The extremely tragic assassination attempt on Hamid Mir is the worst demonstration of how forces within the country are trying to stifle freedom of speech. What is equally disturbing is that Geo and Hamid’s family members immediately reacted by accusing the involvement of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in it. Although discretion demanded that even if they had reasons to believe in the agency’s culpability, jumping to such hasty conclusion on the basis of some earlier threats was highly irresponsible and unwise. It is surprising that Geo, a leading electronic channel, faltered and presented a personal allegation as a part of news. It would have been more appropriate for Geo to wait for the official and media’s own committee findings, before taking any categorical position. In this way they could have avoided an adverse reaction against their channel from the military and government circles.
The ISI is supposed to be the eyes and ears of the state that is guarding Pakistan’s frontiers and ensuring the stability of the country. The insinuation that it is involved in the shooting of a renowned journalist on the basis of some differences implies that they are indulging in activities meant to destabilise the state. Imagine for a moment that the CIA is being accused by CNN or MI5 by the BBC of attempting to murder one of their countries reputed television anchors. No wonder that the Indian and Western media has gone euphoric in reporting the event. With Pakistan’s reputation and record on the safety of journalists already quite low, this incident has made it look worse and attracted international attention. It has given India — a country that never loses an opportunity to defame the ISI for supporting jihadi elements in Kashmir and against India — another opportunity to muddy its reputation. Similarly, the Afghans who blame the ISI for their ills and use it as a scapegoat for their failures will find an opportunity to intensify the verbal attacks.
Moreover, the country had hardly recovered from the debilitating war of words between the military and civilian leadership that this new front has opened up between the army and Geo, a major media house. Making this more complex is the inter-media rivalry fuelled by commercial motives. Only a few weeks back, Raza Rumi, a highly respected anchor of Express News, luckily escaped an assassination attempt although his driver unfortunately lost his life. The collective response of the media community was feeble.
The very fact that there existed a suspicion of an unlawful activity on the part of the ISI does reflect that the perception about its working, at least in some quarters, is not good. This needs to be corrected through internal reforms and greater focus on professional excellence. In the past, politicians and military dictators have used intelligence agencies to manipulate political parties and election outcomes.
Some of these allegations may well be false or exaggerated but perception matters a lot and it is important that serious effort be made to correct it. Intelligence agencies should be respected. We have to understand that intelligence agencies are an indispensable and critical element of a nation’s internal and external defence. The experience of different countries is before us that when intelligence agencies have taken advantage of the opaque nature of their profession and digressed from their main mission to be arbiters of quick justice or sided with political forces on the basis of expediency, they have destabilised the state and have harmed their own institutional interests as well as that of the country.
Without the genuine support of the people, no security organisation can actualise its full potential. And this is equally true for intelligence agencies. All dynamic organisations undergo reforms to adjust to changing regional challenges and threats. Are our intelligence and security organisations too going through this internal renewal? This is the question that our leadership should be asking. We are witnessing that multiple militant groups in Pakistan are presenting new and profound challenges to intelligence agencies. Until our civilian institutions become strong, the armed forces and intelligence organisations will be the key determinants of future stability. It is, therefore, critical that they continue to build their professional competence.
In most democratic countries, intelligence agencies are subjected to parliamentary oversight on a periodic basis. This also becomes a part of legal requirement as legislation exists that parliament review its performance. It is in the institutions’ interests to undergo scrutiny for improving overall efficiency and building trust between the people’s representatives and defence institutions. Of course, most of the oversight remains secret and members are well equipped to conduct it. In a developing country like ours, this kind of expertise may be very limited and would come with experience; but a start has to be made. Even in mature democracies like the US and the UK there are only a few Congressmen or members of parliament who are considered suitable to be members of intelligence committees. Even among them there are only two or three members who are clued up. The rest of the committee members take a cue from them to vote for any legislation pertaining to intelligence and security-related matters and go by their recommendations on major issues.
Pakistan’s civilian government will have to acquire and demonstrate competence in these areas to effectively lead the nation towards stability.