Roots of Impunity

3. Intimidation, Manipulation, and Retribution

A couple of years ago, Hamid Mir, Najam Sethi, Umar Cheema, and other prominent figures in the news media began going public with the threats they were receiving from intelligence agencies. It was a risky calculation, but the silence, they reasoned, encouraged intimidation and allowed impunity to persist.

Cheema, a journalist with The News who was exposing corruption in the army, had repeatedly been warned by officers of the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate to stop writing. The last official notice came during a meeting with the head of the ISI’s Islamabad detachment, when a colonel told Cheema he was overdoing it with his articles about the thrashing of a civilian professor at the army-run National University of Modern Languages. The university’s registrar, the man who had beaten the professor, was an ex-brigadier, and Cheema was accusing the army of protecting its own.

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The ISI meeting was cordial, but it was the last of its kind. In the next encounter, in September 2010, Cheema was pulled over at night by men dressed as police commandos. They told him he’d hit and killed a pedestrian. He knew they were lying but had to follow. He was taken to a safe house, stripped naked, beaten to a pulp, and filmed. “When they released me, they told me not to go public. They took pictures of me naked, forcing me to take poses, and said if I spoke up the pictures will be put on YouTube,” Cheema recalled. “After that, when I was headed home, I was thinking: What should I do?” Speak out, he wondered? “I told myself I’ll have to do it. Silence won’t help me.”

Cheema’s writing is more forceful than ever today, but the fear hasn’t left and neither has the feeling that he is sometimes being followed. The next time he was pursued, as he was traveling with family and chased through the streets, he went public again. But soon he stopped. He realized he would start to seem paranoid.

It’s a tricky dance that journalists must improvise. If they are covering security, the wars, and the militants, they will inevitably have contacts in the security establishment, which is where the trouble usually begins. Journalists like Mir, Sethi, or Mohammad Malick will attack one piece of the establishment too hard, the threat rises to a serious enough level that they have to leave the country, the crisis passes, and they resume their attacks.

After the May 2011 U.S. raid on Abbottabad, as the TV anchors pounded the military for being incompetent, Hamid Mir, one of the most popular personalities on Geo TV, got a call from a brigadier that the director general of intelligence at the time, Shuja Pasha, wanted to see him. Here’s how the conversation with Pasha proceeded, according to Mir:

“Mr. Mir, this system and Pakistan cannot

“What system?” asked Mir.

“The parliamentary form of democracy and Pakistan.”

“Do you want a presidential form?” asked Mir.


“This is not your job. It’s the job of Parliament to change the constitution.”

Pasha then spoke abusively about the son of the Punjab chief minister, the son of the president, the sons of other chief ministers. “Do you want your children ruled by these sons?” he asked Mir.

“We had a very bad meeting,” Mir told me when we met in Islamabad. “He is talking politics the whole time.” After that meeting, parliamentary democracy and the sons of different politicians began taking a critical beating from talk show hosts and columnists. And suddenly they were all promoting Imran Khan, the popular cricketer-turned-populist-politician who led the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, or PTI, in the May 2013 elections.Pasha had decided Khan was the man to back. “Politicians called me, ‘Mir, Mir, I want advice. Should I join Imran Khan? Pasha is putting pressure on us.’”

When I asked the ISI whether Pasha had been pushing support for Imran Khan, a security official denied the reports. “Pasha was never pressuring any politicians to join PTI,” he said. “There are allegations and people are saying PTI was being patronized by Pasha, but there is no truth to it. I have asked Pasha many times.”

But another TV anchor said he had a similar run-in with the ISI. “Before Abbottabad they called me because we were criticizing the ISI’s political role, which kept breaking with the political parties,” said the anchor, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Two officers met with him and put him on the spot: “Why do you keep criticizing ISI? Why do you utter the name of ISI?” The anchor said he pushed back: “So I said, ‘Why can’t we name the ISI in that situation?’ I told them my two complaints were why do you harass journalists and why do you interfere in the political process.” The senior officer denied the ISI did either. And so the anchor asked why Pasha was supporting Imran Khan if the agency had no political agenda. “They said I shouldn’t criticize the ISI and I shouldn’t name the ISI. I didn’t agree with their views, and at the end of the meeting the senior person told the junior person: ‘He needs more sessions.’”

