Never in his life would Mir Shakeelur Rehman have imagined what he is going through nowadays: severe public indignation, harsh resentment from a political party, bitterness from the smaller media outlets, widespread irritation of civil society, growing wrath of the military and, on top of all that, blasphemy charges. How else can one define trouble in Pakistan? Once considered the most powerful person in the country, a man who could ostensibly challenge the authority of the prime minister, the patriotism of the military and legality of the superior judiciary all at once, has not been able to find a way out since the crisis began, as if he has fallen into a ditch, the bottom of which has turned into a quagmire from where no matter how he wants to pull himself up — either through attack ads, back door diplomacy or public apology — he is pushed further down into the dark.
Trying to understand the gravity of the condition, we can at least say that for Mr Rehman, the situation is precarious and it continues to get worse. For his television channels, it is a battle for survival but the real tragedy is with the employees who, except for some renowned editors and anchorpersons, are facing both challenges at the same time, i.e. losing their livelihood and/or their lives. Nonetheless, the only person to be blamed for their predicament, in my opinion, is no other than Mr Rehman himself.
When it all started on April 19, 2014 after an assassination attack on Hamid Mir, an anchorperson on his television channel, I thought the crisis would die down in a week or so following a public apology. However, that did not happen; instead, Imran Khan, the chairman of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), out of nowhere turned the focus of his condemnation and anger on losing the general elections of 2013 because of Mir Shakeelur Rehman’s media group, holding the institution responsible for being a part of a multi-institutional and multilayered conspiracy for his defeat. Afterwards, as a matter of strategy, he started appearing on every television network for an hour-long interview every day, drumming the beat of massive rigging louder and louder, and directing his criticism on Mr Rehman with sharper and sharper intensity. In response, the situation had to get worse, which it of course did. However, the strongest nail — I am not sure if it is the last one or not — in the coffin is the blasphemy charges, which have forced the whole organisation, from its oblivious and overconfident morning show host to its administration, to bend down on their knees and ask the people, God and the ‘representatives’ of God, the maulvis (clerics), for forgiveness and for one more chance.
Perhaps it was the inherent arrogance of the network and its employees, or maybe it was their indifference towards other human beings and insensitivity towards their lives, their profession or their security, that the largest private media channel is facing such a severe reaction from the people. Personally, I have talked to tens of professionals serving in various departments, both living in Pakistan and abroad, and I have not found a single one of them supporting Geo, even when they do not favour it being shut down. Just a few months ago, people like Ansar Abbasi, an investigative journalist for the paper belonging to Rehman’s media group and an opinionated, conservative Islamist without a degree in Islamic jurisprudence, were issuing religious decrees (kind of) on other people’s faith. He would appear on television shows with the dagger of his words to malign other guests who happen to carry a different opinion from his, to endanger their lives by asking them their views on sensitive issues like the blasphemy law and to ridicule them by questioning their faith, acting as the only rightfully guided person.
No one was spared. Just in the last five years, Pervez Hoodbhoy was insulted on live television, Asma Jahangir was attacked and Babar Sattar’s reputation was smeared, all in the name of freedom of speech and investigative journalism. There is a long list of reasonable, intelligent and honest people who were systematically abused by the network. And, in these precarious circumstances, they could have stood behind the media group to provide it the moral ground to continue to work but they opted not to do it. Not because they have suddenly started supporting the role of the establishment in politics or that they have started condoning violence in any form, but only because they thought the group did not have any morals of its own. It is a group they thought, that in the name of freedom of speech is there to strengthen and reinforce its own powers, and that, in the name of investigative journalism, is pushing forward an agenda to destroy everyone who does not conform.
I am not sure if it will all end with a positive outcome and if everything will be fine in a few weeks’ time. Nonetheless, I do not favour shutting down any channel and would not recommend that for the media group as well. However, I do believe that the head of the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) is not the only who has been insulted by the media. There are many more in civil society who are not as powerful as the spy chief but have been equally defamed. So far, no one has stood by them. As such, it would be unfair for the television channel to apologise to the general only without formerly asking for forgiveness for its behaviour from these members of civil society. I would like the network to show grace, something that it badly needs and something that it lacks altogether.
There was a time when the sun never set on the British Empire, as they said. Those times are long ...