Tuesday’s broad daylight abduction of freelance journalist Matiullah Jan from outside a school in Islamabad has validated Pakistan’s media watchdog Freedom Network’s observation in its ‘Pakistan Press Freedom Report 2019-20 (‘Murders, Harassment and Assault: The Tough Wages of Journalism in Pakistan- May 2019-April 2020’) that the federal capital is the “riskiest” area in Pakistan for media persons. Like all other journalists who have been abducted in the past, Jan too had a history of riling the establishment, particularly the military and its notorious spy agency, Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). So, while his abduction did come as big surprise, but it wasn’t something entirely unexpected.
Jan was due to appear in court next week on contempt charges for having tweeted Islamabad High Court judge Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui controversial speech delivered at the Rawalpindi District Bar Association in which he had openly accused ISI of complicity in manipulating the judicial process by ‘fixing benches’ and lamenting that independence of judiciary had been compromised since it had been taken over by “those with guns”. But this isn’t the first time Jan had a run-in with the military- in 2018, he was designated “anti-state” by the military for condemning the 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.”
Pakistan army (particularly the ISI) doesn’t have any stomach for criticism, and given its elephantine memory, those who incur the military’s wrath can never afford to sleep easy. It’s no secret that there are many Pakistani scribes like Hayatullah Khan, Saleem Shahzad and Sajid Hussain who paid with their lives for having antagonised the military or ISI by exposing its gross human rights violations in Balochistan and former Federally Administered Tribal Areas. But despite abundant evidence being available, no military personnel or intelligence officials have ever been brought to book for the extra-judicial killing or abduction of journalists.
Even those journalists who have been lucky enough to ‘survive’ abductions and have recounted their harrowing experiences indicting the ISI have got no justice from the courts and this gives credence to Justice Siddiqui’s claim of ISI ‘fixing benches’! For example, in his statement after an assassination attempt in 2014, Geo TV anchor Hamid Mir blamed ISI, but nothing happened even though fellow journalist Ansar Abasi went on record to reveal that ISI was extremely annoyed by Mir’s reportage about enforced disappearances of civilians in Balochistan and the army’s ‘kill and dump’ policy there.
It has also transpired that Mir had not only confided to his friends and colleagues regarding the apprehension of being targeted by ISI, but had also made a video of his testimony that was to be made public in the eventuality of his unnatural death. However, even though he revealed that intelligence officials had paid him a visit and attempted to intimidate him by saying that his name existed on a ‘hit list’ recovered from terrorists. Incidentally, this ‘hit list’ bluff bears a striking similarity with what the ISI had told journalist Saleem Shahzad three years earlier, few months before his abduction and murder.
The abduction of Gul Bukhari, 52, a British-Pakistani woman journalist in 2018 also had an uncanny likeliness to Saleem Shahzad’s abduction seven years earlier, in that just like him, she too was abducted while enroute toa TV studio where she was to appear in a show. It was Ms Bukhari’s strong criticism of Pakistan army’s dubious role in politics and its efforts to manipulate elections that angered Rawalpindi. Her release just after four hours wasn’t an act of chivalry on the part of her abductors – it was simply because of (in Ms Bukhari’s own words) “The pressure the entire world brought down immediately, within minutes and hours of the crime, was perhaps a unique factor in my early release.”
Ms Bukhari has been cryptic on the issue of her abductors’ identity. But her hint that “everyone seems to know who my abductors were” and the fact that she was abducted while travelling through Lahore cantonment’s high security zone does point a finger directly at the ISI. Furthermore, by confiding in his colleagues that while her abductors were men in plainclothes, those standing guard throughout the entire proceedings were wearing army uniforms, Ms Bukhari’s driver has left nothing to imagination! Interestingly, her abduction came just one day after the then DGISPR Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor had warned against the rising trend of “anti-state, anti-Pakistan, anti-army, anti-forces” activities and boasted that the army has “the capability to monitor social media as to who is doing what.” Was this just a coincidence? No, says Ms Bukhari who does believe that her abduction was meant to serve as a message that “nobody is untouchable, no one is immune.”
Daniel Pearl Journalism Fellowship winner of 2007, Umar Cheema was just 32 years old in 2010 when he was abducted by a dozen men in commando fatigues at 3 AM in Islamabad when he was returning home. Taken to a house in the outskirts of the city, Cheema was subjected to beaten with a leather strap and metal rods as well as photographed while being sexually humiliated. He was told “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.”
Cheema’s only fault was that despite being warned by ISI (through his colleagues) that it was ‘unhappy’ with his work, he continued to criticise the army and ISI for being law unto themselves and being accountable to no one. But though Cheema decided not to keep quiet and recounted his ordeal, he still suffers from post-traumatic stress and admits that “You are haunted by fear all the time. I would wake up at midnight (thinking) somebody was beating at my back. Sometimes if there is a dog barking outside, I would be thinking somebody was scaling up the wall to get into my home and pick me up.” Cheema personifies the typical brave Pakistani journalist trying to uphold the ethics of journalism by subduing well-founded fears and apprehensions concerning personal safety in an environment controlled by the military that unfortunately has ‘zero-tolerance’ for criticism even when it is constructive.
Matiullah Jan’s safe return should have been a good reason for the journalist fraternity to rejoice. But there won’t be any celebrations, simply because this apparent act of madness is actually a grim reminder of the existence of a far bigger and sinister ‘method’ of using threat of bodily harm being rampantly used by the military and intelligence agencies in Pakistan to intimidate the media. Ms Bukhari rightly pointed out that being an “audacious” and “visible” act, abductions ensure that “If there was a sense of fear, now it is complete. Now there is not just sense of fear, it’s panic.”
Cheema too describes the after-effects of his abduction saying, “You don’t want to trust anybody. You feel suspicious of everybody. Anybody staring at you – you realise he may be after you… You feel such loneliness… When I came home, I would realize my family is already scared. How could I share these things with them? When I sat alone, I was thinking about my crisis and how dear it could cost – if something happened to me, what would be the consequences for my family?”
This is exactly what ISI wants and as such, come what may, in Pakistan, abductions of journalists who refuse to toe the army’s line will continue as hitherto fore.
Tailpiece: The abysmal state of media independence in Pakistan with specific reference to safety of journalists has even shocked international media watchdog Reporters without Borders (RSF). In a scathing indictment in its 2020 report titled ‘Under the military establishment’s thumb’, RSF has noted that “Pakistani media, which has a long tradition of being very lively, has become a priority target for the country’s “deep state,” a euphemism for the constant manoeuvring by the military and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the main military intelligence agency, to subjugate the civilian executive.”
Whereas there may be nothing new in what RSF has stated, but it’s observation that “The influence of this military “establishment,” which cannot stand independent journalism, has increased dramatically since Imran Khan became prime minister in July 2018,” does convey the sinister but candid message- there’s no place for upright journalists in Imran Khan’s “naya” (new) Pakistan.