Such a comment might seem empty were it not for Pakistan’s well-established record of pressure, intimidation, and retribution against critical news media. Saleem Shahzad, an Asia Times Online reporter, was summoned to ISI offices in October 2010 after writing an article about the release of a Taliban leader. During the meeting, the director general of the ISI media wing, Rear Adm. Adnan Nazir, told him that the story had embarrassed the country and urged him to retract the article and divulge his sources, Shahzad told colleagues. When he refused, Shahzad said, Nazir made a parting comment: “Saleem, I must give you a favor. We have recently arrested a terrorist and have recovered lot of data, diaries and other material during the interrogation. He has a hit list with him. If I find your name in the list I will let you know.”

Shahzad said he interpreted the comment as a threat against his life. We know all this because Shahzad was unnerved enough to write up notes of the meeting and put them in an email to his editor, Tony Allison, and others. He asked his editor to “keep this email as record if something happens to me in the future.” He also sent a version of the email to Nazir, which he labeled “for the record” in the subject line.

Seven months and many critical stories later, Saleem Shahzad was dead. During the official investigation into Shahzad’s murder, a number of other journalists reported being pressured by intelligence officials during encounters similar to the meeting described by Shahzad. “The ISI must deflate its larger-than-life image, focus on its mandated job, and evolve a transparent policy in its relationship with the media,” Imtiaz Alam, secretary-general of the South Asian Free Media Association, said in testimony before the official commission of inquiry. Halting the practice of harassing journalists, he said, was one place to start.

In testimony before the commission of inquiry, Nazir denied making the comments attributed to him in Shahzad’s emails. Nazir acknowledged getting Shahzad’s “for the record” email but said it was not “expedient” for him to respond. Brig. Zahid Mehmood Khanare, who testified on behalf of the ISI, denied that the agency engaged in the harassment of journalists.

In a way, the army and ISI are in shock. Ever since Pervez Musharraf allowed the licensing of private broadcasters in 2002, there’s been an explosion of media outlets. The press has never been so free or so critical. Nor have members of the security establishment ever had to answer for their policies, mistakes, and crimes in a public forum the way they do now. After the bin Laden raid, the media demanded answers from the army: How could the United States have carried out the operation undetected? Was the army, with its bloated budget, incompetent or in cahoots with the United States? Which was it?

Their honor insulted, intelligence and military officials began thrashing back at the media, using the methods they have always relied on: intimidation or “ownership,” that is, buying the loyalty of journalists or encouraging loyalty through access. “There is a longstanding tradition of ISI penetration of the media that goes back 30 years and started in a big way during Gen. Zia ul-Haq’s regime,” said author and journalist Ahmed Rashid, a CPJ board member. “Allowing a free electronic media during Musharraf’s time certainly presented a challenge for the intelligence agencies because of the large number of TV stations that were started. But they have been successful in penetrating all the TV networks in one way or the other.”

So amid the Abbottabad outcry, the agency fed trusted news anchors a harshly anti-American line. One political analyst said the Pakistani Army chief, Ashfaq Kayani, allowed the ISI to push the stance with loyal news media. For Kayani, it was a matter of upholding the military’s honor, said the analyst, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “He’s basically a person who believes in honor above all. He’s crazy about honor. He comes from a community where honor is worth killing for.” The ISI chief was similarly motivated. “Pasha told a friend of mine, ‘We went ballistic when they killed Osama. We lost our minds we were so angry.’”

Just about every newspaper and TV station has someone who is either sympathetic to the ISI and army point of view, or willing to be sympathetic for a price. Many Pakistanis can even name them. The ISI’s media wing calls up preferred anchors, talking heads, and newspaper editors and tells them what line to push. When the Kerry-Lugar Act of 2009 was adopted, for example, the security establishment was furious because it meant U.S. funds could be directed to civilian authorities without going through the military. Although most of the Pakistani public had little idea what the law said, anchors and talking heads were brought into the military’s media wing and told why it was against the national interest. Almost immediately the airwaves were filled with TV programs bashing the Kerry-Lugar Act.

Other methods are used to secure media loyalty: Many Pakistani cities, for example, have what are called “media colonies,” where the government sets aside land for journalists at subsidized rates. A free, even courageous press is not mutually exclusive of a manipulated press anywhere in the world—and certainly not in Pakistan. As an American official in Pakistan put it: “It’s a manipulated media, but remarkably free. Right now in the Urdu newspapers they plant scare stories about the U.S. building a cantonment in Islamabad with 300 Marines secreted away in the U.S. Embassy!” Not just that, but the Urdu press and even Mir on his TV show have accused Americans working in Pakistan of being spies, even giving out their addresses.

