Pakistan is the most dreaded place for journalists. The pronouncement has been made. Yet a Pakistani reporter, and a person with an insider view of the al Qaeda and Taliban, Syed Saleem Shahzad’s brutal killing was not the top news on the websites of three prominent dailies in the country. The internet allows you to update stories. Since they have carried the news, it cannot be fear.
The media in Pakistan revels in the opinionated views of a handful that appear as knights to save Pakistan, to expose its warts and add to the jingoism of the failed state. Some call it a police state. A police state has order and the level of shackling is complete, except perhaps for underground movements.
Shahzad had been taken in by the Taliban in 2006 on suspicion of being a spy; he was released after seven days. He knew the perils of his profession and had also registered his fears with Human Rights Watch of Pakistan. He disappeared on Sunday, May 29. A police complaint was registered by his family. Did any human rights organisation do anything instead of being “disturbed” that a state agency might be involved? The media does have considerable influence and can approach government functionaries directly or interview them. Was any of that done? He had left that evening to attend a talk show on a television channel. Did the channel keep flashing the news about his disappearance?
Two days later, on Tuesday May 31, his body was found in Sarai Alamgir, a little over an hour’s drive from the capital Islamabad, with ruptured face and ruptured ribs and a gun shot in the stomach. Curiously, his car was found earlier about 10 kms away with his ID card. The Express Tribune reports, “The Mandi Bahauddin police had conducted a post-mortem on a body fished out from a canal near Head Rasul, which ultimately turned out to be Shahzad’s, before handing it over to Edhi for temporary burial. ‘From the description given by the Mandi police and the recovery of his ID card, Islamabad police were certain it was Shahzad’s body. However, the police wanted his family to confirm his identity,’ said an Islamabad police official.”
This is strange that the local police picks up a body, conducts a post-mortem that reveals torture, and hands it to a NGO that goes ahead and buries it. No questions asked. Later, the Islamabad cops and the local ones realise the identity matches that of Shahzad, which his papers would have shown anyway. His family had to seek permission to exhume his body to confirm his identity. How can an unidentified person be temporarily buried? There are mortuaries in hospitals and the police ought to have alerted the intelligence agencies.
The Pakistani media will in the coming days raise questions about the ISI, which really is the state of Pakistan today, as in what comprises the nation-state. To extricate the ISI from the other arms of Pakistani polity is to merely play a game of chess and move the pawns about. The chess board remains the same.
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Shahzad’s murder, instead of posing queries about the nature of reportage and its consequences, has resulted in self-pity. Behind the haze of smoke and from the perch of the towering Babel, many a potential martyr will be born. The Dawn had a feature story that had this amazing sentence, “And as the state of Pakistan allied itself optically with the US in the war on terrorism, it marked out the military, civil society and the media as enemies of al Qaeda and its fighting forces in Pakistan represented by the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).”
None of these three have anything in common. If anything, Shahzad’s report in Asia Times on the militant attack on the naval base at PNS Mehran, where security forces fought for 15 hours, reveals that a certain stripe of militancy is within the armed forces.
There are reports that say the immediate impetus for his killing was this expose on the infiltration of al Qaeda in the navy. Apparently, the militant group wanted those who were detained to be released. Talks failed. Therefore, this retaliation. It begs the question as to how and why the Pakistani forces can have discussions with a terrorist outfit at all. The members were from the lower cadre and except for creating some trouble would not have access to confidential information.
Shahzad elucidated the position when he quoted a senior navy official who said: “Islamic sentiments are common in the armed forces. We never felt threatened by that. All armed forces around the world, whether American, British or Indian, take some inspiration from religion to motivate their cadre against the enemy. Pakistan came into existence on the two-nation theory that Hindus and Muslims are two separate nations and therefore no one can separate Islam and Islamic sentiment from the armed forces of Pakistan. Nonetheless, we observed an uneasy grouping on different naval bases in Karachi. While nobody can obstruct armed forces personnel for rendering religious rituals or studying Islam, the grouping [we observed] was against the discipline of the armed forces. That was the beginning of an intelligence operation in the navy to check for unscrupulous activities.”
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Pakistan’s armed forces have regional affiliations. However, due to the increasing infiltration of the Taliban in the cities, its members inside the forces did get a boost after being subservient for long to the largely Punjabi cadre. The discipline of the army in Pakistan is nothing to crow about ? it is hardly cohesive and besides taking its orders from its officers who might decide to take over, it also has to listen to the democratic government, and the two have not as uneasy a relationship as might appear. History tells us that it has been democratic leaders who have been crucial to the coups or to wrest power for themselves soon after a period of co-existence.
