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Pakistan’s ISI accused of subverting media freedom

18 June 2014

Media freedom is under attack in Pakistan, declared Hamid Mir, one of Pakistan’s most prominent journalists. He had six bullets pumped into him by bike riders in Karachi on 19 April. TV anchor, Raza Rumi, was similarly attacked in Lahore in late March. In May 2011, investigative reporter Saleem Shahzad was murdered following his allegations of links between the Pakistani military and al-Qaeda.

These are just three of the many Pakistani journalists who’ve been victims of a wave of threats and violence in recent months and years.

Even foreign journalists covering Pakistan from inside the country dare not write about certain issues for fear of being killed, or that their visas will be revoked at the behest of Islamabad’s military and security establishment – the dreaded Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI). New York Times correspondent for Pakistan, Declan Walsh, for example, now files many of his stories on Pakistan from London. He was thrown out of the country last year after displeasing the ISI with his upfront reporting.

Hamid Mir, who is recovering at home in Islamabad, with two bullets still lodged in his body, fears that Pakistan is slipping back into de facto military rule and that the country’s media is under threat from the ISI.

Mir, a star reporter with Geo TV, was shot in Karachi on his way to the channel’s headquarters. His family blame the ISI for the assassination attempt because of Mir’s vocal support for human rights and criticism of military abuses. His assailants have not been caught and although a judicial commission is probing the attack, there is little hope that his would-be killers will ever be caught. Some Pakistanis believe, like Mir’s family, that the ISI was behind the attack, or at least allowed it to happen and is protecting the perpetrators. It must, however, be said that none of the allegations against the ISI has been proved.


Geo TV is Pakistan’s leading broadcaster. After it broadcast claims that the ISI was responsible for the attack on Mir, an unprecedented wave of apparent revenge attacks was initiated against the TV channel and its sister print group, Jang publications – the largest media house in Pakistan.

On 6 June, the country’s electronic media regulator, PEMRA, suspended Geo TV News’s license for 15 days and fined it 10 million Pak Rupees. This happened with the seeming indifference of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government, presumably out of fear of the ISI, which many Pakistanis see as the real power in the country.

It is widely believed that by punishing Pakistan’s most powerful TV channel a deterrent message has been sent to all media organisations: don’t dare criticise or accuse the ISI, otherwise the same will happen to you.

Cable system operators, apparently under ISI pressure, have taken four other Geo TV channels off the air illegally since 23 April – four days after Geo accused the ISI of complicity in the attempted assassination of Hamid Mir. The shutdown is now nearing 60 days; causing the once dominant Geo an 80% fall in audience share and a huge loss in advertising revenue.

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Pakistan’s supreme court has ruled that downing Geo channels is illegal and should stop; but, the cable operators have refused to obey. It is suspected that the ISI have warned them to block Geo TV or face severe repercussions.


In addition, the distribution and sale of over 30 Jang daily and weekly publications – such as Daily Jang and The News – have been halted in large parts of Pakistan, allegedly as a result of pressure from the ISI. These once mass circulation publications have suffered massive falls in sales and readership.

Many of the group’s staff have been threatened. They are accused of being anti-Pakistan and anti-Islam.

Warnings have been issued to distributors not to transport Jang publications – or they will face consequences.  Four vans carrying Jang publications for distribution have been set on fire and their drivers attacked by armed men.

Several Jang employees have been attacked, including local editor of the Daily Jang in Multan, Zafar Aheer. He was almost beaten to death on 31 May. ‘They (the attackers) called me an agent of India and Jews, and a traitor,’ he said.

Amnesty International has said that several Jang media group journalists have received daily threats and harassment by unknown individuals. Many dare not enter their offices or identify themselves as belonging to Geo TV or Jang Group for fear of being attacked.


It is feared that rival media groups have colluded with the ISI, although nothing has been proved.

Blasphemy allegations have been made against Geo and one of its female anchors, who has now fled the country. Over two dozen blasphemy cases have been registered against Geo TV executives. There are fears that if these cases are brought to court, the accused will face the death penalty or be murdered by Islamist extremists, as has happened to a number of liberal politicians in recent years.

