Aug 13

Najam Sethi Response On Imran Khan Allegations

Posted on Wednesday, August 13, 2014 in News

Jul 20

Najam Sethi, the TV star who dared take on Pakistan’s spy agency

Posted on Friday, July 20, 2012 in News

The Guardian

Death threats force outspoken host of chatshow Aapas Ki Baat to broadcast from converted bedroom to avoid travel into Lahore

Najam Sethi told viewers: 'If anything should happen to me or my family we would hold the military establishment at the highest level responsible'. Photograph: Noah Seelam/AFP/Getty Images

Najam Sethi, the star of one of Pakistan‘s top rated political chatshows, does not travel far to work. For the three nights a week his programme is on air, Sethi simply opens his bedroom door and walks into a purpose-built studio.

Since January the veteran journalist has been broadcasting from the glossy, little studio because he fears his public criticism in Aapas Ki Baat (Just Between the Two of Us) of one of Pakistan’s most powerful institutions could get him killed.

He is not alone. Last month the prominent human rights lawyer Asma Jahangir, who lambasts the military for interfering in civilian politics, claimed there was a plot to kill her hatched “at the highest level of the security apparatus”. She has since been given government guards to protect her.

Almost alone among the country’s army of TV pundits, Sethi regularly takes on the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), the military spy agency accused of everything from supporting the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan to murdering its critics. Few other Pakistani journalists dare make such claims, or even criticise the Pakistani army’s long history of interfering in the affairs of the nation.

A staple of Sethi’s show is raking over the history of “failed military strategies, lost wars, misadventures and coups” by Pakistan’s generals.

Sethi began to feel seriously concerned for his safety after the US raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound last May, after he told his audience Pakistan must have been “complicit or incompetent” during the al-Qaida chief’s decade-long stay in the country.

The broadcast led to a “stormy” face-to-face confrontation with a very senior ISI official. “He accused me of everything, anti-Pakistan, anti-army, anti-everything,” Sethi said.

Weeks later the journalist Saleem Shahzad, who wrote extensively about the Taliban, al-Qaida and the ISI, was found dead in a canal. Sethi told viewers Shahzad had been tortured to death by the ISI.

With the top brass apoplectic, high-level government officials warned Sethi his name had been circulated on a hit list. A kidnapping plot, he was told, had been hatched involving two militant groups with links to the ISI.

Militant groups have pulled off some audacious kidnappings of high-profile people in Lahore, including Shahbaz Taseer, son of the assassinated former governor of Punjab province, who has not been seen since he was hauled out of his car in an upmarket area of Lahore in August.

Sethi and his wife, the journalist Jugnu Mohsin, hoped the danger would die down if they left the country. After four months abroad, Sethi returned to find he was still at risk, despite going public about the threats against him.

“On the first programme I did when I came back, I said I had been facing threats from state and non-state actors,” he said. “And I warned that if anything should happen to me or my family we would hold the military establishment at the highest level responsible.”

Security cameras now cover his house, which he rarely leaves. Soon he will have an armoured vehicle for his occasional forays into the city. Trusted guards from Mohsin’s ancestral village have been drafted in to keep an eye on the guards provided by the government.

Sethi’s liberal politics show, generally out of step with a society that appears to be turning more conservative, has been a surprise hit on the country’s most popular private channel and commands primetime advertising rates, despite going out at 11pm. With a hit on their hands and nightly journeys to the Lahore studios of Geo TV thought to be too dangerous, channel bosses took the unprecedented step of building their star a studio in the couple’s old bedroom.

Sethi sits at a glass table in the middle of the blue and yellow set and discusses the day’s news with co-host Muneeb Farooq. With Pakistan buffeted by what seems to be at least one scandal, disaster or political upheaval a week, there’s always a lot to talk about.

While the programme is slick, the makeshift broadcasting facilities are anything but. The production team run the show from monitors and laptops inside a battered pink and white Toyota Coaster in the driveway. They work in cramped, uncomfortable conditions – even at 11pm when the show begins, temperatures in Lahore are sweltering.

“Logistically it is a nightmare,” said Zeeshan Khan, the producer. “If it rains, basically we can’t broadcast.”

As the show goes out Mohsin sits next door on their bed watching the broadcast, the sound turned down so that it doesn’t disturb her husband just a few metres away.

Sethi receives ample abuse on the internet for his efforts, with people accusing him of being a US spy or of being corrupt. Recently his name appeared among a list of journalists allegedly paid off by a billionaire real estate tycoon. He denies the claims and sees it as part of a “fully fledged campaign” by military intelligence to undermine his credibility. He is more concerned about the threats. “In thirty years of English journalism, I got maybe three threats,” said Sethi, who still edits The Friday Times. “But in three years in television I get one or two threats every day.”

