Since becoming a journalist almost 30 years ago, Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir has had to choose between his life and his career. Mir is now one of Pakistan’s best-known journalists, the host of Geo Television’s flagship political show Capital Talk. He also now lives under armed guard, recovering from yet another assassination attempt, with his family sent abroad for their safety.
“My family is not happy with me,” he told Index. “They think that my life is more important than the profession.” Mir does not agree.
“I think that if I leave Pakistan, it’s like I surrender, and I don’t want to surrender to the Taliban, I don’t want to surrender to the rogue elements in our intelligence agencies and the security agencies. I don’t want to surrender to the enemies of democracy.”
Mir became a journalist after his father, who himself taught journalism at the University of the Punjab, died in mysterious circumstances in 1987. Mir saw his career as a continuation of his father’s fight for democracy, human rights and minorities’ rights in Pakistan.
“When I decided to become a journalist, Pakistan was ruled by a military dictator,” Mir told Index. It was not long after he started at a small paper in Lahore that Mir first met the violent opposition to his reporting that would characterise his career and life.
“When I started facing trouble, I was not aware that I was touching some controversial subject,” he said. “I was only doing my job as a reporter.”
In 1990, Mir broke a story about the military establishment and the then-president trying to remove the democratically elected Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
“I was kidnapped by the intelligence agency and they tortured me and asked me to tell them who is my source.” Bhutto’s government was removed days later.
Fast forward 30 years and Mir is still reporting on issues many Pakistani journalists won’t touch.
His tireless and outspoken reporting has earned him enemies in Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence, the Pakistani Taliban and local terrorist groups, and Pakistan’s political parties.
It has also earned him a lifetime of assassination attempts – the latest a near-fatal attack in 2014 which saw him shot six times as he drove to work – has left Mir living under constant protection. He is driven to and from work in a bulletproof vehicle, alternating between cell phones and residences, and away from his two children, who were sent abroad after a car they were riding in was attacked.
But, for Mir, reporting on these untouchable-topics is not a question. “Maybe it’s controversial for the others but it’s not controversial for me,” he says.
“If a military dictator is suspending the constitution of Pakistan which was approved by the elected parliament, and I, being a journalist and a TV anchor, am opposing that, for me it’s not controversial,” he says.
“And again, if some intelligence agency is trying to dictate me – you should report this and you should not report that – and if the religious extremists, the Taliban, they are issuing threats to women, they are bombing the girls’ schools, and I am criticising the Taliban. I don’t think that it’s controversial.”
Threats to his life intensified in late 2015, and under pressure from his family, Mir planned to take three months off-air.
“After one month, I realised that it’s too much, I have to come back.”
For Mir, if not for his family, his duty to Pakistan and to his colleagues, will always outweigh his own safety. The guilt he feels for those journalists who have died for their work is too great to ever allow him to stop, he says.
“There were some colleagues who used to come to me and take advice about what should we do because we are facing pressures. Should we continue our job as a journalist? I used to advise them, yes you must continue your job as a journalist, nothing bad will happen. But they were killed, they were kidnapped.”
“If I leave Pakistan today, on the pressure of my family, maybe I will leave a very safe life in London or in Berlin or in Paris or in any other country. But it will be very difficult for me to live a normal life, because the ghosts of my martyred friends, they will not allow me to have a comfortable sleep.”
Mir believes he is one of the lucky ones in Pakistan – he has survived. And life in Lahore is a lot easier for journalists than for those living outside the city, he says.
Although he sees media freedom in Pakistan getting worse, with pressures from the extremist forces and state agencies intensifying, his long-view is an uplifting one.
“The good thing is that the people, the majority of the people of Pakistan, the civil society, is the main source of our strength. If I am living in Pakistan, if I am surviving in Pakistan, it’s only because the common man is supporting me,” he said.
“The common man believes in democracy, they don’t like extremist ideology, they don’t like dictatorship, they want rule of law. There is a ray of hope for me in Pakistan.”