By: Sadaf Baig
On November 25, 2012, one of Pakistan’s best known journalists Hamid Mir escaped an assassination attempt when an IED (improvised explosive device) rigged to his car was discovered and defused. The next day, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility for planting the explosive and vowed to make another attempt to kill him. In a country where over 80 journalists have been killed since 2000, the threat to Mir couldn’t get any more real. However, the public reaction to this life attempt was suspicion at best.
Ali Imran, a cab driver in Islamabad, laughed outright when asked about the incident. “Bas mashoor honay kay liye tamasha hai,” he said, adding “everyone knows it is a drama; the so-called bomb was a trick to make people realise how important he is.”
On social media, the public reaction to the news also reflected less than acceptance at face value. Dozens of citizens raised questions about the attempt on his life. Yet others on the fringes linked him to RAW and CIA or accused him of “working against national interest.” While there were many expressing solidarity with Mir, just as many were adamant that the attempt was never real.
Hamid Mir is not the first journalist to have faced such public reaction after a life threat. In 2010, when The News reporter Umar Cheema was kidnapped and tortured, he faced a similar public reaction. When Saleem Shahzad was murdered, there were dark rumours of him ‘having crossed the line’ thus ‘asking’ for a violent end. Judging by the public reaction in most high profile journalist murders and attacks, it appears that blaming the victim is still the name of the game in Pakistan.
Senior journalist Absar Alam links the tendency to doubt the threats to journalists to the culture of conspiracy theories. “As a society we have started believing in conspiracy theories. Take any issue, not only the issue of threats to journalists; talk about the attack on Malala, people think this is a drama. Talk about killing bin Laden — people say the same things. So, whatever happens in Pakistan, people think it is a conspiracy.”
The tendency for widespread disbelief even when explosives have been found on a prominent journalist’s car raise serious concerns about the credibility of media. Some believe that multiple exposes and scandals of some prominent media personalities have discredited the media further.
Saleem Shahid, the former President of Balochistan Union of Journalists, says that people in Balochistan are now getting more curious about how the journalists operate. “When a journalist dies in Balochistan, the public offers sympathy, but now the people have also started asking a lot of questions. And, if a bomb is found at a newspaper or a TV office that hasn’t exploded, people react with disbelief. They see it with suspicion and are not convinced that the threat was real.”
One of the reasons for this disbelief in the reality of threats to media may be the prevailing impunity. Despite the killing of 83 journalists, not a single criminal has been prosecuted and punished. In such circumstances, the public is drawn to fantastical explanations to satisfy their curiosity.
Says Absar Alam: “If the criminals who have killed the journalists are caught, then people will also know this was not a drama. It was real. And somebody was behind it. That is why enforcing the law and ensuring an end to impunity is more important in our case.”
If Alam’s argument holds, it is also a threat to the credibility of the media. Worse, it encourages more attacks against the media and a rise in impunity. Unless the state starts investigating the ghastly killings of journalists many are likely to continue dismissing the threats to journalists’ life as “drama”, failing to acknowledge that an attack on journalists is not just an attack on media but an attack on the society’s fundamental right to freedom of expression.