced to take the same road.

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