V for virus, V for vendetta… In ongoing case against media boss, calls to #FreeMirShakilurRehman fall on deaf ears

It is outrageous that for nearly a month now, chief editor and owner of the country’s largest media group has been behind bars. Mir Shakilur Rahman was arrested by Pakistan’s National Accountability Bureau on March 12, in connection with a 34-year old land case. Leading lawyers agree that the case is baseless. They are among the many voices – journalists, international human rights organisations and media platforms, rival media groups, civil society organisations at home and abroad – outraged by this travesty of justice and urging MSR’s release #FreeMirShakilurRehman.

Leading international organisations have called for MSR’s release

The detention is widely seen as part of an ongoing attack on media freedom in Pakistan. The case, clearly motivated by vendetta, is particularly disturbing at a time when everyone needs to be on the same page in fighting the global COVID-19 pandemic. See my story in Naya Daur, also posted below with updates, about a maverick poet and intellectual with no affiliation to the Jang/Geo media group, on hunger strike since March 29 for MSR’s release.

Below: Compilation of facts about the case and Jang/Geo media group’s acknowledgement of those who have spoken up about the case and urged the government to release MSR — lawyers, politicians including from the ruling party, rival media houses, international human rights groups etc.

South Asia Media Defenders Network (Samden) has also protested the detention of Pakistani editor and publisher of the Jang Group, Mir Shakilur Rahman, and the legal action against The Wire, and called it “representative of a trend across the region”. In a statement issued April 4, Samden said, “While the harassment and imprisonment of journalists has been a distressing trend in all the countries of South Asia over the last few years, we have seen a sudden escalation in such actions over the past few years. The preoccupation of the world public and opinion makers with COVID-19 pandemic has made it easier for those who want to try and gag critics in the media”.

Surely this is not what Pakistan needs to be doing at this time. Below, the story I wrote on Azhar Munir’s hunger strike, published in Naya Daur, April 5.

“War against corona is important… but it is also important to win the war for media freedom”

By Beena Sarwar

I haven’t seen or heard from Azhar Munir for nearly 20 years. I remember his slim, gentle figure from my Lahore days, a maverick intellectual, writer, researcher, poet, and activist. He was an outlier who would take up his one-man campaigns for the causes that moved him, without fanfare, regardless of who stood with him or not.

There was his hunger strike for Aung San Suu Kyi when she was in prison — who knew then what a disappointment she’d turn out to be. He did the same when Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N government viciously targeted the Jang Group in the 1990s to prevent it from launching an independent 24/7 television news channel. The then government kept the channel from being born by pulling out old tax cases, pressuring the media group to fire certain journalists, and blocking advertisements and newsprint supplies. Jang and News were reduced to publishing just a few pages daily. The matter ended apparently as a quid-pro-quo for the TV channel being dropped.

Azhar Munir worked at Jang once but then was with a rival media group, Daily Pakistan. He remembers the embarrassment of some fellow journalists who tried to get him to call off that hunger strike.

What has changed besides the fact that we are older?

I feel compelled to reconnect with him on hearing about his current hunger strike, an extraordinary act of solidarity in this time of fear when most people are looking out for themselves.

His current hunger strike camp, launched March 29, is for the release of chief editor and proprietor of the Jang group Mir Shakilur Rahman, arrested March 12, by Pakistan’s National Accountability Bureau ostensibly for illegal dealings on a 34-year old property transaction. Summoned to Lahore for a verification hearing, Rahman was detained in violation of NAB’s own laws that do not allow arrest at this stage.

He was then denied bail to be by his older brother’s side as Mir Jamilur Rahman faded away in Karachi after a struggle with cancer. It was only after he passed away that Mir Shakilur Rahman was allowed out to attend the funeral. He has gone back to NAB custody in Lahore, ahead of Tuesday’s hearings before NAB and the Lahore High Court.

It’s early Sunday morning in Lahore, about 6.30 am, when I speak to Azhar Munir on the phone. He’s about to leave his one-room apartment in Mozang for the daily, solitary hunger camp he set up seven days earlier, at the Press Club like his earlier camps.

This old-school intellectual doesn’t own a car or a motorbike, or even a smartphone. In the absence of public transport, he’ll walk the three kilometres to Simla Pahari, where he will open up a chequered blanket and spread it on the footpath opposite the Press Club entrance.

