Saleem Shahzad: the journalist who was not afraid of the ISI

Pakistan's intelligence services are prime suspects for silencing the journalist.

The death of Saleem Shahzad brings to three the high profile political assassinations in Pakistan this year. Like Salman Taseer, governor of Punjab, and Shahbaz Bhatti, minister for minorities, Shahzad also refused to bow to the ISI -- whom he named directly. On the cusp of revealing high level rogue military involvement in the attacks on the Mehran-Karachi naval base on Dunya tv he was taken into custody and killed.

Shahzad fought to show the real workings of the Pakistan military/ISI state which have been so obscured through a long-term programme to its citizens of state propaganda, jingoism, conspiracy theories and disinformation. He had evidence of their sponsorship of extremism and their involvement in the 2008 Mumbai bombings.

More pernicious has been the long drip of propaganda to the ordinary people in Pakistan through Urdu medium television and newspapers, a proportion of which are owned or have some journalists in pay by the ISI. A senior Pakistan editor tweeted in response to decades of disinformation: "We as a nation are so used to conspiracy theories, it sickens me. CIA/RAW/Mossad/Blackwater are NOT killing our people. WAKE UP" @mehmal. She continued: "No difference between the army/ISI/Taliban/al-Qaeda/jihadis/fanatics/bigots: they will all kill you whenever they want".

But there are signs after the Abbottabad raid that the ISI may be in disarray. The information on the cache of 100 memory sticks found at the Bin Laden compound is in US hands; the rogue elements of the ISI do not know to what extent it blows the lid on their involvement with al Qaeda and indeed their own networks. And they are facing a hostile press in Pakistan, although it has succumbed before to ISI sweeteners and the usual line that the army is protecting the country.

In any case, it isn't the English language middle-classes that need enlightenment. To bring change to the regime, the combined media will have to blow away decades of falsity and deceit to the ordinary and impoverished people of Pakistan . Most notably that the enemy is not without but within, and that the military has misled the state and its people over decades.

The lower ranks of the army in their assaults in north and south Waziristan were always told that India was sponsoring the Taliban. Anatol Lieven, who recounted this, also pointed out that in WW2 a troop of Breton soldiers were found to get a greater spring in their step when they were told that they were off to fight the British. India, which is not innocent of its own media-led anti Pakistani propaganda, is favourable to peace and improved trade, but with China putting pressure on its Himalayan borders, would probably settle over Kashmir and would welcome an EU type federation of subcontinental states.

Shahzad was an exceptionally courageous man because he was aware of the likely outcome of his reporting. He left a statement with Human Rights Watch that should he disappear, he had been receiving threats and the ISI was responsible.

In Pakistan the crucial state communication structure is creaking under the weight of disinformation the regime has put out and the fear and intimidation that they have used to keep it in place.

Syed Saleem Shahzad, like Taseer and Bhatti, were silenced because full-knowing the risks, they said no.

Catriona Luke is a freelance writer and editor.

 

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue