October 19, 2010
Well-known Pakistani investigative journalist Umar Cheema’s abduction and torture by Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) officials recently in Islamabad may have come as a surprise to many but is in fact part of the strong arm tactics employed by the Pakistan Army and its intelligence wing to force journalists to fall in line.
Cheema, working with The News, a reputed and widely read English daily, was picked up by men in black commando gear when he was returning home from dinner; they blindfolded him, bundled him into a car and drove out of town. At a place that he could not recognise, Cheema was handcuffed, beaten severely, stripped, tonsured, hung upside down and humiliated, all of which were videotaped. Six hours later, while his panicked family and friends launched a desperate search for him, Cheema was dumped some 100 miles away from Islamabad.
Cheema is not the first Pakistani journalist to face the wrath of the ISI and Pakistan Army for not towing the line. He was in fact warned by an ISI official early this year to go slow on anti-Army/ISI articles in the newspaper. Cheema is perhaps one of the few who have chosen to stand up and be counted. He publicly accused the ISI of abduction and torture. He said he had become the target of the intelligence agencies and the Army for a series of articles he had done for The News.
On July 8, 2010, for instance, Cheema did a story headlined “Agencies Mishandled High-profile Terror Attacks,” which detailed how intelligence agencies deliberately or otherwise goofed up in investigating the terrorist attack on Lt. Gen. Mushtaq Beg and the suicide bombing of an Army bus near Rawalpindi. He also said that the six accused in the attack on the ISI campus were acquitted due to shoddy investigations.
A day earlier, Cheema wrote another story “Army, Agencies Accused of Not Cooperating on Terror Attacks Probe” which highlighted that the Punjab government had, in an affidavit before the court, accused the Pakistan Army and ISI of not cooperating with the police in investigating some of the high-profile terrorist attack cases. Some of his earlier stories were a direct indictment of the Pakistan Army.
On June 8, he exposed the Army’s refusal to provide records of the court martial proceedings to two commandos who had participated in the Lal Masjid operations in July 2007; the commandos had challenged the Army’s decision to dismiss them. On May 26, Cheema wrote about the mysterious arrest of an Army Major in connection with the Times Square bomber Faizal Shahzad. On May 16, he wrote about how Tariq Aziz, a crony of former President President Pervez Musharraf, who had become a confidante of President Zardari and was enjoying official hospitality and services. Cheema has also been running a campaign against the Army-run National University of Modern Languages, particularly its Rector, a Brigadier.
Cheema is not the only journalist to bear the brunt of the agencies in the recent past. The well-known journalist and commentator, Kamran Shafi, was browbeaten by anonymous persons after he ran a series of critical comments about the Army in Dawn. Shafi, not given to pussyfooting when it comes to criticising the all-powerful Army, first received threats on the phone and then an attempt was made to scare him by firing at his house. Anonymous motorcycle riders let loose a volley of shots at his house when the family was asleep. Shafi, not given to such threats, promptly reported the incident in the next day’s newspaper and refused to be cowed down.
But Shafi, like Cheema, is a rarity among the media fraternity in Pakistan which has always remained shy of writing stories against the Army or ISI. A few days after Cheema was released, Shafi wrote in Dawn that “we will never find out what happened to poor Cheema because the Deep State does not want us to find out. It is a law, a country, a nation, and a state unto itself rolled up in one, independently sprung as it is due to the billions of rupees it forcibly purloins from the hapless government of Pakistan on pain of imminent death and worse.”
And those who did never dared to do it again after being visited by ISI personnel. Ghulam Husnain, for instance, who used to work for the English monthly, The Herald, and wrote an investigative piece on the whereabouts of Dawood Ibrahim, the Indian fugitive. Ibrahim, designated a global terrorist, was being hunted by the Indian authorities for his involvement in the 1993 Mumbai attacks. It was well known that Ibrahim was being sheltered by ISI in Karachi. ISI had not only given a safe house at Clifton Avenue but also a Pakistani identity and passport to Ibrahim.
The Pakistan government, however, denied the Indian demand to extradite Ibrahim. Husnain exposed the Pakistani complicity by proving that Ibrahim was not only staying in Karachi but was being feted like a hero. It was a remarkable piece of investigative story, for which he was picked up, like Cheema, kept in illegal confinement and tortured for a week. When he was let off, unlike Cheema, Husnain chose to remain tight-lipped. He has not spoken or written about the incident till date.
Another journalist who suffered at the hands of ISI and Pakistan Army was Shaheen Sehbai who was the editor of The News. Sehbai ran a series of stories against the ISI and Pakistan Army exposing their involvement in the murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl. The Army leaned heavily on the owners of The News to sack Sehbai forthwith. They then forced him to flee the country. Sehbai later set up an online newspaper in the US and continued to expose the Army’s various scandals. However, the online newspaper fell victim to the new found bonhomie between the Pakistan Army and Washington after September 11, 2001.
Those who talk about the freedom enjoyed by the media in Pakistan would do well to remember what happened to Cheema for reporting what he saw.
Torturing the journalists who write against Army and ISI is one side of the coin while keeping journalists on pay roll who write articles singing paeans of Army and ISI, and writing against the Civilian governments is another side of the coin.