He’ll take off his slippers and sit down in front of a large yellow banner covered with words in Urdu. In the centre: BHOOK HARTAL – hunger strike, followed by his name flanked by: “Jang Geo ko jeenay do… Media ko jeenay do” – Let Jang, Geo live… Let the media live.  

Azhar Munir’s hunger strike camp, started March 29, continues… Photo: Rahat Ali Dar

The line on top asserts “Corona ke khilaf jang zaroori… Magar media ki azadi ki jang jeetna bhi zaroori hai” – War against Corona is important… but it is also important to win the war for media freedom.

The second line: “Mir Shakilur Rahman ki giriftari media ka gala dabane ki mazmum koshish” – This arrest… is a condemnable effort to strangle the media.

Azhar Munir, now 65, may look frail but he has a steel will and can keep going for a long time. “I’ve led a tough life”, he tells me. “I can walk 15-20 km in the heat and go for days without eating”.

At the hunger camp, he sits hunched up in his white pyjama kurta, armed with nothing more than his will and his patience. Occasionally some colleagues join him in solidarity. Late at night, he’ll fold up his sheet and banner and stash them at the Press Club. Then he will walk home to eat his one frugal meal of the day and get some sleep.

There have been a couple of media interviews, but in times of coronavirus, there’s little space for much else. It even took Jang/Geo/News several days to run reports about his protest.

But as Munir stresses, this is not about a particular media group or for an individual. He has studied NAB’s allegations against Rahman. “This case isn’t a case at all. It is just revenge for telling the truth, like other media groups. Mir Shakil wasn’t trying to leave the country. There was no need to arrest and detain him. They are trying to make an example out of him”.

The grandiosely named ‘Simla Pahari’, the little hillock housing the Press Club, is a roundabout in a heavily trafficked area. The Jang, News and Geo offices are a short walk up on Davies Road. Since 29 March when Azhar Munir started his protest, the coronavirus scare and Lahore’s partial lockdown has reduced traffic. As elsewhere, the normally frenzied, bustling Simla Pahari locality with its bakeries, mobile phone shops and pharmacies is more still and quiet.

If those who want to clamp down on political dissent have their way, this quiet would also blanket the media, prevent it from providing a platform to a variety of views and opinions.

“If we allow this to happen now, it will be a lesson to all the others to buckle down”, he says. And that is why Azhar Munir has set up his hunger camp.

It is his individual protest against the ongoing media censorship and suppression in Pakistan, “worse than what we witnessed in Zia or Musharraf years”. It is his stand against the narrative that those who point out flaws in the socio-political situation are “traitors” or “enemies of the state”. “In fact, they are doing the state a favour by saying what is wrong and what needs to be fixed”.

On Saturday, senior Jang Group journalists, editor Jang Suhail Warraich and Geo Lahore bureau chief Raees Ansari visited him on behalf of the group to thank him and request him to call off his hunger strike.

Predictably, he refused. “Na mein ne ye bhook hartal Mir Shakil ke kehne pe shuru ki, na mein un ke kehne pe khatam karooNga” – I didn’t start it on his say-so, and nor will I end it because he’s asking.

This is also his response to others who periodically visit him to persuade him to wind up his hunger camp, including policemen and those claiming to represent NAB and intelligence agencies. He tells them there only two ways to get him to stop. They will have to physically remove him. Or release Mir Shakilur Rahman.

“I will end my hunger strike then. Not before”.

April 10 update: A senior journalist affiliated with Press Club claimed that Azhar Munir had a fever of 101. He has refused to call off his hunger strike.
April 21: Spoke to Azhar Munir, he said no one had taken his temperature and he hasn’t had a fever for over six months now. In fact his temperature is usually below normal.

The struggle continues.

Important commentary by veteran journalist Afaq Farooqi, editor Pakistan Post, on media freedom. The first part is about CNN and Trump, the second part, is about the MSR case and threat of #corona. He says there weren’t even as many appeals for Z.A.Bhutto as there have been for MSR. Worth listening to.

Also see this informative thread from the legal perspective by Legal Advisor, South Asia, International Commission of Jurists:

To see the entire thread, go to the tweet above, or check out this compilation.

One Response

  1. […] V for virus, V for vendetta… In ongoing case against media boss, calls to #FreeMirShakilurRehm… […]

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