Fundamentalist religious groups have been holding anti-Geo rallies across Pakistan. One group, the Sunni Ittehad Council, declared that watching Geo TV was haram (forbidden).


Former cricketer turned politician Imran Khan condemned Geo and demanded that it apologise to the army and the ISI, which it did last month, adding that its coverage had been ‘misleading’. But since then Geo has launched a defamation suit against the ISI.

Throughout this period, Pakistan’s intelligentsia and left wing commentators – and even the rival Dawn newspaper – have criticised the ISI for a disproportionate reaction, for attacks on free speech and for attempting to destroy the Geo and Jang media group by financial strangulation.

The campaign against Geo and Jang is so strong and well-orchestrated that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is steering clear of it, presumably for fear of further angering the ISI, which is already gunning for his government for allowing a treason case to be brought against former dictator and military strongman, Pervez Musharraf.

Amnesty, along with nine other human rights organisations, have demanded PM Nawaz Sharif prevent attacks on Geo and Jang. But they are mistaken. Sharif is helpless. He’s in office but not in power. He can’t afford to anger the ISI.

The Geo/Jang-ISI standoff has exposed the weakness of the civilian government and reinforced Hamid Mir’s assertion that the ISI are in control. They pull the strings. The civilian administration can do little without its approval.

The international community needs to take a tougher line with Pakistan when the ISI shows such apparent disrespect for freedom of expression and the rule of law. UK and US military cooperation and arms sales to Pakistan should cease until attacks on Geo and Jang have ended. Likewise, aid should be withheld and diverted to NGOs instead.

Most obviously: why are David Cameron and Barack Obama silent while free speech is curtailed in Pakistan and journalists face violent attacks?

Peter Tatchell is Director of the human rights organisation, Peter Tatchell Foundation.

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  • SMAA

    Looking at the opinion polls in Pakistan its guaranteed that over 90% of the people will favor Banning GEO group for good.
    Its not about freedom of media rather its about a media Mogul interfering in the affairs of the country and slandering the only clean and corruption free political party in the country (PTI and Imran Khan) without any accountability.
    GEO has not only abused its dominant position but also strangling competition by undermining and deliberately obscuring other media houses.
    No country would tolerate this. If you have any reservations then look at News of the World. At least they had conscience that they shut themselves down. But here in Pakistan they need to be reminded and executive action needs to be taken.
    Its all about cultural difference live with it or tolerate it.

  • swatnan

    Tatchell is wasting his time; there is no real democracy in Pakistan; its been ruled by the Army right from its inception in 1947, and badly. Partition was the worst thing that could have happened to the subcontinent because it led to the creation of a failed state Pakistan.

  • Bonkim

    Is this new?

  • asghar

    In addition to the human rights organization in the world is looking at?

  • Dutchnick

    A Muslim country run on the principles of free speech is not possible, it is an oxymoron. Assuming the values of the west are in any way similar is a mistake and so we may wring our hands in despair and displeasure this faith is what it is. Fine, we think it is wrong but my objection is that acceptance of this faith is being granted in Europe and in the west generally though it offends any free thinking and speaking person.

  • andy_gill

    So why no calls from the left to boycott Pakistan? This is a barbaric state that discriminates against its minorities, but gets a free pass because it’s run by Muslims.

  • daviduke

    And you don’t think CIA or MI5 manipulates your media. Western media is infested with secrets cells too.

    • Dutchnick

      The difference is that I may read or listen to the news/media presented and make up my own mind without sanctions. Death for disbelieving is a rather sever form of censorship.

  • Understand the Truth

    Mr Tatchall, unfortunately your ‘report’ is as accurate as a bent copper’s hand book:

    1. Mir was shot in Karachi not Islamabad
    2. Geo had for 8 hours plastered the head of the intelligence agency’s all over the TV screens and accused him of attempted murder
    3. Cable operators, like anywhere in the world, have the choice to air channels that they prefer
    4. The order from PEMRA was applicable to the Geo Group, not just TV so includes papers as well
    5. Geo was given sufficient time to apologise, but failed to do so – hence the penalty from PEMRA

    Like may developing countries, Pakistan is facing a whole range of issues (internal and external) and to have warped, misrepresented news aired is the last thing anyone needs.

