South Asia

What Does a Journalist’s Abduction and Release Portend for Pakistan?

It is now clear that the Pakistani Army is going all out to root out even the last vestiges of dissent.

“I do maintain, and I have drunk deep at the fountain of constitutional law, that liberty of a man is the dearest thing in the law of any country, and it should not be taken away in this fashion.”
~ M.A. Jinnah

Like many other leaders, Jinnah was a complex man with many contradictions. He stood for many things in different phases of his life, and his legacy, therefore, remains infinitely negotiable. Secularists and communalists both draw legitimacy from his words and actions. But perhaps the only consistent feature of his long legal and political career was standing up for the freedom of expression at the right moment and doing so steadfastly.

Jinnah helped found two phenomenal newspapers, Dawn and Pakistan Times. He presided over the influential Bombay Chronicle’s board of directors and stood by its editor, the Englishman Benjamin Guy “BG” Horniman when the latter took flak from the company and the colonial British government. And when the colonial government deported Horniman from India for opposing the draconian Rowlatt Acts of 1919, Jinnah came to his defence. He pleaded Horniman’s case in the Indian legislative assembly, where he delivered the famous words quoted above.

Little would the founder of Pakistan have known that the country he had carved out of India would eventually become a purgatory for the free press and a hellhole for journalists. Just a decade after Jinnah’s demise, Pakistan Times and its sister Urdu publications Imroze and Lail-O-Nahar were taken over at gunpoint by Field Marshal Ayub Khan’s military regime. And it has been downhill since. Every military regime and even certain civilian governments have tried to muzzle the press in Pakistan.

The most recent addition to the unfortunate tally of media persons who have been targeted professionally and personally is senior journalist Matiullah Jan. A fierce critic of the Pakistani Army, Jan had lost his television show some time back, when the channel’s owners succumbed to pressure from the brass. But that wasn’t enough to cow him down. He was one of the first mainstream media persons to take his show to YouTube, where he has been consistently reporting about what effectively is a menacing hybrid martial regime in Pakistan.

Also read: Pakistani Journalist Matiullah Jan Released 12 Hours After Having Been Abducted

On July 21, around 11 am, Matiullah was sitting in his car after dropping off his wife at the school where she teaches when a posse pounced on him. Several cars with police lights and about 10 men wearing the anti-terrorist police squad’s uniform abducted him in broad daylight, in the federal capital Islamabad. The whole incident was caught on closed-circuit television (CCTV) installed in one of the buildings. But the way the abductors carried themselves suggests that they couldn’t care less.

Matiullah was handcuffed and a hood thrown over his head. He was first driven around, before being taken to a ‘safe house’. Giving details of his ordeal, Matiullah said that the location where he was kept was painted and staged to look like a police lockup. His captors pretended to be policemen, but in all probability were not. He was roughed up and thrown into a lockup blindfolded, where he remained for several hours. The armed men spoke to each other and to Matiullah Jan in broken Pashto, again trying to dupe him into believing they weren’t who they really were.

Later they decided to lug him into a vehicle again and drove him around, before stopping and carrying out a conversation to pretend that they somehow got the wrong man. Matiullah was asked whether he was Zar Khan or Zarak Khan He was eventually released on the Rawalpindi-Peshawar highway, near an army checkpoint, of all places. Apparently, civilian motorists recognised him and he used one of their phones to contact his family. He was subsequently rescued by his family and friends, ending a 12-hour ordeal.

The whole charade has the involvement of the Pakistani Army and its intelligence agencies written all over it.

In Pakistan, the abduction of a fairly high-profile journalist by the police is virtually unheard of. On the other hand, the Army is notorious for abducting writers, journalists, politicians and activists. An after-the-fact directive was issued by the National Counterterrorism Authority about alleged foreign agents entering Pakistan to abduct a prominent personality for ransom. But looking at Matiullah’s beat-up car, no one had any doubt left that the men in boots had taken him away. But why they did it, and why in this fashion is the question.

The Pakistani media had enjoyed a fair bit of freedom after the last restoration of democracy in 2008 and continued to build upon it during the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) dispensations. However, in the second phase of the PMLN government, the Army started to wrestle back the political space it had lost since the ouster of General Pervez Musharraf. And with that, it deemed it necessary to capture control over the media and its narrative.

Interestingly, Musharraf’s regime in its second phase had a rather hands-off approach towards the media. But by 2015, the army, under General Raheel Sharif, was already hounding the dissenters in the media. His director general of Inter-Services Public Relations (DG-ISPR), General Asim Bajwa, was instrumental in both coercing and coopting media outlets. Bajwa helped sire ISPR’s troll farms but avoided public confrontation. His replacement, General Asif Ghafoor, however, acted like a schoolyard bully on social media and his minions at the ISPR openly threatened journalists and gave them directives via WhatsApp and similar portals.

