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How the Taliban Turned Against Pakistan's Right-Wing Journalists

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Pakistan has announced a reward of 50 million rupees (approximately $520,000) for anyone with information about people involved in a failed plot to assassinate a renowned television journalist last week in Islamabad, the nation's capital.

Geo Television, Pakistan's first 24/7 private news channel, said Hamid Mir, the host of popular talk-show Capital Talk was the prime target of a car bomb plot. The attackers had fixed a bag with a half kilogram of explosive material below the senior journalist's car seat, which was immediately removed by the bomb disposal squad after Mr. Mir's neighbors spotted the suspicious bag.

The Pakistani Taliban have accepted responsibility for attempting to kill Mr. Mir, saying that they have some other journalists on their 'hit-list.' The Taliban spokesman, Ahsanullah Ahsan, did not disclose the names of other journalists his group intends to target in the future.

According to Pakistani newspaper the Express Tribune, "Mir was on his way to his office and the bomb was apparently planted when he stopped at a market."

Mr. Mir, who has worked with Pakistan's largest media conglomerate, the Jang Group, for several years as a talk-show host and a columnist, has recently been publicizing the death threats he has been receiving, presumably from the Pakistani Taliban.

On December 20, 2011, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) published the details of the warnings Mr. Mir had received but, at the same time, acknowledged the grim reality that "Pakistan's journalists cannot rely on the government for their own protection, and the threats at times even seem to come from the government." The CPJ, nonetheless, admired Mr. Mir's courage to speak in public by describing his immediate response as "a textbook case of how to handle the steady stream of intimidation that journalists face."

In a column published in the Urdu language Daily Jang on October 18, 2012, Mr. Mir once again informed his readers that he had received a fresh seven-page long letter from the Pakistani Taliban entailing death threats. Publicly confronting the Taliban, the senior journalist wrote, "as far as death threats are concerned, you [Taliban] are not more powerful than General Pervez Musharraf. We were not afraid of him nor can you intimidate us. You can kill me but cannot suppress my voice."

While I have extensively written about the issues of press freedom, censorship and deadly attacks on journalists in Pakistan, Mr. Mir's case, on its part, merits special attention because it reflects the new dynamics of a worsening relationship between the Pakistani State, the press and the non-state actors.

The military has historically pampered the clergy and sections of the media to consolidate its grip over political power and promote the pan-Islamic and anti-India socio-political philosophy. While doing so, the military patronized Islamic groups, such as the Taliban, and members of the media. Over the past decade, the balance of power has drastically shifted in Pakistan where the Taliban and the media have not only emerged as strong centers of power but they have also significantly minimized sole reliance on the military for their survival.

Hence, gone are the days when the Pakistani military micro-managed the clergy and the media. But it also does not mean that the latter have fully divorced the powerful military. What is different this time is the uncompromising desire of each of these entities to remain fiercely independent without necessarily endorsing and blindly following the policies of other power centers.

That said, the military, the media and the Taliban are all in a state of cold war with each other. They have not broken up ideologically. They still share the same pan-Islamic and anti-India, anti-U.S.A. vision. What they are unwilling to do is to work together in an old fashion. They believe it is the time to gain more power instead of sharing it.

In the past ten years, since the liberalization of the media in Pakistan, journalists have increasingly become popular, powerful and partisan.

Mr. Mir is one such victim of Pakistan's changing political and security landscape. Now, the old trick to remain closely associated with one power center in order to stay safe does not seem to be working well for journalists. For instance, Syed Saleem Shahzad of the Asia Times, who was murdered last year, was believed to have very close contacts within his country's military. When, Mr. Shahzad crossed the 'red lines,' as they are unofficially defined by the military, and went on to expose al Qaeda's penetration inside the army, the reporter was immediately killed and the army was suspected of orchestrating the gory murder.

Mr. Mir, who escaped Monday's plot, is caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. While his old allies, the army and the Taliban, seem to have detached him, the Pakistani liberals no longer sympathize with him, either, because Mr. Mir, a die-hard right-wing journalist, calls them all "liberal fascists."

Mr. Mir has remained such an avid admirer of al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden and regularly refers to him him as "Sheik" [a respected elder] out of respect in his columns. On May 5, 2011, he glorified the world's most wanted terrorist as a 'smiling man' who had ended up as "truthful" after being killed by the United States.

"The Abbottabad Operation has given al Qaeda one such martyr that even the world's strongest army was scared of his dead body. The level of fear [of bin Laden among the American soldiers] was so high that they did not have the courage to bury his dead body anywhere in the world... bin Laden's killing is not the victory of the Americans; it was their defeat," he wrote.

In another column, on October 18, 2012, Mr. Mir recalled his meetings with the al Qaeda chief and insisted that the Taliban should learn to respect women the way "Sheik Osama" did.

Some of Mr. Mir's recent articles depict him as more of a right-wing provocateur than a professional journalist. Besides his praise of bin Laden, Mr. Mir's glorification of those who kill fellow citizens in Pakistan under the infamous blasphemy law is also deeply disconcerting.

While writing in Daily Jang on November 1, 2012, Mr. Mir opposed the supporters of a secular Pakistan because, according to him, a secular state does not protect zealot Muslims who kill the people that commit blasphemy against Islam. Citing and glorifying at least two instances when Muslim extremists killed alleged 'blasphemers,' Mr. Mir described one such Muslim zealot, Ghazi Ilm-ud-din (1908-1929), as a "martyr," indicating that Pakistan should retain its current blasphemy laws.

Furthermore, Mr. Mir regularly uses his editorial space in support of Dr. Aafia Siddiqui, one of the FBI's most wanted terrorists who was sentenced to 86 years by a Manhattan judge in September 2010 for shooting at U.S. agents.

"I feel as much sorry for my sister [Afia Siddiqui] as a brother does for his sister," he wrote in his October 18, 2012, column, "it is this reason when [C.I.A. contractor] Raymond Davis was arrested, I suggested that Dr. Afia should be released in return of Davis' handover to the United States." On November 15, 2012, he alleged that Pakistani "liberal fascists" were portraying 'C.I.A.'s lies" against "that oppressed woman" because... in the first place, they don't like her for the headscarf she wears." On November 8, Mir expressed his displeasure over President Obama's reelection for the same reason.

"I am not happy over Obama's election," he wrote, "because I am sad over the rejection of Dr. Afia's appeal [in the court]... as long as Dr. Afia remains in the American custody, spending billions of aid in Pakistan will not help to improve America's image in Pakistan."

It is important for the Pakistani government to take quick measures to ensure the safety of Mr. Mir and all other journalists in the world's most dangerous place for reporters. This case raises the fundamental question of whether or not journalists should publicly eulogize and glorify people who either call for violence against humanity or have been convicted of having links with terrorist groups. The other crucial question is how journalists should draw a line between journalism and activism.