The major networks employ a calculated balancing act. So, for instance, Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman, chief executive of the Jang Group, will allow the army to sway his anchors on Geo TV, but follow the America-bashing with a half-hour slot of Voice of America. “It’s a game you play constantly with how much influence and how much you can get versus where to concede,” said Faisal Bari, senior adviser on Pakistan with the Central Eurasia Project of the Open Society Foundation.

Increasingly on the important talk shows, liberal voices are being eased out, replaced by retired generals and other right-wing pundits. Geo has been careful to balance out the programs of Sethi and Mir—both of whom regularly criticize and expose the security establishment’s wrongdoing—with programs supporting the military’s heroic efforts or simply airing patriotic songs. Geo has learned its financial lessons over the years. Under Musharraf, the network was simply shut down for a few months. Under President Asif Ali Zardari, in 2011, the government twice tried to revoke Geo’s sports channel license, a step that could have cost the station millions had it not been blocked by the Supreme Court. Though the government officially cited the lack of a “security clearance” for the revocations, everyone understood that Zardari’s government was trying to take revenge for Geo’s constant attacks on the president. For the most part, media and government thrust and parry, finding a way to live with each other. Until someone goes too far.

Sethi, editor-in-chief of The Friday Times and host of his own show on Geo, has managed through connections, humor, high visibility, and sheer gumption to evade physical punishment numerous times. At times, Geo took to cutting off the audio when he touched on “problematic” issues such as criticizing the judiciary. And then there were the threats to his life since 2007, first from the Taliban for calling them terrorists instead of “militants” as other journalists do, and then from the ISI. Intelligence officers have either raged at him or passed on messages from their higher-ups that his programs went too far in their criticisms of the army and the ISI after the revelation that bin Laden was hiding out in Abbottabad, not far from the Pakistani capital. 

On May 2, 2011, Sethi did a program about the raid in which he said the army generals were either complicit or incompetent. This led to a stormy meeting with then-ISI chief Pasha in which each accused the other of misplaced patriotism. The Mehran naval base was attacked soon after, and journalist Shahzad was kidnapped in Islamabad. A few days later, his tortured corpse was fished out of a canal. Sethi went on air and alleged that the ISI was behind the kidnapping and killing. “Saleem had confided to me and others like the representative of Human Rights Watch in Pakistan, Ali Dayan Hasan, and the head of the All Pakistan Newspapers Society, Hameed Haroon, before his kidnapping that he was in serious trouble with the ISI and feared he might be dealt with harshly,” Sethi told me from his home in Lahore.

After Shahzad’s murder, Sethi also devoted several of his nighttime talk shows to Al-Qaeda’s infiltration of the military, and officials’ turning a blind eye to it—a subject Shahzad first exposed in his columns for Asia Times Online. A senior minister whom Sethi would not identify informally advised the journalist to back off if he cared for his safety.

The ISI was furious with Sethi, although he was not alone in accusing the agency of killing Shahzad. The difference in Sethi’s case is that he is relentless and provocative and his late-night program is one of the most popular. He has also had extensive experience being “disappeared.” Sethi was imprisoned at length during the 1970s in connection with the Baluch uprising. In 1999, after an interview with the BBC about corruption in the Pakistani government, Sethi was dragged from his home and detained on accusations of treason.

“I was their prisoner for seven months and I know how these things happen. I was in solitary like a football from one interrogation to another—MI, ISI, Special Branch—and I know where people are taken and what happens and I also know who is killed and who isn’t.” So despite their warnings to back off, Sethi stood by his accusations of ISI involvement in Shahzad’s murder and went even further. “They only meant to rough him up and teach him a lesson,” he said. “The ISI can be mean but they don’t kill people in custody just like that. I reconstructed the scene of what probably happened. I said that Saleem probably died of asphyxiation owing to injuries on his ribs. I said what normally happens is that people are picked up and gagged and blindfolded, and put in a sack or gunny bag. They first try to destroy your confidence by creating fear. When the victim arrives at the secret destination, he is dumped on the floor. Then the kicking and shouting starts. The kicks are random, but one ends up in a fetus position. You get kicked in the head and the ribs. It’s the ribs in the upper part of the body. I said when the autopsy is done we should look out for evidence of such torture. Four days later the autopsy said the sixth rib and 10th or 12th rib were cracked and had punctured the lungs. These guys who do all this are not experts in torture.”

