Thursday, January 11, 2018
Journalist Taha Siddiqui was headed towards the airport in a Careem cab to catch a London-bound flight for a work meeting. It was around 8am. The cab was on the Islamabad highway when it was overtaken and hit on the bumper by another vehicle. About a dozen men, some armed with Kalashnikov rifles and pistols came out and cordoned off the area. Without any explanation for their actions, they started beating Siddiqui. Their conversations suggested to him that he was going to be abducted. While being beaten viciously, Taha tried escaping but his attempt only intensified the aggression of the armed men. One of them said, ‘shoot him in the leg’.
All of this happened in broad daylight, with heavy traffic on the road. Whether it was by luck or strategy, Siddiqui managed to flee, thwarting the attempt to abduct him.
A couple of weeks ago an activist, Raza Khan, who promotes peace between India and Pakistan, was abducted in Lahore and has still not been recovered. A few weeks earlier, there was a murder attempt on senior journalist Ahmad Noorani, who also narrowly escaped the attackers. Senior journalist Matiullah Jan summed up the situation in a tweet, “Who are these vagabonds who have the guts to attack, torture and threaten journalists in broad daylight and always get away with it? When will the timid interior minister and timid govt act to logically conclude on-going investigations in similar attacks on journos?”
Wednesday’s abduction attempt was planned efficiently. If around a dozen men, half of them armed were assigned to attack a journalist, while he was on his way to the airport, they are most likely to have information about his plans and whereabouts. The incident took place about 25 minutes away from Siddiqui’s house on a broad road on the way to Rawalpindi. Significantly, the abductors did not try to take him away or beat him up around the quiet neighbourhood where he lives, but in the middle of a busy road, where the incident can be seen. If this was done strategically, it means the aggressors want to openly send a message to the journalist community.
It is impossible to attack a journalist with this kind of planning without having information about his whereabouts, his plans of travel, and the vehicle he will be traveling in.
Pakistani state is among the top seven in the world with sophisticated surveillance technology. My sources in Careem tell me that the identity of individuals using their app to book rides can be attained by security agencies at any time. It is possible Siddiqui’s Careem ride was being monitored, or at least his phones calls or other communication data was being monitored to be able to track his movements.8am is too early in the morning for random attacks to take place.
Siddiqui was working on Kulbhushan Jadhav’s case, along with reports from Balochistan, on Milli Muslim League, Jamatud Dawa and Hafiz Saeed.
This is the kind of reporting increasingly becoming difficult for journalists in Pakistan to do objectively. Siddiqui has been committed to revealing the discrepancies in how the Pakistani state chooses to share public information in the country. Many people say his work has been consistently critical of the military establishment, which many think ‘is a red line he should not cross’ but to report on important and often under-reported issues that Siddiqui does, is merely his job as a journalist that he chooses to do, despite threats and dangers that might come his way.
The entire day on Wednesday was spent by Siddiqui and his close colleagues filing police reports and documenting the event. Later in the evening, dozens of journalists came to hear a public statement made by Siddiqui at the Islamabad Press Club. All these journalists could instead have been doing their job reporting on civil society issues that need attention in the country. But working as a journalist in Pakistan has become so perilous that the journalist community has to get carried away, ironically in covering aggressions against them.
The overwhelming necessity to protect journalists and activists in this country lies in the hands of the state institutions. According to Reporters Without Borders, Pakistan is ranked 139th out of 180 countries on the World Press Freedom Index, though this status might not reflect every single attack on journalists. Often the incidents that take place in smaller cities are under-covered, since journalists are attacked and intimidated and left too fearful to report against the powers that be.
It is the obligation of democratic institutions in Pakistan to be part of the support network that journalists need. Without the liberty of a fair and critical media, there is no democracy and there is no legitimate authority of the state.
By MEHREEN ZAHRA-MALIK
|The bullet-riddled car after Hamid Mir, a prominent journalist and talk show host, barely survived an attack by gunmen in 2014. Fareed Khan/Associated Press|
Fearing that his attackers would spot him from a distance, the investigative journalist Taha Siddiqui threw off his bright red sweater as he jumped into a ditch and crawled through mud and shrubs to reach a highway in the Pakistani city of Rawalpindi.
Just minutes earlier, the private taxi that had been taking Mr. Siddiqui, the Pakistan bureau chief of Indian television channel WION, to the airport on Wednesday morning was stopped by around a dozen armed men in plain clothes who had spilled out of a car and pickup truck, he said.
The men dragged him from the cab, hitting and kicking him and threatening to shoot him. They ordered the taxi driver out and threw Mr. Siddiqui back into the car.
Before the car could move, the journalist jumped out into incoming traffic and got into a yellow cab, he said. But the driver went only a few hundred yards, saying he didn’t want to be involved in “trouble” and asking Mr. Siddiqui to get out.
Then it was time to crawl, staying low across a large, muddy lot until he found a worker who agreed to drive him the 10 miles back to Islamabad. The attackers got Mr. Siddiqui’s laptop, data drives, phone, passport and luggage. He got away with his life. But not everyone has.
It has been open season on journalists and critics of Pakistan’s military for years now. Disappearances, extrajudicial killings, torture, intimidation — all have been brought to bear, and in the vast majority of cases, no one has ever been brought to justice.
