Being A TV Anchor In Pakistan Is Fraught With Danger

Pakistan's No. 1 TV anchor Hamid Mir is recovering from six bullet wounds. He was shot by motorcycle gunmen while he was being driven through Karachi. Mir immediately blamed Pakistan's spy agency,

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And let's turn now to Pakistan. Often the news we hear from there has to do with Taliban militants or U.S. drone strikes. But in this next story, the news is about the news. Television news anchors, to be specific - a relatively new profession in Pakistan, and one that can be unexpectedly dangerous. NPR's Philip Reeves reports.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Hamid Mir is lying on his bed in his villa trying to keep cool under a whirring fan. He has a white sheet draped over his body covering six bullet wounds. Armed guards protect his front door.

Mir is Pakistan's most popular TV anchor. Last month, in the city of Karachi, someone tried to kill him.

HAMID MIR: The attack on me was actually an attack on the freedom of Pakistani media. And there are some elements in the establishment in Pakistan who want to curtail the freedom of the media because they think that this freedom is too much.

REEVES: Mir's well known abroad - not least because he interviewed Osama bin Laden. In Pakistan, his viewers bombarded him with get well messages and lots of flowers.

MIR: Thousands, thousands. And if you go to my office in Islamabad, the studio is still full of flowers.

REEVES: Mir believes Pakistan's powerful intelligence agency, the ISI, was behind the attack. He maintains he was targeted because he tackled highly sensitive issues on air, including the intelligence agencies' covert involvement in politics.

MIR: I was opposing the interference of the secret agencies in politics. I was raising questions about the double games played by the ISI.

REEVES: He had warned his family this might happen. Immediately after Mir was shot, his brother publicly accused the agency.

Mir's employers, Geo TV - Pakistan's biggest network - ran that allegation for hours along with a picture of the ISI chief. It's triggered a political storm. The ISI want Geo's broadcasting license revoked. Cable TV distributors came under pressure to axe Geo, and did so in such numbers that the channel is fighting to survive.

Until just over a decade ago, Pakistanis got all their TV news from one state-run channel. Then, in 2002, the government opened the airwaves to private operators. Pakistan's TV industry exploded into life.

(SOUNDBITE OF YELLING ANCHORS)

REEVES: These days, 47 news channels noisily fill the dial, fronted by a host of hard-talking anchors.

QUATRINA HUSSAIN: (Foreign language spoken).

REEVES: Quatrina Hussain has a current affairs show on Pakistan's Ab Tak TV. The attack on Hamid Mir shocked her deeply.

HUSSAIN: Hamid was very lucky that he walked away alive from that - six bullets. So did it worry me? Of course it did. And I was on air when I got the news, and I was horrified and I was enraged.

REEVES: Unlike many of Pakistan's anchors, Hussain is a highly experienced trained journalist. She's critical of the manner in which Geo TV reported the allegation against Pakistan's intelligence agency.

HUSSAIN: I would not dream of attacking a state institution emotionally. If I have significant reason to believe that the state is responsible for doing something unacceptable, I would invite a representative of the state and ask him about it on air.

REEVES: Geo has run into another big and unexpected problem. A storm of protests over an item on a recent morning show which Islamic clerics say was blasphemous. Apologies from GEO haven't deterred rival channels and their anchors from tearing into the channel on air. Lots of money is at stake in the brazen new world of Pakistani TV.

This week Geo made another huge apology, this time, to Pakistan's intelligence chiefs. It published a front-page newspaper ad addressing its coverage of the allegation that the ISI, attempted to assassinate Geo's star anchor. Geo described the coverage as excessive, emotional and misleading.

The signs are that GEO will stumble through this crisis. Pakistan's Supreme Court has ordered distributors to put its channels back on air. As he recovers from his bullet wounds, Pakistan's number one anchor says the attempt on his life will not stop him from carrying on with his work.

MIR: The actual target is the democratic system. They want a controlled democracy in Pakistan. I know that my viewers and my readers have a lot of expectations form me. If they want to fight, I have to fight.

REEVES: There is no TV in his bedroom. Mir says doctors have advised him not to watch. They're worried he might get upset by the continuing coverage of the fallout from the attempt to kill him. Philip Reeves, NPR News, Islamabad.

GREENE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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