Why was Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman arrested?

March 22, 2020

His arrest in 1980s case during a media clampdown is highly suspect. It seems that the government is out to settle personal vendettas

Civil society members, activists, politicians and employees protesting the arrest.

The arrest of Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman, editor-in-chief, of GEO and Jang Group is being treated by most people as a Press freedom issue rather than legitimate accountability case because the media in general and country’s largest media group in particular have been under attack for long. Had it come about in normal circumstances and been part of a routine ‘accountability process’, it might have been dealt with. As things stand this clearly looks like the outcome of the personal venom expressed time and again by none other than Prime Minister Imran Khan against Mir Shakil. The way his photograph in NAB custody was ‘leaked’ has made things worse for both the government and the NAB.

Despite their many differences, the PFUJ has joined hands with owners’ and editors’ bodies whenever the government has tried to gag the Press. At times, they have even formed a joint action committee to deal with an assault on press freedom.

Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman’s arrest was followed by disruption of GEO’s transmission within minutes of a press conference by Special Assistant to the Prime Minister  Firdous Ashiq Awan, who, on one hand tried to distance her government from the arrest and on the other, accused GEO and Jang of being biased against the PTI government.

The two actions have come months after the government stopped taking advertisements in two of the largest media groups, Jang and Dawn, for been critical of the government. This has been a tactic common to nearly all governments to choke dissenting voices.

If that was not enough, the prime minister, in one of his conversations with select journalists did not hide his spleen against Jang and Dawn. Even before coming into power, Geo in particular had remained on PTI’s radar. During the 2014 sit-in lasting 124 days, its workers targeted Geo’s journalists including women. At times they pelted its office in Islamabad with stones, attacked its DSNGs and harassed female staff.

That the government was looking for an opportunity to get Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman arrested was common knowledge. What surprised many was that unlike his earlier claim that he had ‘evidence’ of alleged ‘foreign funding’, the NAB had arrested him in a 34-year-old case.

Imran Khan is not alone in his dislike of MSR. NAB’s top brass were also not happy with GEO, after Shahzeb Khanzada in his show, Aaj Shahzeb Khanzada Kay Saath raised serious questions about NAB’s performance.

Over the last 20 months, this government has made several attempts to control the media. It proposed the formation of Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority, PMRA, by merging the PEMRA and the Pakistan Press Council. The draft was opposed by all the media stakeholders almost unanimously. PECA-2016 was blatantly misused through the FIA, against journalists and social media activists. Cases were registered and arrests were made to create an atmosphere of fear. The FIA could not produce evidence in any of the cases. Next the government tried to control social media through new regulations; even some PTI leaders opposed the coercive move. It was only after a massive reaction from the outside world that the government dropped the idea, at least for the time being. The government also decided to set up Media Courts as proposed by the PEMRA to Ministry of Information. The intention was to bypass court injunctions against PEMRA notices issued to various channels.

GEO and Jang have faced difficult situations many times. Journalist Hamid Mir survived being shot six times. GEO, was off air for months and later pushed to late numbers to deprive it of viewership.

In the late ’80s and early ’90s, Jang had faced one of the worst attacks from the then Muhajir Qaumi Movement. For nearly two weeks its publication was not allowed in Karachi and Hyderabad. During the first PPP government, its student wing activist attacked Jang’s Karachi office over the language in a news report. In its second stint in 1995, the Sindh government banned six evening newspapers, which included Daily News and Awam – belonging to Jang group. In 1998, during the second Nawaz Sharif government pressured Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman to sack some journalists and even threatened some of them with dire consequences. In 2007, when former president (retd) General Pervez Musharraf imposed an emergency in the country, he not only banned many leading anchors and news channels but, in GEO’s case its Sports Channel, GEO Super was also banned.

During PFUJ’s 88-days protest against Musharraf, it was Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman who refused to sign the undertaking, which the owners of many TV channels signed to get their transmission restored.

As Pakistan’s longest serving professional editor, late Ahmad Ali Khan of Dawn, once said, “Journalism is both a profession and a business, though not much importance was attached to the business aspect before Independence. Our own experience in South Asia tells us journalism as a profession came before journalism as business. Bearing this in mind, it is vital to keep in check any conflict between the claims of the profession of journalism and those of business of journalism. They must go hand in hand with each understanding the legitimate needs and imperative of other.”

The writer is a senior columnist and analyst of GEO, The News and Jang. Twitter: @MazharAbbasGEO

Why was Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman arrested?