Roots of Impunity


The murder of Saleem Shahzad in May 2011 galvanized journalists across Pakistan in a way that few other events have. For a short time their power as a “union” was felt. They secured a commission of inquiry. They named ISI officers who had threatened Shahzad and many other journalists. They detailed those encounters in a public record available on the Internet. The resulting report offers a series of promising recommendations, saying in part:

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  • “…that the balance between secrecy and accountability in the conduct of intelligence gathering be appropriately readjusted with the aim of restoring public confidence in all institutions of the state;
  • “that the more important [intelligence] Agencies … be made more law-abiding through a legislation carefully outlining their respective mandates and role; that their interaction with the media be carefully institutionally streamlined and regularly documented;
  • “… that, in this regard, a forum of Human Rights Ombudsman be created for judicial redressal of citizens’ grievances against Agencies, particularly the grievances of the Media against attempts to intimidate, harass and harm them;
  • “that the Islamabad and Punjab Police should continue investigating the matter diligently, impartially without any fear or favor by interrogating all those (whosever) who should in the normal course be interrogated in the present incident …”

And yet, “those recommendations have been made a hundred times,” said Hina Jilani, one of Pakistan’s pre-eminent human rights lawyers who helped found the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and who has been appointed to U.N. human rights fact-finding missions around the world. She echoed the sentiments of every journalist I spoke to regarding the report. “The recommendations are very abstract,” Jilani said. “They don’t give a direction for an investigation.” In fact, the commission itself says that making the intelligence agencies more accountable is up to the executive and Parliament and that all the commission can do is offer ideas for reform. The report does conclude with an eloquent summation of the history of the press in Pakistan and the universal need for a free press to hold government accountable. Then, acknowledging their own impotence, the report’s authors write: “The failure of this probe to identify the culprits does, in all seriousness, raise a big question about our justice system’s ability to resolve such ‘mysterious’ incidents even in the future.”

As Najam Sethi, editor of The Friday Times and a Geo TV host, said: “The commission was reluctantly set up. It became a cover-up job to protect the ISI.”

Without an independent and powerful judicial system—or even just a functioning one—the press is at the mercy of ruthless forces like the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, the Taliban, or any other faction that uses violence as a tool of its trade. Unfortunately, the judiciary—including the police, judges, lawyers, investigators—are underfunded, unprotected, and in many cases, petrified to go after the MQM, to say nothing of the ISI, the army, and sectarian terrorists. The prosecutors in Karachi who won their case against six Pakistan Rangers in the killing of an unarmed civilian have now lost their jobs and have no means to take care of their families. The government that appointed them does not back them up because the government is also beholden to the army and intelligence, and its leaders must carefully calculate when to go head to head with their more powerful brothers. They rarely do.

If Shahzad’s murder had repercussions for the intelligence agencies, it is only that they must be more careful about leaving traces of their work behind. Yes, Taliban spokesman Ihsanullah Ihsan claimed responsibility for the killing of Mukarram Khan Aatif, but journalists from the region doubt that the Taliban are operating without agency intervention. Pakistan has still not changed its policy of keeping extremist assets around for its wars with India and Afghanistan. And once the Taliban take credit for a murder, there is no need for an investigation. In the case of Wali Khan Babar, suspects have been accused but the witnesses have been murdered. The MQM holds such powerful sway that almost no journalist in Karachi would go on the record with his fears or suspicions. Even the Taliban do not inspire such terror.

The ISI and the MQM, with their strong-arm tactics, have dominated this report. For journalists, they are among the fiercest Goliaths standing in the way, sometimes physically, sometimes psychologically.

After several weeks in the country I talked with a security official, a colonel, who speaks to foreign media on behalf of the ISI. He talks only on condition of anonymity. I asked him about the threats Shahzad believed he was receiving from Rear Adm. Adnan Nazir, which the reporter articulated in an email to his editor and others. “You can read anything into it,” the official said, dismissing the comments Shahzad attributed to Nazir. “I don’t read it as threatening.”

When I asked him to respond to the accusations that the ISI were behind the killings of Shahzad, Aatif, Musa Khankhel, and Janullah Hashimzada, he dismissed the charges as lies. When I told him that journalists testify to being intimidated and harassed by agents of the ISI, he lost his temper. He accused me of bias against the ISI. And he warned me about the trap of “the Goebbels theory: Repeat a lie so often that it becomes the truth.” Whether he was playing the role of the unfairly accused or expressing genuine frustration, his ensuing comments were revealing both for what they say about the ISI’s relationship with the Taliban, and the extremely wide gap between what the agency purports to want for its country and the policies it’s carrying out.

