Pakistan’s ‘new normal’: a journalist on the run from gunmen

Critic of the military Taha Siddiqui blames state agencies after escaping attack

A friend comforts Pakistani journalist Taha Siddiqui, who escaped a kidnapping attempt, after he made a statement to police. Photograph: Caren Firouz/Reuters

A friend comforts Pakistani journalist Taha Siddiqui, who escaped a kidnapping attempt, after he made a statement to police. Photograph: Caren Firouz/Reuters

 

Fearing that his attackers would spot him from a distance, the investigative journalist Taha Siddiqui threw off his bright red sweater as he jumped into a ditch and crawled through mud and shrubs to reach a highway in the Pakistani city of Rawalpindi.

Just minutes earlier, the private taxi that had been taking Siddiqui, the Pakistan bureau chief of Indian television channel WION, to the airport on Wednesday morning was stopped by about a dozen armed men in plain clothes who had spilled out of a car and pick-up truck, he said.

The men dragged him from the cab, hitting and kicking him and threatening to shoot him. They ordered the taxi driver out and threw Siddiqui back into the car. Before the car could move, the journalist jumped out into incoming traffic and got into a yellow cab, he said. But the driver went only a few hundred yards, saying he didn’t want to be involved in “trouble” and asking Siddiqui to get out.

Then it was time to crawl, staying low across a large, muddy lot until he found a worker who agreed to drive him the 10 miles back to Islamabad. The attackers got Siddiqui’s laptop, data drives, phone, passport and luggage. He got away with his life. But not everyone has. It has been open season on journalists and critics of Pakistan’s military for years now.

Disappearances, extrajudicial killings, torture, intimidation – all have been brought to bear, and in the vast majority of cases, no one has ever been brought to justice.

Siddiqui is a prominent critic of the country’s powerful military establishment, and on Wednesday he said he believed that “state agencies” were behind the attack. Human rights investigators frequently accuse the military’s spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, of being behind attacks or threats against journalists. Often, especially in cases of intimidation, the security officers make no attempt to hide who they are.

“This was an attempt to take me away and turn me into a silent statistic,” Siddiqui said in an interview with the New York Times last week. “My worry is that the next time they come for me, it could end up in something much worse.”

Twitter critic

Siddiqui is a 2014 winner of the Albert Londres Prix award, the French equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize, and has written articles for several international publications, including the New York Times. He has also been become known as a frequent critic of the military on social media.

“It is public knowledge that the military establishment is annoyed with Taha’s Twitter activity,” said Iqbal Khattak, the Pakistan representative for Reporters Sans Frontières, an NGO that defends press freedom. “What has happened is worrisome, but not surprising.”

Pakistani journalist Taha Siddiqui arrives for a press conference after being assaulted by armed men in Islamabad. Photograph: Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images
Pakistani journalist Taha Siddiqui arrives for a press conference after being assaulted by armed men in Islamabad. Photograph: Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images

A spokesman for the interior ministry said interior minister Ahsan Iqbal had sought an investigation into the attack on Siddiqui. The media wing of the Pakistani army declined official comment. One military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he doubted the military was behind the attack.

He said Siddiqui had written no articles recently that criticised the army and that it would be “counterproductive” to carry out such an attack based on a handful of objectionable tweets. The officer then scoffed at the idea that Siddiqui could have escaped an attack by a dozen trained security agents.

The threats to journalists and dissidents do not end with the security agencies. Militants on both sides of the insurgency in Baluchistan province, for instance, including sectarian groups who fight mainly on the military’s side of the conflict, are known for some of the most brazen attacks.

In the past year, another avenue of threat has been opened up. Under a sweeping new cybercrimes law passed last January, the authorities have also begun warning or prosecuting journalists and online activists. And that same month, at least five activists known for internet posts critical of the military suddenly disappeared. Four have since been returned and live in exile abroad.

Civil rights advocates, as well as people directly targeted by the authorities, have described actions under the new cybercrime law that included harassment, intimidation and detention without access to lawyers or family members. In a few cases, physical abuse of those in custody was reported.

Siddiqui was one of dozens of journalists affected by the law. He was summoned last year by the civilian Federal Investigation Agency to answer for Twitter posts they considered to be critical of the military. Siddiqui refused to answer the summons unless he was formally charged, and filed a court petition claiming harassment. Hearings in the case continue.

Perilous decade

Offline, too, it has been a perilous decade for Pakistani journalists. In one of the latest attacks, in October, another investigative journalist and critic of the ISI, Ahmad Noorani, was gravely wounded in Islamabad. In 2014 Hamid Mir, a prominent journalist and talk show host, survived an attempt on his life.

In the same year, the Pakistani writer and broadcaster Raza Rumi narrowly survived a gun attack that claimed the life of his driver in the city of Lahore. He now lives in exile in the United States. In 2011, Syed Saleem Shahzad, an investigative journalist, was found dead, leading to accusations that the ISI was involved.

“It’s going to get much, much worse,” said Zarrar Khuhro, a popular talk show host with Dawn News. “Regardless of who carried out this attack or others before it, the culprits always go unpunished. So why would the attacks stop?” “Overall, we are looking at a new era of oppression in Pakistani journalism,” he said. “This is the new normal.”

Azhar Abbas, the managing director at Geo News, Pakistan’s largest news channel, which has repeatedly come under pressure because of its critical coverage of the military and its support for the civilian government, said it was essential for journalists to come together and put pressure on the government to launch a transparent inquiry.

“You can’t physically assault people, or make them disappear for having an opinion,” he said. “As journalists we have to resist these attempts to be silenced and make sure the culprits are caught.”

Self-censorship

But the attacks are raising fears, causing many to self-censor rather than risk arrest or threats against their families. Islamabad’s police superintendent, Syed Mustafa Tanveer, said on Thursday that Siddiqui’s case was formally under investigation, although he said it was too early to say who the attackers were.

“Yesterday, Taha was really shaken, but today we have called him back in to ask some more questions and to help us prepare sketches of the attackers,” Tanveer said. Siddiqui said that after reaching the police station on Wednesday, he asked the investigating officer to let him know as soon as anyone was arrested. “When I said that, he just looked right at me and laughed out loud,” Siddiqui said. “Right to my face.” – New York Times

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