LONDON -- For a time, Pakistan's journalists were seen as messy champions of democracy: brave if sometimes flawed truth-tellers who helped oust the military ruler Gen. Pervez Musharraf and held up a critical mirror to their tempestuous country.
But a vicious gun attack last weekend on Hamid Mir, the country's most famous television newscaster, seems to have changed everything, setting off a divisive media battle in which the truth itself has become bitterly contested.
At issue are claims aired by Geo News, Mr. Mir's employer and the largest station, that the military's powerful spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, was behind the April 19 attack in which Mr. Mir was shot six times as he traveled to a Karachi television studio.
Even staunch ISI critics thought the station's personalized attacks, which singled out the ISI spy chief as the culprit, were hasty and premature, especially at a time when Islamist militants were also targeting reporters.
But rival stations took the controversy a step further, using it to cudgel Geo and question Mr. Mir's motives -- one station even suggested he engineered the shooting as a publicity stunt -- at a time when the ISI was formally trying to have Geo shut down for good.
The vituperative exchanges have exposed troubling aspects of Pakistan's oft-lauded media revolution: Along with the military's concerted campaign to muzzle the press is the heavy hand of querulous media barons who, driven by commercial concerns and personal grudges, may be endangering the sector they helped create.
"The way this has played out is extremely disturbing," said Zaffar Abbas, editor of Dawn newspaper, one of the few media outlets that have stayed out of the dispute. "I've never seen the media like this, really going after one other. If better sense doesn't prevail, whatever we have earned in press freedom will be lost."
The stakes are high on all sides. Since 2007, when television coverage played a key role in fanning the street protests that led to the ouster of Mr. Musharraf, the news media has grown into a powerful factor in Pakistani society. Television news has widened public debate and exposed abuses, but it has faced sharp criticism for shoddy reporting and for giving a platform to Islamist extremists.
The exploding market has also turned prime-time talk show hosts like Mr. Mir into powerful figures, and made fortunes for a handful of newly minted media tycoons.
For reporters, however, it has been a perilous time: Some 34 journalists have died in the line of duty since democracy was restored in 2008, said Mustafa Qadri of Amnesty International, whose report on media freedom is due to be published Wednesday.
"It is supremely dangerous to be a reporter in Pakistan," he said. The military, in particular, has squirmed under the media's relentless scrutiny. Tensions have been bubbling for some time between the Jang Group, Geo's owner and the country's largest media conglomerate, and the ISI. Jang is owned by Mir Shakil ur-Rehman, a reclusive editor who lives with his two wives in Dubai.
The ISI leadership, stung by the unusually open challenge, has reacted angrily. On Tuesday, the military leadership sought to have Geo shut down and its editors prosecuted for "a libelous and scandalous" campaign that it said violated the country's media law.
On Thursday, viewers in major cities found that Geo had disappeared from its usual position on their cable television sets. And on Friday, posters appeared across central Islamabad that praised the ISI and carried glossy photos of the spy chief, Gen.Zaheer ul-Islam, a first in a country where many citizens fear to say the letters ISI out loud.