Nadeem Farooq Paracha, a cultural commentator for the Dawn newspaper, said Sethi’s value lay in his political predictions, which usually turned out to be correct – and the fact that “he does not follow the usual rightwing, populist narrative of the rest of the Urdu media”.

He also challenges the “military establishment’s Orwellian distortions of history”, that Paracha says airbrushes great fiascos such as the 1971 war that led to the breaking away of East Pakistan and the formation of Bangladesh.

“The army have started to realise that with him being on such a mainstream channel with such a huge audience he is starting to influence a lot of people, young minds particularly,” Paracha said.

Sethi takes the threats as a sort of backhanded compliment, a sign that he must be doing something right and relishes the clout the show has given him. He said: “I can’t go back to newspapers now. I’m not interested.”


Oct 16

Statement of Najam Sethi to Justice Saqib Nisar Commission of Inquiry to Investigate kidnapping, torture and murder of Saleem Shahzad

Posted on Sunday, October 16, 2011 in News

Statement to
Justice Saqib Nisar Commission of Inquiry
to Investigate kidnapping, torture and murder
of Saleem Shahzad

Media, Military and Judiciary:
Responsibility, Restraint & Accountability

By Najam Sethi, July 15th 2011
Editor Friday Times, and Group Advisor, Jang/Geo Group, Pakistan

According to credible news reports, journalist Saleem Shehzad was “lifted” in broad daylight in Islamabad on 29th May, tortured, killed and dumped in a canal within hours by “unknown” assailants. The only problem with this version of events is Shehzad’s last written testament to Ali Dayan Hasan, Human Rights Watch Pakistan, and to Hameed Haroon, President of the All Pakistan Newspaper Society, some months ago in which he communicated his fear that the ISI, rather than some unknown forces, had warned him off for wading into troubled waters and might exact punishment. Additionally, some close family members and friends have confirmed that a senior ISI officer was in touch with Saleem and had even “interrogated” him some time ago. The ISI has denied the kidnapping and murder charge while admitting that a senior officer was indeed in contact with him.

Shehzad was a journalist of international repute. He was an expert on the chief state and non-state actors in the war on terrorAl-Qaeda, Taliban, ISI, Pakistan Army and various former jihadi-turned terrorist outfits operating in Punjab and FATA like the Jaish-e-Mohammad, Harkatul Islam and Lashkar-e-Tayba. As such, it was inevitable that his reports would incur someone’s displeasure and even hostility. Indeed, he was briefly detained by the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2006 but later cultivated sufficiently good relations with them to interview their leading lights. His insightful book on the Taliban has just been published in London and will be required reading even for experts on the subject.

In recent times, his writings focused on areas of critical concern. He wrote about internal political developments in the armed forces of Pakistan, dilating on extensions, postings and transfers and as well as doctrinal, strategic and tactical maneuverings. More ominously, he warned of the existence and development of Al-Qaeda-Taliban “cells” launched by Ilyas Kashmiri, a former ISI asset and current Taliban commander, in the bowels of the security services, especially in the Navy. He also highlighted a complex nexus between the ISI and elements of the Afghan Taliban in which key “wanted” commanders like Mulla Omar, Mulla Baradar, Mulla Nazir and warlord Siraj Haqqani figured. In his latest piece – whose promised second part will never see the light of print – he criticized the leaders of the Pakistan Navy for willfully ignoring the threat from Al-Qaeda “cells” inside its rank and file, thereby exposing PNS Mehran to the May 22nd attack, and pledged to expose the incompetent or fearful decision makers in all the three services responsible for the country’s security. The dye was cast.

I can personally vouch that Saleem Shehzad was one of several Pakistani journalists on the ISI’s list of troublemakers. Most have already informed their families, media employers and international watchdogs of their unsolicited interaction with the agency. A few have been roughed up already while others have been advised to heed the writing on the wall.
These are testing times for Pakistani journalists caught in various sectarian, ethnic, Taliban and Agency crossfires. On top of that is the plunging credibility of the armed forces and their Intel Agencies in the eyes of Pakistanis and a desperate bid by them to halt the slide by silencing civilian dissent. Fear stalks Pakistan’s “free” media like never before. Unfortunately, however, the Zardari government is too weak or scared to do anything about it while the opposition is too scattered and divided to speak with any authority on the subject beyond the obligatory “press release” and prayer.
If silence is not an option, what to do?

