Hamid Mir

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Publish At Your Peril

South Asia remains one of the most repressed regions for journalists and by governments muzzling the freedoms of the press, the region’s democratic gains are in jeopardy.


South Asia, home to one-fifth of the world’s population and growing fast, has undergone major democratic transitions in the past decade. Today, all the countries in the region are governed by democratic systems. With Nepal’s successful toppling of its monarchy a decade ago and Pakistan’s transition to democracy from military rule, the portents have never been so encouraging. Similarly, Afghanistan, the victim of perennial conflict, is also moving towards democratic governance and reform. These developments are ground-breaking given the turbulent history of the region.

Yet, on one vital test of democracy — freedom of the press — the region is lagging. Between 2013 and 2015, South Asia remained one of the most repressed regions for journalists. According to Reporters without Borders, which publishes a press freedom annual index ranking 180 countries based on the freedom granted to members of the press, countries in South Asia rank discouragingly low.

Most of the countries in South Asia have scores in the bottom two tiers on the press freedom index. In the 2015 index, South Asian countries remained fairly stagnant from previous years: Pakistan ranked at 159th place; Bangladesh was ranked 146th; Sri Lanka was ranked 165th; and the Maldives was ranked at 112th place. […]

Sabeen Mahmud, Martyr for Free Speech

My op-ed for The New York Times
The appalling murder in Karachi last week of Sabeen Mahmud is a stark reminder of challenges that human rights defenders face in Pakistan. Ms. Mahmud, 39, had devoted her life to creating an alternative to the religious nationalism promoted by the Pakistani state over recent decades, which has led to a proliferation of violent jihadist organizations. She was gunned down on Friday night as she left the arts center she had founded.

In the country’s largest city, troubled by violence and crumbling institutions, Ms. Mahmud created a hub to promote the arts, harness creative talent and foster democratic dialogue. Since 2007, The Second Floor, commonly known as T2F, had evolved as a small but significant arena for pluralist and secular movements in the Islamic Republic. In Pakistan’s deeply conservative, repressive society, this was a kind of liberation theology.

Hours before she was shot, Ms. Mahmud, a tech entrepreneur as well as a social activist, hosted human rights advocates who were campaigning against enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings in insurgency-hit Balochistan Province. After the government ordered the cancellation of the event, which was called “Unsilencing Balochistan” and was to be held at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, Ms. Mahmud offered T2F as a venue.

The government is deeply worried about the insurgency in Balochistan. The commonly held — and vigorously promoted — view is that Pakistan’s great rival, India, is supporting the insurgency. Thus advocating for the rights of the Baloch people is regarded as treasonous.


Back in the Driver’s Seat

Pakistan’s military retakes pivotal control, and the public does not seem to mind.


Pakistan’s military is back in the driving seat. This time, not through a conventional coup d’etat, but through an amended constitution that enables military tribunals to try civilians accused of terrorism.

On Jan. 6, in a joint session, the Parliament amended the country’s constitution to establish military courts. The Islamist parties, opposed to the inclusion of the term “religious terrorism,” backed out at the last minute. But the major secular political parties, ostensibly committed to democratic rule, passed on the judicial powers to special military courts for a period of two years. This is a significant blow to the democratic transition that occurred after Gen. Musharraf’s ouster in 2008, when the country returned to civilian rule.

The unenviable history of democratic evolution in Pakistan is well known. The military directly governed for more than three decades, and in the periods of so-called civilian rule (such as the present one), the military retains control over security and foreign policy. Pakistan’s military is also synonymous with the nationalist identity and therefore shapes the political discourse as well.

The current prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, assumed office in June 2013. In November, he appointed a new Army Chief, Gen. Raheel Sharif, thinking that he was consolidating civilian power. Sharif also pushed for the trial of former President Musharraf (who ousted Sharif in 1999) for violating the constitution by imposing emergency rule in November 2007.


January 16th, 2015|History, Pakistan, Published in Foreign Policy, terrorism|0 Comments

Not being dead is a victory for Balochistan’s journalists


Why, one would ask, is killing the only answer for disagreement? Why, one would ask, is killing the only answer for disagreement?


To say that Pakistani journalists are under attack is an understatement. They are lucky if not assailed or killed.

Beyond the veneer of prime time television shows that many think constitutes ‘journalism’, there are thousands of media workers at risk. They are endangered and pressured by state agencies, political parties, militant networks and mafias, which share a common goal: suppressing information and muzzling those who dare to dig facts.

