Once again, it’s a ‘whodunit’ that evokes a strong feeling of déjà vu for Pakistan watchers due to three reasons. One, the victim is a Pakistani journalist known to be critical of the military [an unhealthy combination in Pakistan]. Two, he was forewarned. Last September, the Cybercrime Wing of Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency filed a case against him for “defaming” the Pakistan army, so that he would mend his ways but he didn’t. Lastly, on May 25, three “unidentified men” came calling announced and after accusing him of receiving funds from foreigners and asking him to furnish their identities, bound, gagged and beat him black and blue, warning him to desist from reporting against Pakistan army’s intelligence agency, the Inter Services Intelligence [ISI].
The person being talked about is a relatively unknown, small-time digital media journalist Asad Ali Toor who works as producer of ‘Aaj TV’ and hosts a YouTube channel on current affairs. The aforesaid incident occurred in a residential area of Pakistan’s capital city when it was bustling with people. While recounting his ordeal in a telephone interview to New York based Committee to Protect Journalists [CPJ], Toor revealed that one of his attackers had acknowledged being a member of ISI. However, what makes the déjà vu feeling even stronger is Pakistan’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting giving ISI a clean chit and portraying this incident to be an “organised conspiracy.”
Objective reporting is undoubtedly a dangerous job because at times media persons do end up antagonising certain groups and individuals, especially those who they expose for their unlawful activities. Hence, journalists do run risk of physical harm from lumpen elements and instances of them being attacked by or at the behest of enraged individuals or groups is a common occurrence the world over. Since the aim of subjecting ‘defiant’ scribes to physical abuse is to dissuade them from future reporting on certain issues, the attackers invariably specifically spell out the same to the victim so that their message is loud and clear- not only to the individual concerned but to the entire media.
Yet, Toor’s revelation that one of his attackers admitted being from ISI and his assailants warning him not to carry negative news about Pakistan army or ISI, the same has been outrightly rejected by Islamabad, while Rawalpindi as [like always] conveniently distanced itself from this incident! Instead, the official explanation issued by Pakistan’s Ministry of Information and Broadcastingreads, “Such continued allegations against ISI show that the ISI is being a target of the fifth-generation war under an organised conspiracy.” The most striking thing about this statement is an official acceptance of “continued allegations [of physically abusing media persons] against ISI.” Unfortunately, Islamabad’s perfunctory reasoning raises more questions rather than providing any answers.
If it is indeed an “organised conspiracy,” then how come that despite the alarmingly frequency of scribes being roughed up in Pakistan, the ISI [which prides itself as the world’s topmost intelligence agency], hasn’t been able to apprehend even a single ‘conspirator’ masquerading as an ISI sleuth and brutalising scribes every now and then to malign it, even after all these years? In any case, the ‘conspiracy’ theory isn’t very convincing since attacks against journos in Pakistan are extremely well planned, meticulously coordinated and professionally executed- undisputable signs that indicate that the perpetrators have an extensive organisational setup as well as immunity from the law.
For example, in January 2017, four individuals [one poet and academic named Salman Haider, as well as three bloggers Waqas Goraya, Aasim Saeed, and Ahmad Raza Naseer], who were living in different cities and were critical of Pakistan army and ISI suddenly went missing within a period of just 96 hours. Even Human Rights Watch [HRW] in its report on this incident has mentioned that “Their near simultaneous disappearance and the government’s shutting down of their websites and blogs raises grave concerns of government [read ISI’s] involvement.” After their release none of the abductees disclosed as to who had disappeared them or why but all of them stopped blogging and there are no prizes for guessing ‘why’!
A few more examples that give a creepy feeling down the spine:
- In September 2010, journalist Umar Cheema was abducted by a dozen men in military fatigues when he was returning home. Taken to a house in the outskirts of the city, he was severely beaten with a leather strap and metal rods as well as photographed while being sexually humiliated. Umar was told that “This is the consequence of writing against the government,” and that “You are being punished for your reporting.” He was finally released several hours later in a village more than a hundred miles from the city, with the warning that “If you tell the media about this, you’ll be abducted again—and won’t ever be returned. And your nude pictures will be put on YouTube.”
