The assassination attempt on Hamid Mir, on 19th April, 2014, and the ensuing standoff between GEO Television Network and the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), has lay bare disconcerting realities that underline our democratic dispensation. On the one hand, Hamid Mir, supported by the entire Jang Group machinery, is blatantly accusing the ISI Chief for orchestrating the attack, as a deliberate measure to silence criticism. On the other, the omnipresent ISI, supported by the all-powerful Army, as well as the government, is mounting a defence that includes threatening a shutdown of GEO Television Network.

In the wake of this saga, our media waves, television anchors, and political actors are embroiled in attempting to answer numerous questions of national importance: is it possible that Hamid Mir, and GEO, are correct? Do our intelligence agencies target and silence those whose words and ideas annoy the establishment? Is it a crime, punishable by death, to critique the intelligentsia in Pakistan? Do we, all of us, live and breathe in the shade of khaki spooks, listening in, and following, every individual who has an opinion and the courage to express it? Does the shadow State of the ISI, really exist outside the gates of law? And any time, that this shadow State is challenged or questioned, will the democratic government, as well as the Constitutionally sworn Army come to its defence?

And in case that is not true: is Hamid Mir, and GEO, undermining our national security by maligning the patriotic ISI? Should they be punished for their irresponsible (criminal?) conduct? Should we boycott GEO, and ostracize all those who stand with Hamid Mir in this hour? Has a misconceived notion of freedom of speech and press been taken too far, this time, by Mir and his associates at GEO, to the point that it has split atoms with national interest? In a world that is ablaze with ongoing intelligence wars, is critiquing the ISI (tarnishing its domestic as well as international image) analogous to tainting our national credibility? Are certain segments of our democratic paradigm, too sacred to be critiqued? Does the Constitutionally protected empire of our freedoms – yours, mine, and Hamid Mir’s – extend only to the point that it does not come toe to toe with the interests of the Army, or self-defined contempt of the Court? Is free and independent media welcomed, even celebrated, only so long as it makes (unsubstantiated) accusations against the politicians, or bureaucracy? Is the same media deemed an enemy of the State, the moment it flashes the photograph of DG ISI or (as was the case in the past) the revered son of celebrated judge?

Irrespective of how one answers these questions, two incontestable conclusions cannot be evaded: First, that regardless of whether Hamid Mir’s allegations are correct, and whether the ISI did or did not have a role to play in the attack, no one can deny that the ISI has both the ability, and the track record, to monitor and threaten citizens who dare to question their unfettered fiefdom. And second, that we, as a democratic State, have created a certain strata within our society, which can neither be critiqued, nor questioned, by either the citizens or the media.

In terms of the first, it is tough to imagine that the ISI conducted the attack on Hamid Mir. If for no other reason, then simply for the fact that the ISI does not

miss its target. Mir’s survival bears testament to the conclusion that the attack was planned and executed by an outfit that is far less professional. But that is not the point. The very idea that there is even suspicion, in at least some fraction of our population, that the ISI could be involved in the episode, is a damning judgment on the intelligence agency. If we can even entertain the premise that the ISI has or can carry out attacks on our own citizens (even if they had nothing to do with Hamid Mir), without any recourse to due process of law, we can no longer fool ourselves about living in a country where the embrace of our Constitution protects us from the excesses of State agencies. Conceding this idea, the only question that is then left to be answered, is whether or not the finger prints of ISI can be found on the bullets that hit Hamid Mir, or the bruises on Saleem Shehzad’s body.

In regards to the second, our nation of news channels and talk shows, on a daily basis watches and enjoys the sensational drama of panelists and anchors maligning elected politicians, and their compliant bureaucracy. The media houses, as a solemn national duty, made a spectacle of the allegations (not conviction) against the ‘Mister 10%’ Zardari or ‘Raja Rental’. We celebrated the power of our airwaves as Yousuf Raza Gillani was dragged through a media trial. Every day, we berate individual bureaucrats and private businessmen for misusing their authority or power. But each one of us, feel compelled to bite our tongue, or look over our shoulders, after commenting upon the conduct of our Judges and our Generals. All such critique is preluded with statements of “While we respect the institution a great deal, but with tremendous apology…”. And in so doing, we have made peace with the fact that our freedom of speech, or that of press, is subservient to the khaki uniform and the black robes. A public statement, an op-ed piece, or a news report, shall be hailed as an act of courage, if

expressed against the ‘lesser’ citizens, and admonished as heresy if made against the supra class.

Our democracy, and the citizenry, shares checkered history with the ISI. Somewhere between toppling an elected government in the Mehran Bank scandal (Asghar Khan case), lack of knowledge about the whereabouts of Osama Bin Laden, and international controversy in Memo-gate, the civilian democracy and the ISI have grown suspicious of one another. And as a result, neither deems the other a dependable ally, when viewed through the prism of law or national interest. In this background, more discussion, elaborate coverage, and unfettered commentary on the conduct of the civilians as well as the ISI, is the only way that this insurmountable gulf will be bridged.

Instead of silencing Hamid Mir (who himself has a questionable journalistic record, and alleged links with intelligence agencies), and boycotting GEO, it is time to allow them to bring their facts and allegations to light, in order to demonstrate, once and for all, whether the ISI or any other Intelligence Agency, had a role to play in the incident. Only in this way, can we hope to regain confidence in each other, and in the process, hem the rupture in our national fabric.

The writer is a lawyer based in Lahore. He has a Masters in Constitutional Law from Harvard Law School.

Tweets at:@Ch_SaadRasool