The Ides of November?
Anonymous sources are the black sheep of journalism. Neither can they be held accountable for inaccuracies, nor can the readers really judge the value of the information being provided. Hence, in most cases, anonymous sources just reinforce the mistrust readers already have of journalists and the profession.
Even if the leak is an open secret. Even if the publication is one known for its ethics and standards, as is the author. In a country like Pakistan, journalism can get you killed. Remember Saleem Shahzad?
And so the fallout of the Cyril Almeida story on military-government interaction — and one interaction in particular. “The story was a bit too dramatic,” says renowned journalist and former member of the PML-N, Ayaz Amir. “The technicolour nature of the story… you can’t get that unless someone’s really spilling the beans and telling you everything.”
Regardless of whether the story was the culmination of some potentially award-winning investigation, or something gleaned over an evening of Black Label, the fact remains: the cat is out of the bag.
But was there anything that new in it that warranted the hurricane of reactions that came in its aftermath? After all, Pakistan’s history with non-state actors is well documented and internationally known. From the lashkar raised for the ’48 incursion into Indian-administered Kashmir onwards, there is a steady stream of such ‘assets’ that have been used not only as an extension of the country’s military might, but also as an important aspect of strategy. Al Badr. Al Shams. Harkat-ul-Jihad al Islami. Lashkar-e-Taiba. The list goes on and on, and on.
“There has never been such an admission by the government in public before,” says Ayesha Siddiqa, a defence analyst and author of the book, Military Inc. “We’ve never been privy to conversations where the civilians point a finger at the military and say, you guys are responsible for this.”
But there it was in black and white, in cold hard print — a detailed report on a meeting between the Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, his brother, Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, emissaries from the foreign ministry, nominated by Nawaz Sharif to visit assorted world capitals to enlighten them about the ‘real’ situation in Indian-administered Kashmir and Indian aggression, and the military high command and agency heads. And there were the civilians allegedly asking the brass to “act against the militants or face international isolation.” According to the Almeida report, Shahbaz Sharif, while directly addressing ISI Director-General, Rizwan Akhtar, “complained that whenever action has been taken against certain groups by civilian authorities, the security establishment has worked behind the scenes to set the arrested free.”
Immediately after the report was published on October 6 in Dawn, all hell broke loose. The Prime Minister’s office denied the story, not once but thrice, issuing the statement “the published story was clearly violative of universally acknowledged principles of reporting on national security issues and has risked vital state interests through inclusion of inaccurate and misleading content which had no relevance to actual discussion and facts.” And a statement issued by the ISPR said that the participants of the meeting expressed serious concern over the “feeding of a false and fabricated story of an important security meeting held at the PM House and viewed it as a breach of national security.”
Soon thereafter, Cyril Almeida, the author of the controversial report, was placed on the Exit Control List (ECL), and repeated denials by the establishment and a frenzy of analyses resulting from the fallout continued. Finally, according to analyst Mosharraf Zaidi, “the reaction became the story. It exposed the severe limitation of both the civilian and military leaders in terms of being able to determine which stories are worth pursuing and which need to be left alone.”
According to Ms. Siddiqa, stories like these do not damage the national interest, or national security for that matter, as these are questions that need to be raised. “If one institution, or a number of institutions are creating problems, and in fact compromising national interest themselves, the media ought to be an independent player.”
In any event though, and as with all such examples of journalism, there is invariably a beneficiary from every scoop — as there is a loser. Sometimes it’s the government. And sometimes, the opposition. To Ms. Siddiqa, “This is not a story that benefits the political government.” But this analysis runs counter to all the rumours that are flying fast and furious. Most of them are saying the same thing: the story was leaked by the ruling party to create pressure on the military establishment. And specific names have been cited of secretaries and ministers, one of whom who could be the whistle-blower. To be fair, however, the name is not important any more. The message clearly is.
When it comes to the PML-N, nobody perhaps knows its inner working as well as Ayaz Amir, once a party member and parliamentarian. He feels that sometimes the party becomes a victim of over-cleverness. “At a time when the international community, which basically means Washington, is accusing Pakistan of playing double games, they (the PML-N) come up with this thing to put more pressure on the army,” he says. He adds that its aim clearly is to strengthen the party’s own hand, get Washington’s backing, and defuse any opposition with regards to appointing the next army chief.
However, according to Amir, “the play hasn’t worked.” And everything now depends on Imran Khan’s march on Islamabad. “If the government survives, then okay, it was just a story. But if something untoward happens, then the PML-N will have been a party to it,” he says.
Apart from Khan’s march, November holds many challenges for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. The Supreme Court is hearing five separate petitions regarding the Panama Papers, one of which calls for the disqualification of the Prime Minister. General Raheel Sharif, perhaps the most popular man in Pakistan at the moment, is up for retirement and who will succeed him remains a matter of grave concern. Cross-border skirmishes continue along the line of control, and the latest edition of the uprising in Indian-held Kashmir invites unneeded attention to Pakistan’s historic links to groups that support the armed uprising in the valley. If this wasn’t enough, there is the looming presence of terrorism to contend with as well.
November could mean for the Prime Minister, what March meant for Caesar.
The writer is a journalist based in Lahore. He is the current managing editor of MIT Technology Review Pakistan, a bi-monthly science and technology magazine.