He lashed out at Hamid Mir and Najam Sethi for complaining that the ISI threatens them. “What is the journalists’ motivation?” he asked. “Why would they want to belittle the efforts that the ISI has put into fighting this war?” And he said, “We don’t have time for these people. We are engaged in a war with people who are killing my sons and daughters and brothers. My actions are not sufficient to prove to everybody or anybody that I am sincere in my effort in this war on terror and I’ll do anything and everything in my power to eliminate this menace from my country? I don’t want my children and grandchildren to live in a country where bombs are exploding left, right, and center, and 40,000 people have died in suicide attacks and IEDs and 150,000 troops of my army are engaged in continuous war!” He excoriated the United States and the 48 other countries that make up the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. They claim to have come to bring peace, he said, but in reality they have set the region on fire—and then have blamed it all on Pakistan. He recited the foreigners’ complaints: “Pakistan has safe havens. Pakistan is protecting Haqqanis. Quetta shura [the Taliban leadership] is in Pakistan.” And his frustration grew. “Even today the Pentagon report talks about Afghanistan not being able to achieve peace and stability because of safe havens in Pakistan. The Americans, with all the technology available to them, with no restrictions whatsoever on rules of engagement, are unable to control the terrorists or so-called terrorists?”

Then he took another tack, saying, yes, there are Taliban safe havens in Pakistan. “Let’s say I agree the Haqqanis are under my protection in Pakistan,” he said. Then he calculated the distance from Miran Shah, capital of North Waziristan, where the Haqqanis are, to the Afghan border (20 kilometers) and then on to Kabul (270 kilometers). “Are you saying the ISI is so powerful that they can protect them all the way to Afghanistan? Jalaluddin”—the Haqqani patriarch—“is senile. Siraj”—his son—“is fighting this war. And to the best of my knowledge he spends 20 days a month in Afghanistan. What you can’t do in Afghanistan you say we should do here?”

There are so many problems with every one of these statements. On the one hand, he suggests, perhaps Pakistan is harboring “your” enemies. On the other, he says why don’t “you” catch Haqqani when he crosses into Afghanistan where “you” have troops—as if this were all a cat and mouse game. But let’s leave that aside. He was getting to his real point, which is one of the underlying motivations for Pakistani support of the Taliban. The real problem, he said, is not those safe havens. The problem of Afghanistan is not Pakistan. “It’s the entire Pashtun nation which you [the West] have alienated because of your actions.” The United States, he said, brought in the wrong Pashtun with Hamid Karzai—“even the Pashtuns don’t accept Karzai as a Pashtun”—and the rest of the Afghan government is composed of Tajiks, Hazaras, and Uzbeks. And that is at the heart of the Pakistani-led insurgency in Afghanistan.

Is it strange that a conversation about threats to Pakistani journalists should have detoured into a disquisition on the American-Pakistani “alliance” and the Afghan war? Not really. In fact, it lays bare the challenge facing Pakistani journalists. They must contend with a country that is effectively ruled by the security apparatus, one that perceives itself under threat from its neighbors and the United States—and, in fact, is in conflict with them all. Some Pakistani journalists, like Mir and Sethi, have enough clout, internal connections, and international support to speak out and squeak by. But those on the fringes are expendable, victims of the so-called war on terror.

Pakistani journalists often work with Western news organizations, as Shahzad did. Some work directly for U.S. government-funded media, as Aatif did. And the Western media are viewed as a kind of espionage and propaganda wing for Western governments—that is, an enemy of the Pakistani security establishment.

Journalists will not be safe when Pakistan is at war with itself, unable to decide if it is fighting jihadis or saving them for a rainy day, unable to decide if it is an Islamic state for Sunnis only or a democratic state that can tolerate and protect Sunnis, Shia, Ahmadis, Christians, and ethnic underclasses. Is it a civilian democracy or a military state disguised as a democracy? Is it a Punjabi-run military oligarchy? Or a place where Sindhis, Baluch, Pashtuns, Hazaras all have a place? In the first weeks of January 2013, nearly 100 people were killed in bombings in a predominantly Hazara Shia section of Quetta. Three journalists covering the bombings died as well. Lashkar-e-Jhangvi claimed responsibility. The army did nothing and said nothing. Hazaras lined the streets with coffins demanding the army take over. Thousands of Pakistanis marched through the country demanding action against extremist organizations. As of this writing, nothing has happened.

The problems facing the Pakistani state—unfair allocation of resources, military domination of the economy, corruption, impunity, debt, terrorism, sectarian killings—are so vast that they require a visionary leader and a government willing to go head to head with the all-powerful security forces. By demanding accountability from the government, journalists can play one of the most important roles. They have already formed informal alliances with the judiciary, but they need to undertake additional initiatives of their own—a more extensive SOS alert network, a pact to withhold airtime and print space from those who threaten their colleagues, and a decision by the owners of newspapers, TV stations, and Internet outlets to put protection over profit. 

(Photo by AP)

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