Pakistan’s most famous and influential journalist is recovering in a hospital after being shot by a gunman in the metropolis of Karachi this weekend. The apparent assassination attempt against Hamid Mir sent shockwaves across the Pakistani political landscape. Mir has yet to speak, but his brother took to the airwaves of GEO News, the television channel that employs Mir, and pointed the finger at Pakistan’s main military intelligence agency, the ISI. The powerful agency volleyed back, vowing a lawsuit against GEO. Social media, meanwhile, is consumed with the many others with possible motives to kill Mir: the Taliban, local crime syndicates and political parties in Karachi (they can be one and the same), even foreign countries. The Prime Minister of Pakistan visited Mir in the hospital and ordered a judicial inquiry.
Clearly, Mir is no ordinary journalist. In the chaotic universe of Pakistan news media, Mir exerts a singular gravitational force that aligns his sources, subjects, and audience in a way that is the envy of others. I first met Hamid Mir in the summer of 2007 while reporting a feature for CJR about the rise of independent Pakistani television news, and how it was quickly turning into a powerful institution that was remaking politics in the country.
GEO News had only been on the air for five years at the time, when it joined the judiciary and street protestors, to take on the powerful military ruler, Pervez Musharraf. But the Pakistani press’s struggle against censorship and authoritarian rulers seemed perennial. No one knew this better than Mir. That summer day when I first met him, Mir and I also had a chance to reminisce about life on the campus of the Punjab University in the city of Lahore, where both of our fathers had been professors in the 1980’s during the the rule of the previous military ruler General Zia-ul-Haq.
The campus of the Punjab University had become a central battleground between supporters and critics of the Zia and Waris Mir, Hamid’s Mir’s father, was a lightning rod in this on-campus battle. A famous journalist and the chair of the Mass Communication Department, Waris Mir used his platform as a professor and writer to launch attacks on Zia’s, particularly targeting what he viewed as regressive, religiously inspired laws introduced by the military ruler. And he paid the price for it. He was ostracized by colleagues, attacked and bullied by students of the Islamic students alliance, and removed from his leadership position. Then came the trumped up murder charge against his oldest son. He was slowed down, but never really gave up. He died suddenly at the age of 49 when Hamid Mir was still a college student. “If he had lived, he would never have let me enter journalism,” Hamid Mir said in an interview to another journalist in 2009, soon after President Pervez Musharraf had fallen from power.
Several years on, television in Pakistan has now become a full-blown power broker in Pakistani political society, driving and dividing public opinion like none other. And with this higher profile and power has come with a high price. It was prime ministers and religious leaders in Pakistan who were used to living in consistent fear of assassinations, and now TV personalities seemed to have joined that unfortunate club. Only weeks ago, Raza Rumi, a newspaper columnist and a relatively new television show host was shot at in the city of Lahore by gunmen. He escaped uninjured but his driver died.
But it’s not just television or journalism that has changed. Pakistan is now also an undeniably more violent and unreasonable place than it used to be. A decade of conflict inside Pakistan, deeply tied to the American war in neighboring Afghanistan, has hurt Pakistan in many ways. The news media now provide a much more unruly, unreasonable, and uncivil forum for public debate. The days when General Zia-ul-Haq and his agents bullied and bossed around journalist like Waris Mir might seem downright civil now to Hamid Mir, who lies in a hospital bed with three bullets still in his body, waiting to enter the shouting match raging outside.