First, all journalists who have been “advised” or threatened by any state or non-state actor to watch their tongue should lodge detailed confidential reports of such interactions with a media watchdog that enjoys their confidence. This practice will serve as a deterrent because the media watchdog will be in a position to reveal the record in the event any threat is actually carried out, as Human Rights Watch did in Saleem Shehzad’s case. Families, friends and colleagues may also be emboldened to collectively harness the judiciary to bear witness to, and redress, all such infringements of fundamental rights.

Second, the media must help create a national consensus to back the armed forces and government in the war against terrorism. There should be no two opinions that this isn’t our war. Having suffered the most losses, the army and Intel agencies are easily provoked by shrill, sometimes ill-informed critics belittling their competence or accusing them of complicity or lack of zeal in defending national honour or sovereignty. Perhaps a sense of media proportion on releasing and analyzing “sensitive” information on the basis of dubious sources may help to diffuse provocation and improve the situation.

Pakistan is passing through a rough transition in state-nationhood. For the first time, the media is able and free to debate and discuss complex issues and demand accountability of public servants in the army and bureaucracy and elected representatives alike. The civil-military imbalance is also coming under democratic scrutiny in an unprecedented manner with parliament desperately trying to impose a measure of input and oversight on the conduct and national security policies of the armed forces. A proliferation of enquiries focused on the role of the armed forces and security agencies in many areas of security and governance is creating tension and raising blood pressures in all the organs of the state. The situation calls for restraint, responsibility and accountability in equal measure from the media, military and politicians as stakeholders.

But Pakistan’s Military Inc remains angry at leading sections of the local and foreign media for spreading “false”, “baseless” and “malicious” news and analyses designed to “destabilize and undermine the armed forces”. Nothing less than a vicious “conspiracy” against the noble and heroic armed forces is alleged.

There are two core dimensions to this angry retort. The first relates to domestic media criticism of the military’s performance, role and policy as demonstrated by a string of recent failures which show the military and its various agencies and allied institutions in rather poor, even humiliating, light. The second concerns the local media which is fearful and angry after Saleem Shahzad’s abduction and killing and is alleging that the criminals’ “footprints” (as per Saleem’s last testament to media watchdogs) lead to Aab Para.

The first clutch of criticisms relates to the military’s performance. The issue for the military here is not so much about the validity of the facts – which are undeniable — but whether it is proper to reveal them because they weaken the morale and public standing of the armed forces and thereby undermine “national security”.
But there is another way of looking at the matter.

In a democracy there are no “sacred cows”. If elected prime ministers, presidents, chief ministers, opposition leaders, civil servants and businessmen can be hounded out of government or dragged off to jails and courts, if the conduct of judges and their judgments can be seriously questioned and criticized, if the media can be regulated, if parliament can be put on the mat, why can’t the armed forces be stretched on the same accountability rack? Surely, “national security” is determined as much by the potency of the military (which potency is determined by the yardstick of actual performance on the ground in any eventuality) as it is by the vitality of the politico-economic system and its interlocutors (civilians) that underpin the nation-state. Therefore if the latter is kosher for critical appraisal, the former should not take exception to an application of the same rules to its own behaviour and output.

The military should also realize that it cannot and should not monopolize the definition and defense of the “national interest” if it simultaneously wishes to confer the “ownership of it to the elected civilian government when it runs into trouble because of indefensible and opaque policies – contradictions in point being the “strategic” or “transactional” relationship with the US, the winking policy on drones and the war against the Al-Qaeda-Taliban terrorists (our war or theirs).

The military’s case on all core issues has been enormously weakened by its outright refusal, at first, to accept independent and credible commissions of inquiry both about its performance and about the Saleem Shahzad case and then, faced with relentless media pressure to concede, to try and tilt such inquiries in its own favour by clutching at exclusionist notions of “national security” and “national interest”. It would have been less arrogant and more advisable to concede independent commissions but to restrict their findings to parliamentary or judicial committees with powers to classify “sensitive” or “national security” issues, an acceptable norm in most democracies.

The military’s understanding of the way the free media functions in most established democracies is also lacking. Such democracies in the West or in India are built on solid and enduring foundations of civilian and constitutional oversight over their respective militaries. That is why the civilians are quick to bail out their militaries because they have established institutional “ownership” of their country’s military adventures and policies. That is also why the media in such consensually-built democracies is quick to line up behind their democratic governments and subservient militaries and the slogan of “my country, right or wrong” resounds with force. Therefore it is tilting at windmills to accuse the western media of “destabilizing” Pakistan by spreading “lies” that undermine the Pakistani military, without making the same charge at their strategic foreign allies in which such media are democratically and consensually embedded.