File photo of Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan and chief of army staff General Qamar Bajwa. Photo: ISPR

The Pakistani Army is many things but one thing it is not: ill-disciplined. There is no way that the ISPR could have gone on with its shenanigans without Raheel Sharif or the incumbent Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s knowledge and approval. In fact, General Asim Bajwa was rewarded when he was appointed as chief of the China-Pakistan Economy (CPEC) Corridor Authority, and also serves as media advisor to Prime Minister Imran Khan currently. General Ghafoor is now serving as the general officer commanding an infantry division and was replaced by Major General Babar Iftikhar.

While General Iftikhar has kept a low public profile, the army’s project to root out even the last vestiges of dissent continues relentlessly. In fact, with the army-installed Imran Khan regime turning out to be a disaster, the junta has become more sensitive to criticism and more inclined to shoot the proverbial messenger.

Also read: Pakistan’s Army Continues to Mollycoddle Terrorists and Hound its Critics

The owner of the country’s largest media house, the Jang/Geo Group, languishes in prison over a decades-old charge because his outlet still manages to air programming critical of the Imran-Bajwa regime. The group’s leading anchorperson Hamid Mir, who himself survived an assassination attempt, went on record to say that sections of his show covering Jan’s abduction were censored at the behest of (the army’s) intelligence agencies. Mir clearly stated that civilian authorities had nothing to do with the abduction.

Justice Qazi Faez Isa

Why were the intelligence agencies so brazen in this abduction? The simple answer is because they could. They knew very well that Jan was scheduled to appear before the Supreme Court of Pakistan (SCP), in a contempt case the next day and his disappearance would invariably raise questions. But they wanted to send a message not just to Jan, but any other journalist who dares to cover the Army’s encroachment into politics and businesses.

In fact, Jan has been covering in detail the SCP proceedings involving Justice Faez Isa, who is in line to become the chief justice of Pakistan (CJP) and whose name was referred to the Supreme Judicial Council for investigation by the president of Pakistan, presumably at the behest of the establishment. Isa is widely seen as a fair-minded judge who had chastised the army’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Directorate, over its role in orchestrating protests against Nawaz Sharif’s elected government in 2017. In the army’s calculus, Justice Isa could be a wild card when he becomes the CJP in 2023, which is also the year for general elections if the current parliament completes its term. The SCP took suo motu cognizance of a tweet by Jan in which he had hit out at the seven judges of the court who wanted Isa to be probed by the Federal Board of Revenue .

The shoddy attempts at plausible deniability notwithstanding, the army’s thugs weren’t really trying to hide their actions. They wanted to make an example out of Jan.

The instant chorus of support – from rights activists, journalist organisations, politicians, diplomats, and common people – predominantly on social media, for the abducted journalist, along with the CCTV footage, may have put a damper on his captors’ designs. Justice Isa broke from convention and visited Jan’s family while he was still in captivity. The chief justice of the Islamabad high court, Justice Athar Minallah, took cognizance of the abduction and put the civilian authorities on notice.

Whether his captors had plans to hold him longer or even harm him, we don’t know. But the concerted condemnation definitely helped the release. This, however, is neither the first instance of its kind nor would it be the last. A similar reaction, minus the judges acting, after the abduction of columnist and rights activist Gul Bukhari two years, had led to her swift recovery. But it was only a reaction and did not turn into a cohesive action plan for the future.

A year ago, several western law enforcement agencies had warned over 20 Pakistani dissidents that the ISI had plans to physically harm them. Earlier this month a document surfaced through social media, which named five journalists and writers, including me, to be monitored. Ostensibly an internal memorandum of Pakistan’s Ministry of Interior, called for monitoring activities of one Afghan and four Pakistani-origin writers and attempts to stop their “rhetoric against Pakistan” in the future. It prompted Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF) to warn Pakistani authorities against threatening these writers.

Gul Bukhari. Photo: Reuters/Mohsin Raza

After his release, Jan has conducted himself with even more poise. He appeared before the SCP in stride, to face the contempt charges against him. He has eloquently put his version of events on record. But unless everyone who spoke in support of him comes together to proactively hold the Pakistani Army’s feet to the fire, it will continue to hound dissenters. The mealy-mouthed condemnations by certain politicians, especially those of the PMLN that claims Jinnah’s mantle today, are not enough. Unless the army is named as the tormentor, its impunity won’t end. The media and rights activists can raise awareness, but the heavy lifting has to be done by the political parties. Makers of the law are also supposed to be its defenders. They can’t shirk this duty.

Mohammad Taqi is a Pakistani-American columnist. He tweets @mazdaki.