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 TIME.com, 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.