Ali Chishti, who writes for The Friday Times, has gone public in Islamabad with details of his abduction and beating last Friday, August 30. Chishti is making the rounds of TV talk shows describing how he was picked up in Karachi by uniformed police driving a police vehicle, blindfolded, switched to another police vehicle, taken to a small room somewhere in Karachi, and beaten by men he does not think were police officers. After nine hours, he was dropped by the side of the road at 4:30 Saturday morning.
Physical abuse of journalists is not uncommon in Pakistan, but this high-profile exposure of an attack in the heart of the country's largest city challenges the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to address the violence aimed at journalists in Pakistan. There have been six deaths so far this year; four were journalists caught in bombings, and two were targeted killings for which no clear motive has yet been established by CPJ.
Chishti says he is convinced the police were operating on behalf of a third party, but he has declined to make further accusations. "They know who the masterminds are behind this attack. It is up to the police to identify them," Chishti told CPJ this morning. (Read Chishti's full account here.)
Chishti usually writes about security and intelligence matters for The Friday Times -- always a dangerous beat for reporters in Pakistan. "My star Friday Times reporter in Karachi," his editor Najam Sethi called him in a tweet about the incident. His most recent Times article, Textbooks and tolerance, is critical of textbooks used in Sindh that vilify the Hindu minority in Pakistan. Some of Chishti's recent posts on his IT company's web site analyze MQM politics (the Mutahida Qaumi Movement is Pakistan's third largest political party, with its power base in Karachi) -- another dangerous zone -- and reason enough to pull out of Karachi to Islamabad. For a broader understanding of the threats journalists work under in Karachi and the rest of Pakistan, read Elizabeth Rubin's excellent report Roots of Impunity: Pakistan's Endangered Press and the Perilous Web of Militancy, Security, and Politics.
When I spoke with him this morning, Chishti made it clear he is not accusing any group of being behind his abduction. He just wants the police to investigate and prosecute the officers who seized him and handed him over to his interrogators.
In Islamabad, Chishti weighed his options with colleagues before deciding to go public. In the last few years, Pakistani journalists have increasingly taken that path. Rather than remain silent, or maybe quietly share the details of the incident with a few friends, or send an email with the subject line "If I am killed . . .," many have reported about the threats they've received.
Umar Cheema set the standard. A reporter with Islamabad's The News, he was abducted in September 2010 by unknown assailants who stripped, beat, and photographed him in humiliating positions. Almost immediately after he was released, Cheema went on television to tell the world what happened at the hands of "men in police commando uniforms." Cheema's refusal to stay silent has drawn much attention to the widespread anti-press violence in Pakistan.
The Sharif government should consider its next step carefully. In Cheema's case, as in many others, a highly publicized series of special investigations melted away with no substantive action taken by the authorities. In the high-profile murder of Saleem Shahzad in 2011, CPJ voiced its skepticism about such special tribunals -- see Justice for Saleem Shahzad? We've seen this before...
In this case, the government must ensure that the police carry out an investigation, perhaps with the oversight of the judiciary, and that the police officers involved identify the people who ordered the abduction and all be brought to justice. That would be an important first step for the Pakistan government in reversing the country's terrible record of impunity when it comes to journalists being threatened, harassed, beaten and killed.