A point that needs to be emphasised here, even if it has been repeated, is that extremist forces cause havoc within. The deeper question is that none of these groups has shown any inclination to take over and rule Pakistan, although both its democratic movements and its military dictatorships have had their share of leaving several people dead in their trail. So, what do they get by creating chaos in a chaotic state? Is this to tell the government that they are anti-US? But so is much of civil society. No sensible person wants their country to be run over roughshod by NATO troops.
Isn’t there a possibility that these forces that were scattered and had no single agenda or ideology are themselves pawns, however dangerous they might be? Pakistan probably suffers from the ‘cry wolf’ syndrome, or perhaps it has a big bad wolf that arranges its fearful walk through the forest to act as a cover-up.
The Pakistani media for the most part toes the western line. It creates these horribly demon-like creatures, projecting this terrible pictorial evidence of shame over lagging behind. Shahzad’s photographs reveal a man who would not attempt such superficial westernised ideas even if he took on the terrorists. He had access to them and interviewed them.
In effect, his last reports were what the government was happy to flaunt ? its image of fighting the militants. The al Qaeda members were also probably pleased to announce to the people that they had infiltrated the naval station. If they wanted to send a message through Shahzad’s killing, then all they have managed is to do away with a man who was giving honest reportage. It has given the rest the opportunity to wonder about how safe journalists are. It is a fact that journalists are killed, but the terrorists target mosques, shrines, public places and a few other religious places. The numbers of these dead need to be counted, too.
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Let us go through the list provided by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Here are the 20 Deadliest Countries for the media and the figures of the dead from 1992:
1. Iraq: 149
2. Philippines: 71
3. Algeria: 60
4. Russia: 52
5. Colombia: 43
6. Pakistan: 36
7. Somalia: 34
8. India: 27
9. Mexico: 25
10. Afghanistan: 22
11. Turkey: 20
12. Bosnia: 19
13. Sri Lanka: 18
14. Rwanda: 17
15. Tajikistan: 17
16. Brazil: 17
17. Sierra Leone: 16
18. Bangladesh: 12
19. Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory: 10
20. Angola: 10
87 per cent are local correspondents and the rest foreign. What is even more revealing are the beats covered by those who have been victims: 5 % – Business, 21% – Corruption, 14% – Crime, 10% – Culture, 14% – Human Rights, 39% – Politics, 3% – Sports, 34% – War. Political killings exceed those in war and corruption exposes account for more deaths than human rights.
Are the news and the theories behind the news more important than lives? Is the relaying of news a real threat when it does not alter anything? If news was sufficient, then there would be no need for WikiLeaks. There is also some sort of hierarchy in the media. When I had met Ardeshir Cowasjee for an interview to be used in my book, mainly because he is openly critical of the establishment despite belonging to the old school, there was cynicism. One media person told me, “It is easy for a Cowasjee to get away with it. Who will question a rich Parsi?”
It was this rich Parsi who was put in prison by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, whose party he had joined, because he knew too much. The role of a political cell of the Inter Services Intelligence came from an elected ‘democratic’ government. As he said, “The genesis of the cell was Mr Bhutto’s idea. He created it in 1975 to suit his agenda. It turned out to be a bad move because he did not know when and how to stop it. No one has had the guts to curb the ISI till date.”
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In what might seem to be an unrelated discussion, following the theories behind Osama bin Laden’s death, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had recently given a “clean chit” to the ISI; it was retracted soon after. In the interim, in what appears to be a conveniently coordinated move, Pakistan’s former foreign secretary Shaharyar Khan, quite out of character, told an Indian television channel that there was a possibility of “low level” ISI functionaries being involved in the 26/11 Mumbai attacks. Right now David Coleman Headley is being investigated in the United States for his role and training with the Lashkar-e-Taiba and al Qaeda as well as his financing by one Major from the ISI. America is tying up the loose ends and the tacit see-saw attitude towards the ISI is because it needs Pakistan as an ally, ergo the ISI.
Part of the dichotomy is also evident in the attack on Mehran. It was from the Karachi port that the Mumbai attackers started on their sojourn. The security forces fighting the al Qaeda members who were in the navy would make the Pakistan establishment seem less culpable. It has been kept behind a cage where people are clawing and killing one another. The bigger beast, though, may not even be within.
Of course, the Pakistani liberal media in “looking into ourselves” is obsessively closed. It will spew out a few words against the fundamentalists and be lauded for it. The fact is that they are not dealing with a country but parts of it. What is the national mindset? I had asked this to Cowasjee and his reply will hurt the liberal media the most: “I cannot understand this mindset, but first of all you have to find the Pakistani mind.”
Farzana Versey is a Mumbai-based columnist and author of ‘A Journey Interrupted: Being Indian in Pakistan’. She can be reached at http://farzana-versey.blogspot.com/