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For Some Pakistani Media, Bin Laden A 'Martyr'

One Pakistani TV channel described the U.S. killing of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden as an assault on Pakistani sovereignty.
One Pakistani TV channel described the U.S. killing of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden as an assault on Pakistani sovereignty.
The world is asking how Osama bin Laden, once the FBI's most-wanted man, was able to hide in a Pakistani garrison town without the country's government knowing his whereabouts.

Bin Laden was living in a compound just a few hundred meters from the country's leading military academy for years before U.S. Special Operations Forces killed him on May 2. But despite the massive evidence suggesting Pakistani complicity in his hiding, much of the country's media -- particularly the Urdu-language press -- has been trying to spin the news.

The willingness of the Pakistani government to go after terrorists has long been debated. Recently Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in an interview that Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) has relations with Al-Qaeda's Afghan ally, the Haqqani group, located in North Waziristan -- an area in which Pakistan has repeatedly denied conducting military operations.

The mistrust was echoed by U.S. President Barack Obama's counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, at a recent press conference. He said that the United States didn't share information about the operation with anyone, including Pakistan.

Instead of examining this question and the deep mistrust between supposedly strong allies in the war on terror, some Pakistani media outlets have been trying to defend the image of the army and intelligence services, suggesting that Pakistan knew about the operation and shared significant information with the United States. They have suggested that the Pakistan military should also be given credit for catching the big fish.

Despite global media running the headlines "Osama confirmed dead" and Al-Qaeda's Yemen branch confirming that their leader is no more, some Pakistani media anchors did not initially accept the news, spending hours questioning the validity of the report. In a discussion on a well-known Pakistani talk show, security analyst Zaid Hamid -- who has openly shown his support for jihadi organizations and is rabidly anti-American -- said that bin Laden was killed long ago and that the recent news was just a publicity stunt for Obama's 2012 election campaign.

Bin Laden 'Shaheed'

The irony is that instead of asking the question, "what was bin Laden doing in a million-dollar house in the same neighborhood as the Pakistani Army and ISI," TV anchors were quick to suggest that the man killed was not even the Al-Qaeda leader. As television channels around the world showed the happy faces of thousands of people from the United States to Kenya celebrating the news of the death of Al-Qaeda's No. 1, Pakistani anchors seemed undecided about how to describe bin Laden. Should they go with "shaheed" (martyr) or should they, in an unusual move, simply follow the professional way and state the facts -- bin Laden was killed?

Discussing the event on one of Pakistan's prominent channels, anchor Hamid Mir called Osama bin Laden "shaheed." Following Mir's sympathetic approach toward bin Laden, Ansar Abbasi, a well-known journalist and columnist in Pakistan, defended bin Laden, saying that "we only believe Osama was a terrorist because America told us so."

The fact that bin Laden was killed not in a cave in Afghanistan but in a huge compound in Abbottabad -- just a couple of hours away from the capital, Islamabad -- raised many eyebrows. Talking to journalists at the White House, Brennan said: "People have been referring to this as hiding in plain sight. We are looking at how he was able to hide out there for so long.... I think it's inconceivable that bin Laden did not have a support system in the country [Pakistan] that allowed him to remain there for an extended period of time."

However, some Pakistani media personalities gave the operation another spin and dubbed it an "action against Pakistani sovereignty." Famous for their dramatization, a Pakistani TV channel labeled bin Laden's killing: "Abbottabad Operation: The Funeral of Our Sovereignty."

The action-against-Pakistani-sovereignty card is one that Pakistan has been playing for quite a long time. It gets more heated with every drone attack against Al-Qaeda and Taliban terrorists in Waziristan and elsewhere on the border with Afghanistan. To inflame the discussion, TV channels have brought on numerous religious politicians to show their sympathy for bin Laden and condemn the United States for taking him out.

It is unfortunate that the Pakistani media plays down the presence of Al-Qaeda's foreign fighters in Pakistan, who have resided there since the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Pakistani journalists rarely ask why it is that nearly every single one of the world's most-wanted terrorists is harbored in Pakistan. Pakistanis will have a hard time finding answers to these questions watching their televisions.

Bashir Ahmad Gwakh is a broadcaster with RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL