Lt Gen Asim Bajwa must have been very happy and content when he completed his inordinately long four-and-a-half-year tenure as Director General (DG) of Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) – and he had good reasons to be proud. After all, he was the one who was able to achieve what many of his predecessors had tried very hard accomplish but couldn’t- the successful marginalisation of media freedom in Pakistan through the antiquated but time-tested carrot and stick method and even went on to euphemistically term it ‘self-censorship’.
So, the former DGISPR would have never ever imagined that a journalist named Ahmad Noorani, belonging to the very media fraternity that he had so effectively muzzled by using every trick in the book (or so he thought), would muster the courage to break the shackles of servitude by making public, details of a huge undisclosed business empire and the vast fortune amassed by Lt Gen Bajwa and his family members in USA and Pakistan, which obviously must have severely embarrassed him.
Since Noorani’s exposé (‘Bajwa family business empire grew in four countries in sync with Asim Bajwa’s rise in military’, Fact Focus, August 27, 2020) contains specific verifiable details and isn’t based on mere allegations or wild speculation, it’s a compelling piece that just cannot be ignored. Perhaps that’s why even though Lt Gen Bajwa has outrightly dismissed charges levelled by Noorani against him and his family members by calling it a “malicious propaganda story”, he still went ahead and tendered his resignation as Special Assistant on Information to Prime Minister, which was (expectedly) not accepted by Imran Khan!
During his tenure of DGISPR, Lt Gen Bajwa displayed exceptional skills when it when it came to playing mind games and as such, he’s most certainly aware that the public perceives resignations triggered by allegations are viewed as tacit acceptance of guilt. So, if what Noorani has written is indeed a “malicious propaganda story”, then why should Lt Gen Bajwa opt to resign instead of taking the author to court for defamation, and by proving him wrong, redeem his honour?
For Lt Gen Bajwa, Noorani’s revelation couldn’t have come at a more inopportune moment. At a time when an anti-corruption court in Pakistan has indicted both former President Asif Ali Zardari as well as ex-Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani for financial fraud in the Toshakhana graft case and declared Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif a proclaimed offender, the ambivalent response of the government is appalling. But being an army General in Pakistan has its own advantages, the biggest being that since you defend the country against India’s hegemonistic designs, you can do no wrong and so, those who accuse you of misconduct are either ‘Indian agents’ or ‘enemies of the state’.
Therefore, Khan’s rejection of Lt Gen Bajwa’s resignation even without even carrying any sort of inquiry is very much in line with the general expectation of the public in Pakistan. But at a time when the judiciary is going hammer and tongs after former members of the country’s legislatures accused of financial impropriety, one expected the judiciary to take suo moto cognisance of the investigative report filed by Noorani. However, while the judiciary took suo motu notice of a report of Pakistanis allegedly laundering money into Swiss accounts as well as the mega money laundering and fake account case involving Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) in 2018, it has unfortunately turned a blind eye to Noorani’s comprehensive report on Lt Gen Bajwa’s undisclosed wealth and underhand financial dealings.
The judiciary’s stoic silence on Noorani’s revelation suggests that there’s certainly a lot of truth in the admission made by Islamabad High judge Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui in 2018 that “Today the judiciary and media (in Pakistan) have come in the control of ‘Bandookwala’ (army)” due to which the “judiciary is not independent” and that “Their (ISI) personnel get benches formed at their will.” Even former CJP Asif Saeed Khosa hinted at army interference when he said, “When has the judiciary interfered in the matters of other institutions?” and then pleaded that “Army and intelligence agencies should not interfere in civilian matters.”
Former Pakistan army chief General Raheel Sharif, had tried to silence critics by going after dishonest officers within its ranks and in 2016, 11 officers (One Lt Gen, one Maj Gen, five Brigadiers, three Colonels and one Major were dismissed for corruption in 2016). Even current army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa waxes eloquence on the army setting an example of financial propriety, but in his namesake’s case, he apparently doesn’t intend walking his talk. Probably that’s why the Pakistan army which considers itself to be the only institution that’s genuinely committed towards ensuring wellbeing and prosperity of the nation is behaving as if nothing has happened!
While Pakistan army certainly has great camaraderie, but in addition to being ‘brother-in-arms’, its Generals share a far stronger bond- that of being ‘partners in crime’. Remember how former army chief Gen Pervez Musharraf himself admitted that Gen Raheel Sharif ” did help me (to leave Pakistan) and I am absolutely clear and grateful” and then spilled the beans on the military’s control over the judiciary by saying, “These courts work under pressure behind the scenes and then give decisions. The army chief had a role to play in releasing the pressure behind the scenes.” So, with former CJP Khosa saying “Let’s talk about how to make civilian supremacy a certainty” it’s evident that the legislature in Pakistan is a toothless tiger. Gen Musharraf’s admission that Gen Sharif extricated him from the clutches of law reveals the existence of an unholy brotherhood with Pakistan army as well indicates that the judiciary can be manipulated by the military. So, it would be futile to expect the legislature, judiciary or military to ensure fair play.
Ultimately, it’s only the fifth estate in Pakistan that seems to be doing its job religiously-even if it’s only a small segment and Noorani represents the brave set of scribes who deserve due appreciation for taking the humongous risk of reporting the truth even at the cost of antagonising the deep state. But what makes Noorani’s efforts even more commendable is the fact that he (like many others) has been a victim of brutalisation at the hands of those Donald Rumsfeld refers to as “know unknowns.” On October 27, 2017, Noorani’s car was intercepted in Pakistan’s capital city in broad daylight by six assailants on three motorcycles that had no number plates. He and his driver were mercilessly belaboured with iron rods and escaped death only due to timely intervention by some labourers working at a nearby construction site.
Since the attackers were never apprehended (as is ‘normal’ in such cases) the reasons for this unprovoked attack are not clear but since Noorani was covering the Panama Papers exposé when this near fatal attack took place and had reported that “The Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is in control of secretarial and administrative affairs of the Panama Joint Investigation Team (JIT),” one doesn’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to deduce who is behind this cowardly attack. A special report by CPJ titled ‘Acts of Intimidation: In Pakistan, journalists’ fear and censorship grow even as fatal violence declines,’ (Published September 12, 2018) aptly sums up the situation by observing, “The attack (on Noorani) followed a pattern all too familiar to Pakistan’s press. Nearly a year later, no arrests, just silence and an unmistakable message that those who report critically on sensitive subjects, including the military, the courts, or religion, should tread carefully.”
So, while Noorani concedes that “Doing all this is not without cost,” and ruminates how “Every choice has its price,” I’m sure that the pain of his travails falling on deaf ears and evoking no response from the powers that be, must be excruciating.
But then, that’s the price one pays for being a journalist in Pakistan.