Pakistani news presenter accused of link to Taliban hostage’s murder
Leaked audio tape purportedly reveals phone conversation between Hamid Mir and a Taliban spokesman about hostage
Declan Walsh in Lahore
Monday 17 May 2010 19.50 BST
Pakistan’s pugnacious media world was plunged into controversy today when a leaked audio tape apparently linked its most popular television presenter with the execution of a Taliban hostage.
The tape purports to be a recording of a phone conversation between the journalist, Hamid Mir, and a Taliban spokesman about the fate of Khalid Khawaja, a former intelligence agent being held by the Taliban.
In the tape Mir describes Khawaja as a CIA collaborator, questions his Islamic credentials, and accuses him of playing a treacherous role in the 2007 Red Mosque siege in which more than 100 people, including the chief cleric, were killed. When the abductor asks the journalist whether Khawaja should be released, he urges him to further interrogate him.
Last month Khawaja’s bullet-pocked body was found on a roadside in Waziristan with a warning note to other “American spies”.
As debate about the tape swirled in media circles, Mir issued a strenuous denial saying the tape had been fabricated by his enemies in government to destroy his reputation and silence him.
“I never said these things to these people. This is a concocted tape,” he told the Guardian. “They took my voice, sampled it and manufactured this conspiracy against me.”
But several senior journalists said the tape sounded authentic and one called on the government to investigate further. “There are serious allegations to be answered,” said Rashed Rahman, editor of the English-language Daily Times newspaper. “If this tape turns out to be genuine, it suggests a journalist instigated the murder of a kidnapee. A line must be drawn somewhere.”
The Taliban added to the controversy by issuing a statement that denied the tape was real but, confusingly, threatened the state telephone company for having taped the conversation.
The acrid arguments have thrown Pakistan’s normally tight-knit media community into a spin as some of the country’s most contentious issues – militancy, politics and the role of the powerful, overwhelmingly rightwing media – have come into focus around the death of Khawaja, a controversial figure in his own right.
Khawaja, a former Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) agent and chief co-ordinator of a human rights group, who claimed to have met Osama bin Laden, travelled to the tribal belt in March with Sultan Amir Tarar, another former ISI agent, and Asad Qureshi, a documentary filmmaker. Khawaja had promised the journalist an interview with Hakimullah Mehsud, the Taliban leader who was almost killed in a CIA drone strike in northwestern Pakistan in January.
However, the three men were kidnapped, and the Taliban demanded money and prisoners in return for their freedom.
On 24 April the Taliban issued a video showing a strained-looking Khawaja admitting to having worked for the CIA and betrayed the Red Mosque clerics.
A week later, after his execution, Mir wrote a detailed account of Khawaja’s life. He recycled the allegations against the former ISI agent, attributing them to militant sources.
Mir has vowed to take his critics to court, but for now the controversy is playing out on the pages of the Pakistani press. Mir said the recording had been doctored by the Federal Investigation Agency, a security agency that has been frequently attacked by the Taliban.
But he said the slurs had been politically orchestrated by the Punjab governor, Salman Taseer, and Pakistan’s ambassador to the US, Husain Haqqani, who, he said, had released the tape on a blog.
“This blog has a personal grudge against me and it is being operated from Washington by our ambassador, Husain Haqqani,” he said.
Haqqani said: “We do not dignify conspiracy theories with comment.” He denied any role in the tape recording.
Some Pakistani television channels have carried the allegations but others have avoided it. ”
“For too long we have protected our own,” said Rahman. “Now we have to speak out.” Mir said he was instituting legal proceedings against the Daily Times.
Khalid Khawaja’s wife declined to comment. “I don’t want to say anything,” she said. “This is a very, very dirty conspiracy and I don’t want to indulge in it.”