Shooting the messenger

In a national security state, those who raise their voice against oppression and injustice are constantly hounded by state and non-state actors. Thus it was not surprising to see the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) issue an extremely critical press release regarding the annual Human Rights Watch (HRW) report. According to the ISPR, the HRW’s annual report is “a pack of lies, propaganda driven and totally biased” and “seems to be a clear attempt to further fuel already ongoing scectarian violence and to create chaos and disorder in Pakistan (sic).” Two things first: 1) ISPR should do a spell check before issuing press releases, and 2) it also needs to do a ‘logic check’ for its logic is flawed. How can the HRW “further fuel” an “already ongoing sectarian violence” just by reporting that “at least 325 members of the Shia Muslim population were killed in targeted attacks that took place across Pakistan"? In fact, 325 is a conservative estimate by most accounts. If anything, HRW is trying to err on the side of caution because it is a well-respected, credible and independent human rights organisation known for its impartial work all over the world. Had it not come from the military’s public relations department, this press release would have been considered quite comical. Unfortunately, we cannot take such harsh criticism from the military’s PR department as a laughing matter. There is a reason why HRW is being singled out.

It all started when HRW and its Pakistan Director Ali Dayan Hasan went public with the late journalist Saleem Shahzad’s e-mail that he had sent to HRW. The minutes of Mr Shahzad’s meetings with ISI officials were in that e-mail, where he talked about a potential threat to his life by Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency, the ISI. Mr Shahzad was picked up from Islamabad on May 29, 2011, and his body bearing torture marks was found two days later from Mandi Bahauddin. Mr Hameed Haroon, the then president All Pakistan Newspapers Society (APNS), also backed HRW’s claims regarding the contents of Mr Shahzad’s e-mail. Mr Haroon said that the e-mail was “indeed one of the three identical e-mails sent by Mr Shahzad to HRW, his employers (Asia Times Online) and to his former employer, myself.” Despite this, ISPR felt the need to denounce HRW and Mr Hasan in its press release regarding Mr Shahzad’s murder. The timing of ISPR’s press release was suspect as it came days after the US Congressional hearing on Balochistan where Mr Hasan was representing HRW. It must be noted here that Mr Hasan categorically said that Balochistan was an internationally recognised Pakistani province and as a human rights advocacy group, HRW does not take any position on the issue of self-determination. Being HRW’s Pakistan director, Mr Hasan was there to highlight human rights abuses being committed in Balochistan.

While one may not agree with HRW’s position on the Baloch’s right to self-determination, one should understand that it is not the mandate of a human rights organisation to take such positions. Despite HRW’s stated stance on this issue, it seems that the military and some sections of the media are hell-bent on accusing HRW and Mr Hasan of being part of some sinister campaign to ‘Balkanise’ Pakistan. Instead of self-introspection, these elements are continually misconstruing statements by HRW. Was HRW responsible for the debacle of East Pakistan? No. Military excesses, human rights abuses and a repressive regime led to the dismemberment of Pakistan back in 1971. The same is being repeated in Balochistan today. HRW is not the only organisation to have highlighted the state’s highhandedness in the province. In fact, the Supreme Court of Pakistan, several other human rights organisations, activists, media groups and politicians have been even more critical of the role of the military and its agencies in Balochistan. Why is it that when HRW publishes reports about human rights abuses by India, Israel and the US, it becomes a divine truth for our military and some sections of the media that tarnishes HRW’s reputation when it comes to its reports on Pakistan? This is a classic case of shooting the messenger.

In September 2012, HRW issued a grave warning about the escalation in Shia killings. HRW said, “The government should also actively investigate allegations of collusion between Sunni militant groups and military intelligence and paramilitary forces and hold accountable personnel found to be involved in criminal acts.” HRW’s reference to the collusion between Sunni jihadi groups and the military is what lies at the heart of the matter and why the ISPR issued a press release condemning its annual report. General Ziaul Haq was the main proponent of jihadist groups that were sectarian in nature. Successive governments after General Zia have not done much to reverse the tide of sectarianism. The banned Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan operates freely under a new name, i.e. Ahl-e-Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ). Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) is another banned terrorist group, yet it operates freely in Pakistan. LeJ leader Malik Ishaq is a free man in a country where fabricated blasphemy charges can lead to a death sentence. Is it not surprising that a man accused of slaughtering Shias and masterminding the terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team was released from jail due to lack of evidence? Apart from paying lip-service to curb all forms of violence, what has the government and the powerful military establishment actually done to stop the menace of sectarian violence? Zilch. When Shias are asked to show their identity cards on buses by religious zealots who are out to kill them in cold blood, it reminds us of Nazi Germany. This is why the targeted killings of Shias are now being referred to as a ‘Shia genocide’. The state has so far been sitting quietly and watching while the terrorists slaughter those who belong to the same sect as that of Pakistan’s founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah. This is the tragedy of Pakistan: the soil of a country founded by a Shia Muslim is now soaked by the blood of Shias.

Apart from the ISPR, there is a media campaign to malign HRW and Ali Dayan Hasan by Pakistan’s largest media group. Mr Hasan is being accused of treason, amongst other things, by them. Such a campaign is tantamount to incitement to violence and should not be taken lightly. These are false but serious accusations that can put his life in grave danger. In a truly democratic and civilised society, such accusations against a human rights activist and a well-respected organisation would have led to loud protestations. In Pakistan, except for a few columns in the English press, one TV programme and a handful of tweets, no one has condemned this propaganda campaign against HRW. Silence is criminal. It is our duty as responsible citizens to challenge the military and some sections of the media’s biased narrative.

(Originally published in Daily Times)

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