A few months back I wrote a piece for ‘Surkhiyan’ on the state of the media titled ‘Silencing of the Media’. Before he completed his tenure Chief Justice, Justice Asif Saeed Khosa on more than one occasion, lamented over the sad plight of our media under duress. Ever since then the situation has worsened, more newspapers have closed down, there has been strict monitoring of the media by Pemra and working journalists are facing most difficult challenges in working and living conditions.
Various international organisations committed to media freedom and safety of journalists have been expressing their deepening concerns over the fact that in their evaluations Pakistan has come to be on top of the list of most dangerous places to work in the world. Working journalists’ organisations, trade unions and other allied professions are coming out in the open to charge the government of becoming a fascist state. Indeed, if we look at the conduct of the Punjab police and other law enforcers, the increasing number of missing persons, mysterious deaths including burning of women and raping of infant children force one to believe that life is being rendered short, brutish and nasty by design to castrate the masses. Notwithstanding the fact that in compliance with public anger and wide ranging demands from the people JITs and probe commissions are appointed—without much ado. They are all so designed to cover up crimes to enable culprits to remain unpunished.
The deplorable attempts at silencing the media and gagging of independent journalists became so alarming that just then British Foreign Office sponsored a Global Conference on media freedom. The then Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt sponsored it. However, its proceedings proved to be sour, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi was shouted down by a participant when he was refused answer to his question about the state of media by Pakistani Foreign Minister. One recalls that SMQ regretted his attendance in the conference.
Indeed, it was intriguing that instead of Information Minister who could have put up a plausible defence of the ongoing Gestapo-like blitzkrieg on media in Pakistan—SMQ chose to attend. I remember British award winning journalist Christina Lamb wrote in a piece in Sunday Times (July 7, 2018) on the eve of the conference as to how internationally renowned human rights crusader Asma Jehangir’s daughter/ anchorwoman Munizae Jahangir’s predicaments in the shrinking canvas of free expression and how programmes were muted.
Indeed, ‘self-censorship has become part of a growing crackdown on the media, which journalists say is the worst they have encountered since the 1980s military dictatorship.’ His critics say SMQ could have saved the country from becoming an international embarrassment by letting the Information Minister attend it rather than addressing an auditorium that had more empty chairs than participants. Pakistani and ethnic media too registered their anger at the Gestapo-like treatment back home of Pakistani media, they boycotted the conference. According to Christina Lamb, the ongoing media clampdown, started in the run-up to 2018 elections when it was clear that Imran Khan was deep state’s dark horse to be ‘selected’ as prime minister.
Later in an article Christina Lamb endorsed the perception about massive shrinking of media space since Khan took office as prime minister. She is absolutely right in concluding media organisations have been subjected to financial sanctions, disruptions to distribution networks and threats to journalists. Dawn’s outspoken journalist Cyril Almeida has been made to quit and seek pastures new for his living. Fearless journalists like Asma Shirazi, Hamid Mir, Abdul Mallick, Moitullah Jan, Gul Bano and few others are sticking to their guns and are living under constant threat of being picked up at mid night by powers that be who do not like their outspokenness. And indeed as Christina has rightly concluded-: “The pressures are the worst in decades and unprecedented for an era of civilian governments.”
Asma Jehangir’s equally brave daughter Munizee Jahangir rightly observes–“You have all the appearance and ingredients of a democracy but it’s not — we are living under martial law and these people have used Imran Khan as a prop.” Indeed, she is right in her observation that: “Their methods have become more sophisticated. It’s very clever. Media is self-censoring. If you want your channel to stay on air, you have to abide. We have three choices — quit, go along with them and don’t touch sensitive subjects or do our job properly and let them mute it.” More so, Khakis have emerged as most powerful media managers to engineering any news according to their own ends. Journalists like Taha Siddiqui known for critical reporting have been forced to evict home for life safety.
Months ago we had known more instances when interviews were blocked just when they started telecasting. Maryam Nawaz’s interview with Nadeem Malik was blocked up soon after it went on air. Earlier to it, Geo’s anchor Hamid Mir’s interview with the former president, Asif Ali Zardari, was taken off air and adverts for biscuits and mobile phones replaced it. Latest nail in the media freedom was the strangulation of the coverage of internationally renowned author Shuja Nawaz’s book ‘’ The Battle for Pakistan’’. According to columnist Azaz Syed’s review of the book, the book reveals about the plot to stage a coup by the then ISI DG Lt General Zaheerul Islam in 2014 coinciding with Imran Khan’s Dharna. The book says former United States Ambassador to Pakistan Richard Olson disclosed that former Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif had thwarted this coup attempt in 2014.