Mr. Siddiqui is a prominent critic of the country’s powerful military establishment, and on Wednesday he said he believed that “state agencies” were behind the attack. Human rights investigators frequently accuse the military’s spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, of being behind attacks or threats against journalists. Often, especially in cases of intimidation, the security officers make no attempt to hide who they are.
“This was an attempt to take me away and turn me into a silent statistic,” Mr. Siddiqui said in an interview with The New York Times on Wednesday. “My worry is that the next time they come for me, it could end up in something much worse.”
Mr. Siddiqui is a 2014 winner of the Albert Londres Prix award, the French equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize, and has written articles for several international publications, including The New York Times. He has also been become known as a frequent critic of the military on social media.
“It is public knowledge that the military establishment is annoyed with Taha’s Twitter activity,” said Iqbal Khattack, the Pakistan representative for Reporters Sans Frontieres. “What has happened is worrisome, but not surprising.”
A spokesman for the interior ministry said Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal had sought an investigation into the attack on Mr. Siddiqui.
The media wing of the Pakistani Army declined official comment.
One military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media on the matter, said he doubted the military was behind the attack. He said Mr. Siddiqui had written no articles recently that criticized the army and that it would be “counterproductive” to carry out such an attack based on a handful of objectionable tweets. The officer then scoffed at the idea that Mr. Siddiqui could have escaped an attack by a dozen trained security agents.
The threats to journalists and dissidents don’t end with the security agencies. Militants on both sides of the insurgency in Baluchistan Province, for instance, including sectarian groups who mainly fight on the military’s side of the conflict, are known for some of the most brazen attacks.
In the past year, another avenue of threat has been opened up. Under a sweeping new cybercrimes law passed last January, the authorities have also begun warning or prosecuting journalists and online activists. And that same month, at least five activists known for internet posts critical of the military suddenly disappeared. Four have since been returned and live in exile abroad.
Civil rights advocates, as well as people directly targeted by the authorities, have described actions under the new cybercrime law that included harassment, intimidation, and detention without access to lawyers or family members. In a few cases, physical abuse of those in custody was reported.
Mr. Siddiqui was one of dozens of journalists affected by the law. He was summoned last year by the civilian Federal Investigation Agency to answer for Twitter posts they considered to be critical of the military. Mr. Siddiqui refused to answer the summons unless he was formally charged, and filed a court petition claiming harassment. Hearings in the case continue.
Offline, too, it has been a perilous decade for Pakistani journalists. In one of the latest attacks, in October, another investigative journalist and critic of the ISI, Ahmad Noorani, was gravely wounded in Islamabad. In 2014, Hamid Mir, a prominent journalist and talk show host, survived an attempt on his life. In the same year, the Pakistani writer and broadcaster Raza Rumi narrowly survived a gun attack that claimed the life of his driver in the city of Lahore. He now lives in exile in the United States. In 2011, Syed Saleem Shahzad, an investigative journalist, was found dead, leading to accusations that the ISI was involved. “It’s going to get much, much worse,” said Zarrar Khuhro, a popular talk show host with Dawn News. “Regardless of who carried out this attack or others before it, the culprits always go unpunished. So why would the attacks stop?”
“Overall, we are looking at a new era of oppression in Pakistani journalism,” he said. “This is the new normal.”
Azhar Abbas, the managing director at Geo News, Pakistan’s largest news channel, which has repeatedly come under pressure because of its critical coverage of the military and its support for the civilian government, said it was essential for journalists to come together and put pressure on the government to launch a transparent inquiry. “You can’t physically assault people, or make them disappear for having an opinion,” he said. “As journalists we have to resist these attempts to be silenced and make sure the culprits are caught.”
But the attacks are raising fears, causing many to self censor rather than risk arrest or threats against their families.
Islamabad’s police superintendent, Syed Mustafa Tanveer, said on Thursday that Mr. Siddiqui’s case was formally under investigation, though he said it was too early to say who the attackers were.
“Yesterday, Taha was really shaken, but today we have called him back in to ask some more questions and to help us prepare sketches of the attackers,” Mr. Tanveer said.
Mr. Siddiqui said that after reaching the police station on Wednesday, he asked the investigating officer to let him know as soon as anyone was arrested.
“When I said that, he just looked right at me and laughed out loud,” Mr. Siddiqui said. “Right to my face.”
The angst of the population pushes the authorities to take notice of the incident and they promise to bring the culprits to justice. However it has been four years since the news of Kasur scandal broke out and the families of the victims are still demanding justice for their children. In Zainab’s case as well, the same leaders are making promises to calm down the outraged public but the set precedent proves that justice is far stretched idea in this case as well.
Riots have broken out in the city of Kasur as a result of the incident but that was met with gunshots at the protestors. This is how we treat people seeking justice in the country. We will again see politicians using the incident for political point scoring but that will not culminate into culprits behind bars because they are protected by the influence of these very politicians. This is what the families have been highlighting over and over again. No parent should have to go through this and sexual predators like these should be held accountable and given the harshest of punishments, so that no one dares to do such a thing again. It is going to be highly shameful and a disservice to the life lost, if this becomes another case swept under the rug.