The difference between the free media in such established, consensual and functional civilian democracies and the free media in a dysfunctional and fledgling democracy with excessive military overhang in Pakistan is also worth stating.

The Pakistani military accuses the Pakistani media of not being as “patriotic as the Western and Indian media” because it is critical of its national security institutions unlike the “enemy”. In the event, the boot might well be on the other foot. Even after three disastrous interventions spanning thirty years and a military misadventure in Kargil in which elected civilians and fellow air force and navy comrades were kept out of the loop, the Pakistani army refuses to be subservient to the civilian constitutional order and insists of monopolizing the “national interest”. Under the circumstances, it is a moot point at best whether the media or the military is more or less patriotic in heeding or hoodwinking Pakistan’s democracy and the constitution.

Saleem Shahzad’s case is a test case for the media, military and judiciary. The media has to be brave enough to come forward and testify before the Commission of Inquiry under Justice Saqib Nisar. The military has to come clean and explain why, if it isn’t implicated seriously in the journalist’s murder, it isn’t able to investigate and trace the culprits. The judiciary has to be strong enough to resist the pressure of the military and government to hush up this case or distract the Commission from doing its job.
There is, finally, a great burden resting on the shoulders of Justice Saqib Nisar. Neither the military, nor the government, was keen to have him head this commission. But media pressure compelled them to agree to his appointment. Now he has to deliver justice. And he has to be seen as doing it too.

Jul 6

Risky Business: When Pakistani Journalists Take On the ISI

Posted on Wednesday, July 6, 2011 in News

Omar Waraich writes in Time Magazine on July 5th, 2011, about the pressures Najam Sethi is facing…

Najam Sethi is no stranger to official harassment and death threats. Since the 1970s, the prominent Pakistani journalist has been charged with treason three times. He has been held incommunicado and even tortured. In recent years, his name has appeared on hit lists drawn up by those enraged by his outspoken opposition to religious militancy. For the past two years, Sethi and his family have been forced to live under police protection.

The hostile attention has not abandoned him. Since the May 1 U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden, Sethi and other leading Pakistani journalists have come under intense pressure from Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the country’s most powerful intelligence agency. With top spies having made their fury plain in private, the journalists now face a public campaign of intimidation bent on silencing them and holding them up as traitors. (See pictures of Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan.)

The latest troubles started, Sethi says, when he began to ask tough questions about the al-Qaeda leader’s presence in Abbottabad, a garrison town a three hours’ drive from the capital, Islamabad. On his television show and in his editorials, Sethi demanded to know why the military had failed to discover bin Laden’s presence and whether it may have been hiding him. “My view was that they were either incompetent or complicit and had to answer the charges,” he says.

Sethi’s questions grew more pointed after the corpse of fellow journalist Saleem Shahzad was discovered on May 31, three days after Shahzad mysteriously disappeared. Suspicions immediately fell on the ISI. As first reported on, Shahzad told human-rights campaigners that he had earlier been threatened by the ISI. “This isn’t al-Qaeda’s style,” Sethi told his viewers, adding that terrorists are keen to publicize the killings they author.

According to the official autopsy, some 15 marks of torture were found on Shahzad’s body, heightening the earlier suspicions. Torture, Sethi explained to his viewers, was an interrogation technique long favored by Pakistan’s police and intelligence agencies. He elaborated by drawing on his own grim experiences: when Sethi was picked up in 1999 for having accused the sitting government of corruption, he was hooded and beaten.

During the ordeal, Sethi recalled, “I stopped breathing and thought I was going to die.” He suffered a heart attack before his tormentors relented. Shahzad’s case may have been similar, Sethi suggested to his viewers at the end of May, just hours after Shahzad’s body was retrieved. The slain journalist’s abductors may have wanted to only torture him, but in the process, they ended up taking his life before they realized they had gone too far.

The speculation struck a raw nerve at the ISI’s headquarters in Islamabad. For decades, the ISI has evaded much public scrutiny. Human-rights groups accuse it of rigging elections, destabilizing governments, boosting jihadist proxies, kidnapping and carrying out extrajudicial executions. Discreetly, many Pakistanis make the same charges. But the murder of Shahzad marks a turning point: now the allegations are being made in the mainstream media, adding to a recent wave of unprecedented criticism of the military.

A striking example is a bluntly worded and widely read column by Ejaz Haider, a defense specialist who writes for several newspapers. “The ISI, the agency that you head, is being accused of Saleem’s murder,” Haider wrote in the op-ed that was cast as an open letter to ISI chief Lieut. General Ahmed Shuja Pasha. “You must know that the ISI is widely reviled and dreaded at home. For an agency that was set up primarily for strategic intelligence, this is quite an achievement.”

