Umar Cheema
Umar Cheema

Mission Journal: CPJ tackles impunity in Pakistan

After months of planning and preparation, our CPJ team had assembled in Islamabad with an ambitious plan. On May 3, we had a meeting scheduled with President Asif Ali Zardari to discuss the country’s failure to investigate the killings of journalists. We also had positive indications that our delegation would be able to meet with military officials and possibly even representatives from the Inter Services Intelligence, or ISI, the country’s all-powerful spy agency.

But by the time we awoke on May 2, our plans were in disarray. Overnight, a commando unit of Navy Seals had infiltrated Pakistan and carried out a daring raid that killed Osama Bin Laden. Concerned emails began flooding in urging us to be careful and even to leave the country. We assembled in my hotel room in the Islamabad Marriott, a virtual fortress which, having been repeatedly bombed, had developed an elaborate security system, and planned our next step.

Our delegation consisted of me, CPJ Asia Program Coordinator Bob Dietz (who had been in Pakistan for a week already organizing our visit) and CPJ Chairman Paul Steiger. Paul was the managing editor of the Wall Street Journal when reporter Daniel Pearl was kidnapped and killed in early 2002. Since then, 15 journalists have been murdered in targeted killings in Pakistan, all of them local reporters. As a result of intensive international pressure there was a serious investigation in the Pearl killing, and some of those responsible have been prosecuted and convicted. But there has not been a single conviction in any of the subsequent killings of the Pakistani journalists. This was the point Paul planned to make in our meetings with the government.

We considered all our options–including leaving–but in the end, we decided to stay put and see how things unfolded. While the streets were quiet, the government was in disarray trying to craft a response to the fast-moving events. We were shocked, therefore, when a spokesperson confirmed our meeting with Zardari, set for 3:30 p.m. the following day.

At the appointed hour, we climbed into a rented Toyota Landcruiser and drove all of five minutes through quiet streets with no extra security beyond that usually in place within the district that houses most of the government’s offices. At the presidential offices, we were shunted into a large reception room, and from there in the formal receiving room were chairs had been arrayed in rows facing each other. The government delegation, consisting of the interior minister, the information minister, and a number of other advisors, filed in and took their seats.

Then Zardari entered and the meeting began. Paul introduced the delegation and spoke about the comfort he took from the vigorous investigation that Pakistani authorities carried out into the killing of Danny Pearl. While making clear that that many suspects in that case remain at large, Paul contrasted the response to the Pearl killing with the complete lack of investigation into the all the murders of the 15 Pakistani journalists killed subsequently. Bob handed the president a detailed list of those cases, which we had labeled a “Dossier of Death.”

The president seemed surprised by the large number, and over the course of our half-hour meeting, he spoke about the considerable challenges that Pakistan faces–from the lack of resources, to ongoing threat of terrorism. Finally, however, the president asked us what countries that had confronted impunity had done to address it.

I said that a firm commitment from the country’s leadership was a prerequisite to addressing the issue. The president responded by asking Interior Minister Rehman Malik to provide us with detailed information on the status of the outstanding cases. He also asked his cabinet members to work with Parliament to develop new legislation to strengthen press freedom. The president then shook hands and quickly left the meeting.

Umar Cheema
Umar Cheema

The following day, our delegation followed up with Interior Minister Malik in at his office. We pressed him on a number of journalist murder cases and he agreed to provide us with more detailed information and to keep in touch on an ongoing basis. However, we were extremely disappointed by his response when we raised the case of Umar Cheema. Cheema, a reporter for the English-language daily The News, had been abducted the previous September by uniformed men who held him for six hours and tortured and sodomized him while telling him that he should stop criticizing the government. Outrageously, Malik insisted that that the government investigation had determined that the incident stemmed from a family land dispute.

The next day we flew to Karachi, Pakistan’s sprawling financial and media capital. Our plane, delayed seven hours by thunderstorms, arrived at 4:30 a.m. That evening, along with our partners from the Pakistan Press Foundation, we hosted a roundtable discussion with about 25 top media personalities at the Sheraton Hotel. The purpose was to inform our colleagues about our meetings with Pakistani officials and also to get their help in identifying the key issues confronting the media. The meeting was hosted by Hameed Haroun, CEO of the Dawn Group, and moderated by Mazhar Abbas, a leading television journalist who has honored by CPJ in 2007 because of his courage and commitment to press freedom.

Not surprisingly, we never heard back from our contacts at the military or the ISI and those meetings did not materialize. But given the political turmoil that enveloped Pakistan in recent days, we were pleased the president and his cabinet had received us. At the same time, we saw the limits of the government’s commitment in its response to the Cheema case.

What we came away with was a sense of the vitality of the country’s media and the intensity of the public debate about the country’s future. What is alarming is that critical and probing journalists feel vulnerable and threatened by the climate of impunity. The government–and the military power structure that supports it–must step forward at the defining moment and take action to ensure that the debate continues.

(Reporting from Karachi)