Comrade Irshad Mastoi and his two colleagues join the ranks of slain journalists who were targeted for their profession; this is unacceptable in a country that is ostensibly governed by a constitution.

I never met Mastoi but followed him on social media and occasionally, we communicated. His views were ‘dangerous;’ and he never refrained from expressing them.

Mastoi was a working journalist for 14 years and before his murder was also the Secretary General of the Balochistan Union of Journalists (BUJ). The killers, who remain at large, shot him dead along with an intern Abdul Rasul and an accountant of the news agency bureau that Mastoi was heading in Quetta. Mastoi was also affiliated with the ARY News and frequently wrote for vernacular and English papers.

That the murderers could enter into a news agency office located in a busy area of Quetta speaks volumes for the impunity with which such attacks are carried out.

Mastoi was 34 and his associate Rasul was a student at the Media and Journalism Department of the University of Balochistan.

What is the message for journalists and those who aspire to adopt this profession?

Pretty dire.


September 14th, 2014|Extremism, Journalism, media, Pakistan, published in DAWN, terrorism|0 Comments

Civil-military relations in Pakistan- History repeats itself?

It is time for Nawaz Sharif to revisit his earlier stints in power for obvious reasons

History repeats itself? A supporter of Ahl-e-Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ) stands with a pro-military sign near a graffiti during a rally in support of the Pakistan Army in Karachi

TS Eliot had termed April as the “cruellest month” in his famous poem ‘The Waste Land’.   The incumbent government experienced the travails of April, as it appeared to be rudderless and defensive. Not surprisingly, a key challenge for Sharif administration has been the management of relations with the powerful military. Media reports, at times, have overplayed the tensions between the two power-centres. On other occasions, there has been a sense of déjà vu: Even the third chance to exercise and enjoy power for Nawaz Sharif and his party loyalists has been far from smooth.

The Musharraf case seems to have become a liability for PM Sharif and his government. It takes no rocket science to conclude that the military and its ranks are not too delighted with their former chief facing charges of ‘treason’. The PMLN government remains committed to upholding constitutional governance but its selective view of accountability is worrisome. Gen Musharraf’s trial as a sole offender gives the impression of a person-specific application of law. Unless the abettors of extra constitutional acts are not questioned, fair application of law cannot be achieved. This becomes even more problematic when some of the Musharraf associates are found sitting in the cabinet or government benches in the National Assembly.

A few weeks ago, some of the over-zealous ministers opined on the role of the military and passed a few unsavoury remarks about the Musharraf, which led to the furore in the media. Not unexpectedly, the media remained divided and there was a robust debate on civil-military relations. However, it did not make much sense to relay old speeches of the present Defence Minister to prove how ‘unpatroitic’ PMLN’s cabinet was. This led to the need for the federal government to manage the brewing crisis. Statements of allegiance to the military were immediately issued by all concerned; and an impression was given that relations had returned to ‘normal. […]

Reporting in Pakistan – My talk (video)

I spoke at the New America Foundation with Kati Marton, Peter Bergen and Joel Simon on the dangers of reporting freely in Pakistan. It was a robust discussion and I tried my best to add some nuance to the discussion. Horrible to be the ‘news’ yourself!

Here is a clipped version of the entire discussion. For full discussion please visit this link.

Reporting in Pakistan- Protecting Journalists… by razarumi1

May 6th, 2014|Extremism, Journalism, Pakistan, SouthAsia, terrorism, video|1 Comment

Moving ahead after the attack

It has been a month since I survived a lethal attack aimed to silence me forever. The support of my family, friends and colleagues has been monumental in dealing with the trauma, especially that of seeing young Mustafa die — an unfortunate victim of the bullets that the assailants fielded for me. The Punjab Police have reportedly apprehended a gang that has been carrying out such activities. It remains to be seen if the creaky, dysfunctional criminal justice system will deliver justice. Nevertheless, the efforts of the police have been commendable in tracing and arresting the alleged attackers.

Much has happened in the last month. Halfway, I had to leave the country given the sense of insecurity that surrounded my daily life and the potential power of those who attempted to kill me. The issue of journalists’ security remains a huge question mark for the government in power as another colleague from Geo TV was brutally attacked on April 19. The core issues since then have been sidelined and the politics of blaming Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency has overshadowed everything else. Is there freedom of speech in Pakistan? How much of it is granted and what are the lines that cannot be crossed by journalists? […]