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.