The ISI denies that it ever threatened Shahzad or was involved in the kidnapping or killing of the journalist. The ISI has contacted Sethi, Haider and other journalists whom it feels have unfairly represented the spy agency. “For what I’ve been saying since the bin Laden raid, I have incurred the wrath of the ISI,” says Sethi. “The agency has officially expressed its anger and annoyance and irritation.” A third journalist, Hamid Mir, a political-talk-show host, goes further. The ISI, Mir alleges, recently approached him to ask that he cease his endorsement of the current civilian government. “I have refused to extend my support to the armed forces’ interference in politics,” he says. “That’s why they’re against me.”

For their comments about the military establishment, the three journalists could soon find themselves appearing before the Supreme Court. Sardar Muhammad Ghazi, a lawyer who served as deputy attorney general under the military regime of General Pervez Musharraf, has filed a 20-page petition calling on the court to stop them from disparaging the army and the ISI and to declare that such criticisms will not be tolerated and should lead to the shutdown of the offending television channel and newspaper. “These people are criticizing my armed forces,” Ghazi says indignantly. “They sit and castigate the army. I can’t tolerate it. There should be somebody who should come forward and say the media should be controlled.” In the petition, he accuses Sethi, Haider and Mir of being “out to promote the foreign agenda to destabilize and denuclearize Pakistan.” He alleges that the journalists are intent on allowing India to “expand [its] boundaries” and are influenced by the American, Indian and Israeli intelligence agencies.

Ghazi insists he did not submit the court petition at anyone’s request. “It’s purely in my individual capacity as a lawyer,” he says. Haider and Mir suspect otherwise. “My sense now is that, given this petition, they have taken a decision to put some kind of pressure,” Haider says, referring to the ISI. It is unclear whether Ghazi’s petition will make it to court. While some lawyers doubt the prospect, the petitioner says his case is in line to be heard.
But Ghazi’s petition may be merely one avenue of pressure. On the Web, the journalists are denounced as “traitors” and “fifth columnists.” One pro-army website superimposed a blue Star of David on Haider’s forehead in an attempt to cast him as an agent of Israeli intelligence. A widely circulated text message attacks Sethi and members of his family, insinuating that they are in the pay of the U.S. The journalists have little doubt as to the provenance of the electronic abuse. “This is now coming from the ISI’s cybertrolls and ghost warriors,” says Haider.

Sethi says he has received similar labels throughout his career. “When I was at college, we used to be called KGB agents,” he says, recalling his days as a leftist student activist. “When I’ve favored peaceful relations [with India], I’ve been called a RAW agent,” he adds, referring to New Delhi’s external intelligence agency. And for advocating good relations with the U.S. and supporting the fight against Islamist militancy, he’s been called a CIA agent.
The three journalists have also been discreetly banned from state-run media. When a prominent presenter at Pakistan Television (PTV) — the state-owned channel, which continues to enjoy a monopoly in rural areas where there is no cable penetration — tried to interview Haider for his analysis, the host of the show was told that the journalist was not allowed to appear on the air. The PTV presenter says Sethi and Mir are also banned.

“The past two months have been rough,” says Sethi with a sigh. “It’s been one thing after the next.” In April, Sethi’s security detail was increased after he was informed of a fresh but unexplained terrorist threat against him and his family. “According to a credible intelligence report,” read a fax from the Interior Ministry to top police and intelligence officials, “terrorists are likely to attack Najam Sethi and his family.” And despite the pressure, the veteran reporter can sound phlegmatic about it all, accepting it as a burden he’s prepared to bear. “When you challenge corruption or military arbitrariness or extremism, and you don’t stop doing it, you pay the price,” he says.

Jul 6

Najam Sethi: Pakistan Deadly Place for Press

Posted on Wednesday, July 6, 2011 in News

Journalists in Pakistan are working under extremely dangerous circumstances, said prominent Pakistani journalist Najam Sethi. The Committee to Protect Journalists says that Pakistan was the deadliest country for journalists in 2010.

The Editor-in-Chief of the Friday Times told Asia Society on May 19 that journalists are both “part of the problem and part of the solution,” walking a fine line between reporting the public’s sentiments on Pakistan’s ongoing turmoil and reinforcing them.

Sethi was interviewed by Asia Society a day after he spoke at the New York launch of its new Study Group report, Pakistan 2020: A Vision for Building a Better Future, and just before he made an appearance at the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

Click below to watch an excerpt of Sethi’s remarks at the launch event: