There’s a certain amount of irony when you’re accused of being pro-Taliban, only to find half a kilo of explosives under your car, which have been put there by the Taliban. But that situation is something that Hamid Mir, Pakistan’s most well-known TV presenter, has had to deal with recently.
Not only is the 46-year-old a national media celebrity, he's also an expert in terrorism – a combination of interests that is pretty volatile in a country like Pakistan. He was the last journalist to interview Osama bin Laden before the al-Qaeda leader went underground in 2001. Two years ago, an audio tape purporting to contain a phone conversation between the journalist and a Taliban spokesman was leaked. The discussion about a former intelligence agent who was taken hostage and eventually executed sent shockwaves through the Pakistani media, but Mir strongly denies that the voice on the tape is his, claiming a set up.
Last month, he openly condemned the Taliban on Twitter for shooting the schoolgirl Malala Yousefzai in the head, and received a string of death threats in return – a silencing tactic becoming all-too familiar in Pakistan, where a recent report by the Pakistan Press Foundation (PFF) found that 35 journalists have been murdered for their work in the past ten years and countless others have been attacked, tortured and kidnapped.
Last week, Mir found a remote-controlled bomb containing a battery, a detonator and ball bearings strapped to the bottom of his car. It failed to detonate. The Taliban (Tehrik-i-Taleban Pakistan) promptly said they did it because Mir was targeting them with a “secular agenda” – and anyone “targeting the Taliban would be targeted with explosives”.
I spoke to him about why he’s not going anywhere any time soon.
VICE: Hey Hamid, why was there half a kilo of explosives under your car?
Hamid Mir: After the attack on Malala Yousafzai, I did some talkshows and wrote some columns about the people who attacked her. It was the Taliban that accepted the responsibility. They wrote a very long email to me, saying I am the enemy of Islam because I am supporting Malala.
That’s a big accusation. How did you react to that?
I responded back. I said, "I am not the enemy of Islam: You are not Muslims."
And then what?
I’m writing a book, so I went to a photocopy shop in a market close to my home because I needed some photocopies of my columns published in the last five years. I spent some time in the shop and I asked my driver to come along with me to pick up some books in which my old columns were placed. He left the car unattended for ten-15 minutes. That was the time it took for someone to put the bomb under my car.
They planted a bomb in my car, in the heart of Rana Market, Islamabad – the capital – in a very secure area. A lot of diplomats and foreigners shop in that market because security agencies have cleared it for them. It’s also a residential area where diplomats live. That’s the reason I went to that market, because I thought it was safe. But even there, they planted a bomb, so what can I do now?
What’s the book about?
It’s about the problems faced by the media in Pakistan, especially the targeted killing of some of my colleagues in the last four or five years. The title is not ready yet. We have lost more than 90 journalists in the past ten years. Some of them, at least four or five of them, were very close friends of mine.
How do you know the Taliban were behind this latest attack?
The Home Department in Pakistan informed me that the Taliban decided to attack me. Then my colleagues spoke directly to the Taliban spokesperson, Ensuallah Ehsan, and he told them, “We will try again. This time he is scared, but we will try again.”
How are you dealing with it?
I’ve been asked by the country’s Home Minister to not do live talkshows [Hamid hosts Capital Talk on Geo TV, Monday to Thursday]. He said I should not come in to my office. He also advised me to leave Pakistan but I refused. My management were very generous, and said I could do it from London, or Dubai. But I am a high-profile journalist – I said that if I leave, if I do not do my show from Pakistan, it will be a big victory for the Taliban. I cannot provide them with the opportunity to say "Look, Hamid Mir ran away from Pakistan."
So I made the threat public and it has been condemned.
It can't be easy living knowing that the Taliban want you dead.
I take some precautionary measures. I’ve accepted that one policeman guards my office, and one policeman guards my home. I’ve changed my timings, I’ve changed my car, I’ve changed my driver and I’ve stopped sharing my movements with my colleagues. This is all I can do. The Home Department have asked me to increase the number of guards, but I’m avoiding that – a journalist can’t move like a VIP. I’m not a politician.
Are you concerned?
Certainly, I’m a human being and I feel some pressure, but this is a big test for me. If I stop speaking and stop doing my show right now, I think it will be a big victory for them. They have not targeted me, they are giving a message to the whole media community in Pakistan. But my community is with me, the civil society has expressed their solidarity with me, and the politicians – from the government to the opposition – are with me.
I have to stand against them. I have decided that I will continue my shows and I will keep writing against them. Last night the little Malala Yousefzai called from Birmingham [Malala was hospitalised in the UK after being shot in the head by the Taliban]. She said, "I wanted to call you and express my solidarity with you," so it’s a great source of strength for me.
Did you say you think it’s the Pakistani media in general being targeted, not just you?
Yes, because I’ve been condemning threats to the media for a very long time. I’ve criticised the state agencies in Pakistan, the secret agencies in Pakistan, I’ve also criticised the Taliban. I’ve said both state and non-state actors are enemies of media freedom. My colleagues from the troubled areas, like Balochistan, always try to seek help from me. Now I’m in trouble, so if I run away then I feel that they will be discouraged, they will be disappointed. So I think that I must stand.
So you have to continue reporting?
This is a test for me, and it’s not the first one, I’m certain. This time it’s very dangerous. They tried to bomb me, but maybe they were waiting for me to go into my office or home and then detonate it. I’m very concerned about the safety of my family and the safety of my colleagues and my office, but you see this is Pakistan, and we have to do something about it.
You mentioned your family. How do they feel about it?
My daughter is under pressure and didn’t go to school this morning. This is a problem for me and I will try to tighten security, but I’m not in a position to say anything. If your daughter refuses to go to school in the morning, what can you do?
And your colleagues?
My colleagues are very much concerned about my safety but they’re with me and this is a great source of strength to me.
When’s your next show due?
I did my show yesterday and I’m planning for my second show this evening.
So you’re still working on it?
Yes, I’m talking to you from my office now.
Why don’t you want to do your show outside Pakistan?
To be frank, this is a war now, this is an open war. I’m not ready to surrender. Leaving Pakistan is like surrendering and I’m not ready to surrender.
Good luck, Hamid.
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