“We received information that Zaheeul Islam, the DG ISI, was mobilising for a coup in September of 2014. (Army Chief) Raheel (Sharif) blocked it by, in effect, removing Zaheer, by announcing his successor…(Zaheer) was talking to the corps commanders and was talking to likeminded army officers…He was prepared to do it and had the chief been willing, even tacitly, it would have happened. But the chief was not willing, so it didn’t happen,” Olson was quoted in the recently launched book “The Battle For Pakistan, The Bitter US Friendship and a Tough Neighborhood,” by Shuja Nawaz in its chapter titling, Mil-to-Mil Relations: Do More. Olson made this comment in the context of the protest sit-ins, or “dharna”, of Imran Khan in 2014. The book does not say so but knowledgeable sources are privy to the fact that General Zaheer was rebuffed by Corp Commander, Pindi, General Qamar Javed Bajwa when he was approached to move III Brigade to help general Zaheer. That’s when Bajwa’s credibility as a pro-democracy General was established.
Academic Shuja Nawaz is younger brother of former Pakistan Army Chief General Asif Nawaz, has authored a 373-page book covering the US-Pakistan relationship and important political events of the last decade and a half in Pakistan. Nawaz, He made his name for his first book, “Crossed Swords: Pakistan, Its Army and the Wars Within,”—considered to be the most authoritative history of the Pakistan Army. Shuja Nawaz reveals that for Americans were wary of the former ISI Chief Lt Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha who they thought was “straight shooting super nationalist general who had come into the world of intelligence on the insistence of Gen Kayani.”
According to Shuja Nawaz, Pasha was a prime target of American surveillance. He was being tracked during his travels abroad. The book provides details on the surveillance of Lt Gen Pasha. Nawaz also states that during his (Pasha’s) tenure, 3 Pakistan-US joint intelligence fusion cells were shut down. According to Nawaz, Pasha was a bête noire for Americans. The book further reveals the subject of US intelligence surveillance inside Pakistan and said that the US had penetrated many Pakistani organisations.
The book says that, after Pasha’s retirement, the new ISI head Lt Gen Zaheerul Islam was consumed by domestic issues. Islam spent most of his time on the political turmoil following the 2013 elections, which produced public sit-ins, or “dharnas”, by Imran Khan’s PTI and allies against the government. The book does not say it bluntly but reveals the sort of collaboration that ISI had with Imran Khan. “Both Pasha and Islam’s names were associated with the street opposition to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif; though no solid evidence came to the surface. Islam was also a former head of one of the ISI’s wings or directorates, and then had been in the hurly-burly of Karachi politics as the corps commander there,” notes the book. Nawaz adds that Islam’s earlier experience at the ISI had been in monitoring Pakistani internal politics. Zaheer’s activism was not “lost on US embassy.” Azaz Syed points out in his review that Lt Gen Zaeerul Islam and Lt Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha have not given their views regarding their role in service.
Shuja Nawaz claims US surveillance of the ISI and its head continued after Pasha. Islam’s successor at the ISI, Rizwan Akhtar, was a US-trained officer and maintained a good relationship with his US counterparts. However, he struggled to make an impression on his interlocutors, especially when it came to matters of detail discussions about the Afghan war. American criticism was harsh. One US official recalled that in a meeting on Afghan reconciliation, Akhtar did not even remember the names of leading Afghan Taliban field commanders. He was a hands-on DG ISI and reportedly showed up in Karachi frequently, where he had earlier served as DG Rangers and had developed certain relationships. According to Nawaz, Akhtar took charge of the Karachi operation without even informing the ISI’s sector commander in that city. Due to his hands-on approach, Akhtar was unpopular in the ISI and even in the Army, according to Shuja Nawaz. There is no mention of Rizwan’s wheeling-dealings with land and water tank mafia that have full control of Karachi’s management. Nawaz adds that “Akhtar failed to win the confidence of the new army chief Gen Bajwa and resigned by taking early retirement.”
According Azaz Syed Shuja Nawaz’s latest book is filled with firsthand accounts of Pakistani and US officials with direct purview of important political events in Pakistan and Afghanistan for a critical period of the region’s history. Through the book, Nawaz once again shows his deep expertise on the Pakistan military and reflects his understanding of how the said institution plays a key role in South Asia. Syed concludes it is must-read book as it also likely to provide much food for thought to those interested in Pakistan, US, Afghanistan, intelligence, defence cooperation, and related issues.
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