The army and intelligence services were, not surprisingly, upset with Sethi’s exposition. “Every journalist in town who had links with these guys said they are hopping mad at you,” Sethi said. And yet he still demanded a commission of inquiry in Shahzad’s death. The government said no. So he went on TV. “I said, ‘I’m calling on the media to boycott the government and the army’s news. We demand a commission of inquiry and if there is none we won’t publish the news or press statements’” of the Inter Services Public Relations, Sethi said. A few days later, the government announced a commission of inquiry headed by a judge and including a journalist representative of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists. Sethi then criticized the inclusion of pro-military bureaucrats in the commission of inquiry, which further incensed the military.

The commission was meant not only to inquire into the background and circumstances of Shahzad’s abduction and murder but also to identify the culprits. Instead, after laying out the testimonies of several journalists, Human Rights Watch, police, and the ISI, the report in effect said that any number of the actors in the war on terror could have killed Shahzad.

“Almost every journalist of repute in the country has rubbished the report of this commission, which exonerates the ISI and leaves all key questions unanswered,” Sethi said. In particular, the commission concluded that “the culprits cannot be identified.”

The Home Ministry eventually issued an advisory to police and intelligence agencies regarding threats against Sethi and his family, which prompted the government to provide police guards. Nevertheless, Sethi learned through what he described as high-placed sources that he was on a death list and needed to leave the country. Sethi and his wife, Jugnu Mohsin, spent three months in 2011 as senior fellows at the New America Foundation in Washington. While Sethi was away, a credible source back home called and warned him to stay away for some more time. He was told of a plot by a jihadi organization close to the military to kill him, along with two other critical journalists, Khaled Ahmed and Imtiaz Alam, both of whom work for the South Asia Free Media Association, which is in the bad books of the military for advocating détente and peace with India. But Sethi decided to risk a return. He cut short his trip to the United States, returned to Pakistan, and in his first TV show from his hometown said that he was “threatened by state and non-state actors” and that “if anything happened to him or his family the top leadership of the military would be held responsible.”

For months, he ventured out of his home only selectively and politely declined invitations to attend or speak at local conferences. The house is protected by armed guards, an alarm system, and surveillance cameras. The Sethis have invested in an armored vehicle. Geo built a studio in his home from which he broadcast a thrice-weekly show on current affairs. But the threats continued, as did Sethi’s provocative shows. In spring 2012, Sethi did a series of stories that dissected the ills of the army and ISI, exposing how spies, beginning under Musharraf and now Kayani, have slowly taken over an army that used to be well-organized and strait-laced. A highly placed minister whom Sethi would not name warned him that the government was picking up chatter that the security establishment was annoyed. In a telling comment, the minister told Sethi that the government didn’t want to lose him and that, “you know power lies somewhere else.” It’s true, but it’s very unsettling to hear from a high-level government official.

Attacks have come from other corners as well. “Journalists close to the ISI are constantly accusing me in print and on the Internet of being in the pay of America,” he said, an accusation that amounts to an incitement to violence for the Jihadi networks. “This is a repeat of what happened to me in 1999 when I ran a campaign exposing corruption in the Nawaz Sharif government at the highest level. The pro-government media accused me of being an ‘Indian agent’ and I was imprisoned for alleged treason. After I was freed by the Supreme Court, the government’s dirty tricks department slapped me with dozens of trumped-up income tax evasion cases in order to harass me. The Musharraf government withdrew all the cases and the income tax officers who had done the Sharif government’s bidding came and apologized to me later. So did the then-prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, who said he was put up to it by a ‘misguided’ henchman. I am going through the same sort of harassment today at the behest of the ISI, and the income tax department is coming under pressure to harass me.”

Hamid Mir is one of the most popular faces on television, and part of his appeal is precisely what makes many wary of him. He’s a talented showman and has cultivated sources in every arena. Back in the days when he secured an interview with Osama bin Laden, he was accused of being too close to the ISI—how else could he have pulled off such a coup? These days he is considered sympathetic to the militants and close to Zardari. Whatever his political leanings, he relishes a good fight on the air.

