Paris: Almost a year ago, I was sitting in my Islamabad news bureau, working on some stories while monitoring local Pakistani news on television when my attention was drawn to a promotional video on one of the channels. The video produced by the Pakistan Army’s media wing, the ISPR (Inter-Services Public Relations) was being broadcast in connection to the upcoming Defence Day (6 September), a day to remember the India-Pakistan war of 1965. The ISPR had used a video clip of the then military dictator General Ayub Khan where he said something to the effect of “…the Indians do not know who they have challenged to war…” The promotional video then went on to imply how Pakistan thwarted this aggression and surprise attack from India.
While watching it, I realised how this was absolutely misleading because neither did India start this war nor did Pakistan win it. I know this because I had read a book called The Myth of 1965 Victory which was written by a military general. The high-ranking official was tasked internally by the military to find out the failures of this 1965 war with India. In the book, the general finds out how Pakistan initiated the 1965 conflict with Operation Gibraltar and how the objective to conquer Kashmir was not achieved, so the Pakistani military actually lost this war. This book is almost impossible to find in Pakistani bookstores today. When I found out about all this a few years ago, I also wrote about it for an international news magazine. I thought to tweet the article and in subsequent tweets reminded ISPR, the military’s media wing how they were misleading the Pakistani public and propagating a history that was not true.
A few minutes after my tweets, my phone rang. I did not know the caller, but I answered. On the line was Colonel Shafiq from the ISPR. He manages journalists — that is what someone told me his job was and continues to be. After introducing himself, he said, “Why are you so against us, Taha?” At first, I did not understand what he was talking about and I asked him to explain himself.
“You just tweeted against our campaign. That’s not fair,” he said. I replied, telling him that there was nothing false in what I had said and it were actually findings of an army general who had published a book about it.
“Oh! That was hisperspective,” Shafiq replied and before I could respondm he invited me to the ISPR the next day.
“Why don’t you come and meet the new DG for ISPR General Asif Ghafoor tomorrow? He wants to meet you,” he said. I tried to get out of it by saying I am busy but the colonel insisted and eventually I said yes as I knew there was no way out of it.
Few days later, I was on my way to the Rawalpindi headquarters of the Pakistan Army, adjacent to which was the new sprawling building of the ISPR. I had not been here before and the last time I had come was when General Asim Bajwa, the last ISPR chief had invited me to lecture me about patriotism. I felt this conversation was going to be similar but I nevertheless embraced it, thinking that perhaps I could convince Ghafoor that I was doing nothing wrong by reporting facts, and they should stop glorifying past dictators or even do away with Defence Day altogether as there was nothing in celebrating a lost war.
When I arrived at the entrance of the building, I was taken upstairs to Ghafoor’s private office, where he was waiting for me. We shook hands and sat down on one corner on the sofas and before we began, the general asked a man dressed in a waiter’s outfit to bring us some refreshments.
As soon as I sat down, the general began a quiz on my understanding of military affairs. I did not understand where it was leading up to, but I was lectured on how I did not know the history and geography of my country well. There was no mention of the 1965 war yet. After dancing around the topic, it finally came up.
“Taha, we must stick to one message and that message should be of positivity, especially to the young ones that read what you write. You have a responsibility to unite us all, not divide us,” Ghafoor said to me. I had been waiting for this so, I replied immediately.
“General, should I not tell them about an investigation carried out by the army about the war that rejects all myths of victory and attack by India?” I asked.
To which I got the same reply that the colonel had previously said — “There are many perspectives and we need you to be on our side,” the general added.
Before I could say anything further, the tea arrived and the conversation was left hanging. When the tea had been served, the general got up and went towards his work table on the other side of the room. On his way there, he told me he was going to show me something confidential.
“You must not talk about this to anyone, because this is top secret!” he said to me. By that time, I was already quite fed up with his one-sided conversation, and I had no strength to argue back and so I decided to go with the flow. Moments later the general came back to me with a thick file, and placed it on the table. It had a label on it, with my name printed in bold letters.
“I will show you something from this that was shared with me,” he said without revealing who shared it, as he turned to one of the pages in the file and pointed to my printed name in the middle with a circle around it. From this circle, there were black lines drawn which connected me to different social media usernames in other circles around. It was basically my social media interaction cluster. Ghafoor pointed to a few of those clusters connected to mine and said, “This one here belongs to the Indian intelligence agencies. This one here is CIA. And your posts, comments, and tweets about Pakistan are being reshared by these accounts run by agencies to do propaganda against Pakistan.”
I tried to interject and tell the general that I had nothing to do with any foreign agencies and I was just a journalist doing my job but ignoring my response, he went on to threaten me: “Listen Taha, if you continue this way, then you will be identified with these foreign agencies, and you know that can bring you no good,” he warned.
This was not the first time I had been threatened by military officials (I plan to reveal the other incidents in a book I am currently writing). But usually the threats came from low ranking officers like brigadiers, colonels or even below, but this time it was a general – the top-most rank in the military. I was a little shaken, knowing how the military was capable of making me disappear. Only a few months earlier, I had been threatened with arrest for maligning the Pakistan Army, so I decided to assure the general of cooperation and even took the next few days easy. As 6 September, 2017 approached, I remained silent despite seeing 1965 war propaganda around me in the media, on the roads and parades organised for the day across the country. I saw how the nation was made to celebrate hate against India.
But it is only so much I can self-censor given my personality and eventually I was back to speaking openly about the military as I used to.
But perhaps that meeting in late August last year was Pakistan military’s last civil attempt at silencing me, as a few months after that meeting, I was kidnapped by armed men, in broad daylight when I was on my way to the Islamabad International Airport to catch a flight to London. I escaped the kidnapping by jumping out of the car in which I was being whisked away.
I suspect the army to be behind my failed abduction and since it did not finish the job, I decided to leave Pakistan for some time. I have relocated to Paris with my family. And from the safety of exile, I decided to write about that last warning that the Pakistan Army gave me, and explain how my country’s military threatens local journalists like me to stop reporting facts, and how the army militarises Pakistanis on Defence Day with false narratives that preach hate against neighbouring India and paint it as a constant threat.
And as long as this perception of threat exists, the military will be able to justify its relevance and dominance when it comes to running Pakistan, where it has directly ruled for half of the country’s existence, and disrupted democracy for the other half. If Pakistanis want to progress, they must see beyond the propaganda being fed by their State and demand normalisation of relations between the two countries, and the first step towards that may be knowing the truth behind days like Defence Day.
The author is an award-winning Pakistani journalist living in exile in France. He is the founder of safenewsrooms.org, a digital media platform documenting press censorship in South Asia. He tweets @TahaSSiddiqui