- In January 2018, award winning journalist Taha Siddiqui who is critical of Pakistan army was abducted in broad daylight while travelling on a Highway in Rawalpindi. He briefly managed to free himself and hailed a passing by military vehicle for help. Recounting his ordeal, he said, “I yelled and screamed at them [occupants of the army vehicle] to help me because I was being kidnapped, but a heavy-looking guy who was well dressed told the military vehicle to move forth.” Now, if the abductors were agents trying to malign the army and ISI, then why didn’t the army personnel in the passing by vehicle apprehend them? Their inaction unambiguously vindicates Siddiqui’s inference that his abductors and those in the military vehicle “seemed to know each other.”
- In June 2018, Pakistani journalist and human rights activist, Gul Bukhari, who is also critical of Pakistan army was travelling through the high security Lahore cantonment area in her chauffer driven car when she was waylaid and abducted. Lahore cantonment, as everyone knows, is a virtual fortress with extremely strict access and exit control. So, if this kidnapping was part of “the fifth-generation war under an organised conspiracy” against ISI, then the Pakistan army has a lot of explaining to do as how could the so-called ‘conspirators’ breach the heavy security cordon of Lahore cantonment by entering unnoticed and whisking away Bukhari without being detected? Though Bukhari didn’t identify her abductors, but by saying “everyone seems to know who my abductors were” she’s left little to imagination!
- In July last year, freelance journalist Matiullah Jan was abducted in broad daylight from outside a school in Islamabad where he had gone to drop his wife. The entire incident, which was captured on the school’s CCTV, showed his car being surrounded by a number of vehicles including [some with police markings and an ambulance] and men [both in civil dress as well as black uniforms] whisking him away.
Interestingly, Jan’s abduction came a day before he was to appear in court on contempt charges for having tweeted Islamabad High Court judge Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui’s speech in which the judge had openly accused ISI of manipulating the judicial process by “fixing benches” and lamenting that independence of judiciary had been compromised as it had been taken over by “those with guns [Pakistan army].” This wasn’t Jan’s first run-in with the army and like YouTuber Toor, he was an ‘unrepentant’ critic of Pakistan army. In 2018, he was labelled as an “anti-state” person by the army since he termed a crackdown on media outlets as “a systematic attempt by the military and its intelligence agency to assert control with a facade of a democratically elected government.”
Islamabad wants the world to believe that the ‘third-degree’ treatment being so frequently meted out to scribes who are critical of the army is actually part of a “organised conspiracy” to wage “a fifth-generation war” against ISI. However, if the army and ISI have nothing to do with the civil media, then in Jun 2018, why did the then Director General [DG] of Pakistan army’s media wing Inter Services Public Relations [ISPR] Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor, issue a not-so-veiled threat to journalists during a media interaction by saying, “We have the capability to monitor it [social media].” If Pakistan army isn’t invading privacy of civilian citizens by snooping into their social media accounts, then why did DGISPR display the slide a social media account [mercifully, minus the holder’s picture] and say, “Look who retweeted this account, and we know who these people are…We understand the whole network”?
Lastly, during last week’s media protest against brutalisation of Youtuber Toor, senior journalist and Geo TV anchor Hamid Mir [who himself is a victim of a murderous assault that has all tell-tale signs of an ISI ‘hit job’], said, “If you’re breaking into our homes to assault us, well, we cannot enter your homes as you have tanks and guns, but we can make things public, things from inside your homes.” On Monday, he surprised everyone by tweeting that he been told to proceed on leave by his employers and no reasons had been assigned for this unusual and sudden decision. So, is Rawalpindi ‘punishing’ Mir [ Geo TV’s primetime ‘Capital Talk’ show anchor] by making sure that he is taken ‘off air’ for having exposed the ISI’s role in brutalising media persons?
Surely, this diktat can’t part of “an organised conspiracy” to wage “a fifth-generation war” against ISI.