At the end of 2007, in the midst of the lawyers’ movement against Musharraf, Mir was banned from Geo TV for four months by the general himself. The movement began in March of that year after Musharraf sacked Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry and lawyers took to the streets demanding his reinstatement and the upholding of the constitution. The media (including Mir) played a significant part in supporting the movement. Mir took his show to the road, organizing street programs, gathering huge crowds. In 2009, he infuriated the army by reporting from within the Taliban—which had allegedly kidnapped him and then let him tell their side of the story. Then his colleague Musa Khankhel was killed. “It became clear if you’re killed, nothing will happen,” he said of both the Khankhel and Shahzad cases.

In 2011, he decided to take up the issue of Baluchistan. With the intensifying insurgency, the families of missing Baluch formed camps in the park across from Parliament in Islamabad and outside the press club in Karachi, anywhere they could get a hearing. The war in Baluchistan is widely ignored by the major media outlets in Pakistan. As BBC journalist and novelist Mohammed Hanif put it: “It’s hard to report. The agencies don’t want them to report it. The networks don’t want to offend the Punjab office”—meaning the authorities in Islamabad—“and there’s no advertising coming from Baluchistan so they don’t care. But probably the biggest factor is fear.” As soon as the BBC goes to Baluchistan, he added, “Intelligence follows them, stops them, and drives them back. Even reporting the basic facts that someone was kidnapped or killed is increasingly risky.”

Still, Mir did a show on Baluchistan. “Young people want an independent homeland,” Mir told me when we met in Islamabad, shortly after he had returned to the country after a brief departure for security reasons. “But elders are saying, ‘We can’t survive without Pakistan. We’ll be slaves to Iran or Afghanistan if we secede. It’s better to fight for our rights.’” One Baluch leader said the Pakistani Army was really a Punjabi army. So Mir presented the statement to two Punjabi parliamentarians live on his show. “They said, ‘Yes he’s right.’ I got a text message after the show. ‘We will beat you on the road. An army officer will teach you a lesson. You’ll be naked.’” This is almost exactly what happened to Umar Cheema in 2010, so Mir forwarded him the message. The next day Cheema published the whole affair in The News. The episode quickly became a cause célèbre in Parliament, with Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, the National Assembly opposition leader, claiming he was getting the same threats.

Another commission was formed. The presidential engine revved up. Rehman Malik, then interior minister, called Mir and told him to forward the number and message. The inspector general of police called. Zardari called. Malik called again and tried to persuade him to take two dozen police for security, an offer Mir said was intended to frighten him. “I am not an Indian agent and if I am that kind of high-value target why don’t they inform me in writing?”

In the end, Mir took one police guard at home and one at the office.

Then, in January 2012, Interior Ministry sources told him that the phone numbers from which the threatening messages were sent belonged to serving members of the ISI. Despite such evidence, the public accusations against Mir got even more absurd. The agency claimed he was a CIA agent and had actually hacked his own phone to make it seem as if he had received messages from the ISI.

Mir eventually dropped the issue and moved on to other reporting. He did a show about the family of missing persons who had set up camp in front of Parliament. An elderly woman had filed a petition to the Supreme Court to get back her three sons, dead or alive. They had been abducted from jail by men who were alleged in court to have been with the ISI. One son was dead. By the time the other two were produced in court, their mother had died. Mir showed the covered faces of the accused abductors as they appeared in court, and he lambasted them on television.

After the show Zardari called Mir. Here is how Mir recalled the conversation:

“You are playing with fire. I don’t want to lose you. It will be another bad patch on the name of my government if you are killed.”

“What shall I do?” Mir asked him.

“Be careful,” said Zardari.

“Who wants to kill me?”

“I don’t know.”

“Sir, I suppose you are the supreme commander of the armed forces of Pakistan.”

“Try to understand!” Zardari shouted.

The president’s office did not respond to CPJ’s request for comment on Mir’s depiction of the conversation.

Mir persisted with his shows. The next one was an exclusive interview with Younis Habib, a banker who was on his death bed and decided to expose how in the 1990s the ISI plundered taxpayers’ money with the connivance of the Pakistani army to manipulate politics. The story was an important turn in the Mehrangate scandal, which brought a former army chief of staff and ISI director general to court for the first time in Pakistani history, with both sides accusing the other of misconduct.

Shortly after the show, Mir was advised to leave the country, and he finally did for a week. But as Mir told me, if he is having these kinds of highly dramatic, publicized troubles, just imagine what’s going on in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, Waziristan, and Baluchistan beyond the eyes of the public.

(Photo by AP)

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