    Had the BBC or Sky or any other UK outlet put forward the same nonsense for 9 hours and accused the head of MI5 or MI6 WITHOUT any evidence – what would have become of them? Would you care to mention?

    As you rightly point out, many of the other news houses were against the blocked of the channel – but everyone also agreed that the punishment was mild which PEMRA issued – 15 days. The fact that cable operators refuse to air is their prerogative and may not make financial sense – but ultimately theirs.

    Finally, it’s curious that you fail to mention public opinion in your article. more than 80% of people polled by another news channel (Express via Gallup), agreed with the judgement from PEMRA. Would you argue that these random, nationwide participants were also pressurised by the ISI?

    Please have something decent and constructive to write about – freedom IS freedom for all from all view points – not yours imposed on others!

    • Mr Grumpy

      Nice to hear from a commentator with such a wide range of interests. Please convey my cordial greetings to the High Commissioner.

    • ButcombeMan

      Well said.

      If Tatchell cannot get the city right, he should not be given space in the Spectator. Who was his editor?

      • Peter Tatchell

        My article says Mir was shot in Karachi – which is correct. Why can’t you read the opening paragraph? UnderstandTheTruth is spreading misinformation. An ISI apologist?

        • DazEng

          You’re not my cup of Tea Peter but you’re bang on on this.
          No matter what though, the problem is and will always be Islam Islam, Islam!

          Any other commentary about this region concerning other issues is simply pissing in the wind.

    • Peter Tatchell

      In the first paragraph I said Mir was shot in Karachi. Why not read before your post your smears?

    • Bonkim

      You are expecting Tatchall to do his home work fully.

  • JamesDLarsen

    New York Times correspondent for Pakistan, Declan Walsh, for example, now files many of his stories on Pakistan from London. He was thrown out of the country last year after displeasing the ISI with his upfront reporting.

  • zanzamander

    As we know from our own experience with numerous lefty media houses like BBC/Guardian that are nothing but propaganda machines for a particular repressive ideology – fascist left. In the US, media is a joke and nearly all are nothing but an extension of Obama administration in particular and Democratic party in general.

    The fact is Pakistan is propped up by US which pours in billions of dollars worth in military aid, trains and arms ISI and transfers IT based sophisticated technology – auspiciously to help Pakistan fight terrorists, but in reality is used to create mischief in the immediate neighbourhood and beyond.

    You want to blame press freedom in Pakistan? Blame US/CIA, for they’re the ones calling all the shots. It is US that has been the bane of Pakistani democracy which it snuffed out from the moment the country was created.

  • Martin Adamson

    “why are David Cameron and Barack Obama silent while free speech is curtailed in Pakistan and journalists face violent attacks?”

    Because if they had to speak up every time freedom or civilised values were attacked in the the Muslim world they would have no time to eat or sleep.

    • Bonkim

      Because this is not considered human rights in Pakistan silly!

    • Mr Grumpy

      Indeed, and therefore we prop up Pakistan for fear of far worse things.

  • Hexhamgeezer

    Pakistan is a failed state. !$lam is a failed religion. The ISI is a state within a failed state. Obama is an over promoted ineffectual nonentity – an incoherent foreign policy failure …… and what was it you wanted dave to do again?

    Mr Tatchell, you need to preach closer to the action and not rely on ‘soft colonialism’ to back your chums.

    • ahsan25

      Islam is not failed religion, nor Pakistan

      • Dutchnick

        Maybe you are not familiar with the accepted meaning of failed. Outside Islam we have things like critical thinking, empirical evidence, free thought and free speech all of which are an anathema to Islam. You do not need them as your beliefs are clearly proscribed in the Koran, which you may not question. Of the 53 members of the Organisation of Islamic countries maybe you can point out which ones are in the vanguard of social progress, tolerance, freedom of belief, thought and speech? You may do better to just quote from the aspirational aim of Islam as the practical reality is pretty dismal. I would call that a failure though you may consider it a success, as they say – it may lose a little in the translation.

      • Bonkim

        Quite right – according to Pakistan Standards Bureau.

    • SMAA

      @hexhamgeezer:disqus You deserve a job in Federal Bureau of Statistics US or the UK official statistical survey. You can destroy the country in 15 minutes 😛

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