Chilling the national narrative

Pakistan will be the last place where polio and rabid right wing discourse will exist in the world. The rest of the world is fighting both while we are being overpowered by the forces that want to make them proliferate. In a bloody campaign to shoot polio workers and halt their efforts against the crippling disease, the Taliban have been largely successful. They have thrown in a spanner in the polio worker recruitment drive, in the cost of hiring extra security to protect workers and in the awareness campaign itself, which has given way to conspiracy and misinformation. To begin with, this was a mammoth task; polio was spreading because of overpopulation and inadequate access to preventive medicine. The terrorists have ensured that now we will be the last country to get rid of this evil.

More than 30 of the 100,000 strong lady heath workers have been killed since 2012. Just last month, Salma Farooqi, a 30-year-old polio worker was abducted from her house, tortured and killed. Her body was found miles away from her house with multiple bullets in it. While we talk peace with militants who perpetrate the violence of this particular kind, there were those who were protesting. Hamid Mir was among them.

Having covered the Afghan war he had acquired friends in the establishment and connections that landed him as far up as Osama bin Laden. Lately, he had drifted breezily from the right to the left. He shunned the conspiracy theories surrounding Malala Yousafzai’s narrative. He supported her struggle for education and openly criticised the gusto with which the young child’s opponents spoke. He was a proponent of getting Pervez Musharraf, the former military dictator, to trial for high treason. Mir also championed a more unpopular cause: he criticised the heavy-handedness by security forces engaged in Balochistan. Counter-insurgency, he griped, does not justify extra-judicial killings and torture, which was routinely happening in that underserved province.

On April 19, Mir’s was car attacked in the way journalist and opinion-maker Raza Rumi was attacked only a few days ago. Bullets were sprayed on them and their cars. Thankfully, and with nothing short of a miracle, they both survived. Other journalists have not been so lucky: more than 50 have been killed since 2001.

Pakistanis have always been a very astute nation when it comes to news and opinions. This is why, for many, journalists like Mir and Rumi were welcome additions into their living rooms and television lounges. Attacking these voices of reason and critical thinking or forcing them abroad chills the national narrative. The hyenas on the prowl can now take over with their conspiracy-ridden columns, evangelical discourse and anti-women narrative.

And why would they not? The response from the journalist’s community has been so territorial and competitive. When Raza Rumi was shot, many competing channels did not even run the news except running a news ticker at the bottom of the screen and those that did, reported that a “private channel” journalist had been shot at. Raza was anything but just a journalist; he was fighting for the soul of this country, those forgotten promises he was reminding us of, which can only serve to unify us.

Hamid Mir’s media reaction is even more disappointing. Competing channels have run front-page stories denouncing Mir’s channel for claiming that Pakistan’s intelligence agency had a hand. One wonders if the rivalry is really over the truth and journalistic standards or is it merely an effort to bring rivals down. To trump up the crazy circus, the defence ministry has officially made a request to cancel Mir’s channel’s licence. In all honesty, the Taliban should just send a memo to its members to kick back and relax while it watches the country implode on its own.

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