The moment one heard the shameful story of the abduction, humiliation and beating of The News' Islamabad-based investigative reporter Umar Cheema, something sounded too pat.
For those who may not have followed it, this is the story as it broke earlier this evening: Cheema was waylaid on his way home early yesterday morning in Islamabad (around 3.30am) by people wearing police uniforms, bundled into a car, blindfolded and driven around for about 30 to 45 minutes, finally landing up in an unknown place where he was stripped naked, hung upside down and beaten severely before his hair and moustache were shaved off. After about six hours of this torture, he was taken and dumped on the Islamabad Motorway with warnings not to make the incident public. According to Cheema himself, the men beating him kept berating him for writing against the government and allegedly wanting to invite martial law, abused the chief justice of the Supreme Court and Cheema's parent organization, the Jang Group, and threatened his children as well as his immediate boss, Ansar Abbasi, with dire consequences if he and Abbasi continued to attack the government.
Now recall that the Jang Group has been at loggerheads with the government recently (just a few weeks ago, parts of Karachi were plastered with abusive grafitti and banners against its chief executive Mir Shakilur Rehman obviously sponsored by the ruling Pakistan People's Party) and Ansar Abbasi in particular has been a sort of a thorn in the government's side with numerous investigative stories (and unfortunately, opinion pieces) detailing corruption and incompetence in the corridors of power. On the face of it, this seems a cut and dried case of governmental fascism.
So, why did the story seem too pat? Well, basically because of the obviousness of it. Which government could hope to pull off such a stunt against a high-profile media house and NOT see wall to wall coverage of it on its television channel and newspapers? And if I were a government out to commit such fascism, would I at least not ensure that it could not be easily traced back to me? That is, would I not at least send my thugs in civvies rather than police uniforms?
See from 0:30 onwards
I realize of course that these are merely assumptions of a certain amount of government intelligence and competence and are no proofs that the government was not itself involved. The counter argument would be that the government really is far dumber than even its worst critic believes. And certainly Imran Khan, interviewed on Geo for his reactions, is willing to believe that the two largest political parties, the PPP and the PML(N), have big enough 'dakus' in them to do something like this.
But it seems my gut instinct is shared by most journalists in Pakistan, including Ansar Abbasi and Umar Cheema himself. Both pointed out that the kind of operation it was, it was far too "professionally" handled for any "private" or "freelance" thugs, which basically leaves one of the three main intelligence agencies as the culprits. Umar Cheema went as far as saying that his own feeling about what his masked captors were saying to him was that it was meant as "deception", a smokescreen if you will, to make it seem that they were government agents.
There are some additional circumstances one must keep in mind. Umar Cheema claims that his abductors had told him that they were actually lying in wait for him in Gakhar Mandi, since he was due to travel to Gujranwala, but that when he had cancelled his travel plans, they had come to Islamabad to get him. Now, the only way they could have known about his plans was if they had the ability to eavesdrop on his mobile conversations. Who can do that in Pakistan but the intel outfits? Secondly, you might also recall a very similar incident in 2003 during General Musharraf's rule, when then Punjab deputy opposition leader (and current Punjab Law Minister) Rana Sanaullah had been similarly kidnapped, beaten and had his hair, moustache as well as his eyebrows shaved off. There is little doubt who was behind that incident.
Consider also why Umar Cheema would be targeted. What shocker has he written recently that would draw the ire of the government? Actually, having gone through Cheema's recent output, really not that much. His last piece, on August 20, was about how some big businessmen would not be attending a meeting called by President Zardari to raise funds for flood relief. On July 21, he reported about Zardari's rubbishing of claims by painter Laila Shahzada's daughter that he had helped her brother steal 93 of her mother's paintings. On July 8, he reported on the opposition parties' resolve to back the judiciary in any stand-off with the government. On July 2, he reported that some Turkish guides hired for Zardari's visit to Turkey had not been paid and had gone to court against the Pakistan embassy. On June 19, he reported about Law Minister Babar Awan chartering a PAF plane to go distribute monies to bar associations in southern Punjab. On May 16, he wrote a story claiming that General Musharraf's right-hand man Tariq Aziz had become Zardari's close adviser. And on May 12, he reported about how Rehman Malik's past was being whitewashed and the record of cases against him was disappearing.
On the other hand, many of Cheema's stories seem to be rubbing up the military the wrong way. Consider: On August 5, a sensitive story about how the army is using up to 400 personnel of the Pindi police to guard the army chief's house and the routes to it. On July 8, a story about the mishandling by intelligence agencies of high profile terror attacks such as that on Lt Gen Mushtaq Baig and ISI buses, which led to the acquittal of the accused. On July 7, a story detailing the Punjab government's condemnation of the army and its intelligence agencies for not cooperating in terror attacks investigations. On June 9, a story about how one of the commandos court-martialled for disobedience during the Lal Masjid episode was seeking Nawaz Sharif's help. On June 8, a story about how the two court-martialled commandos had not been provided the court-martial proceedings and had approached the Supreme Court for justice. On May 26, a report about the quiet arrests of an army major and his brother after the Faisal Shehzad incident in New York. On May 23, a story detailing a secret report that blamed the MQM for target killings. Etc, etc, etc. Of course it was Cheema who had filed stories against the army-managed National University of Modern Languages as well, which we had written about here as well.
In fact, remarkably, tonight's special edition of Capital Talk on Geo all but laid the blame for this incident at the feet of one of the military intel agencies - either the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) or the Military Intelligence (MI). It may not have been said in so many words or obvious reasons, but the participants, including Abbasi, Cheema and the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists' President, seemed to be quite clear in their minds who was behind it, and it was not the government-controlled Intelligence Bureau. If you consider the fact that this was Geo, the channel the PPP government has had the most issues with, the host was Hamid Mir and the participants included Abbasi, both of whom have been accused of carrying an anti-PPP agenda, you really have to give pause when all more or less absolve the government.
If true, this of course then begs the immediate question: what was the motive?
While Cheema's stories touching on sensitive military issues could be one reason, I really do not feel they warrant the kind of reaction this incident indicates. Plus his last story on the military was almost one month ago. It just does not make sense. There is also a body of opinion that believes that Cheema himself was only an unfortunate pawn (none of his anti-government stories have been major shockers) and the real motive was to send a message to Abbasi who is far more prolific and opinionated. This again would make more sense if indeed it was a PPP-sponsored attack. What message would the military want to send to Abbasi? Why would they not want him to expose corruption in the government? But Abbasi himself does not believe this was directed by the government.
No, I'm afraid the only thing that makes sense then is that this was someone's idea of psy-ops. To create a further wedge between the government and the media, particularly the Jang Group. To create the perception that the government is going out of control, to build a case that can be later cited as among the reasons it should not stay in power.
Unfortunately, what this incident has shown is that whoever was involved in this shameful, shameful incident cares not a whit for the real grave issues Pakistan is grappling with at this time. All this incident is likely to do is to blacken Pakistan's name further. If it was indeed the government, it is far more stupid than anyone imagined. And if it was the military, it is at least as incompetent as the politicians it moans about.