Pakistani journalist and social media activist, Taha Siddiqui, who narrowly escaped a recent abduction attempt, addresses the 10th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see quotes below, followed by full prepared remarks.
On attacks on journalists in Pakistan:
“To a visitor, it may seem that the media in Pakistan is quite vibrant and independent … But if you scratch the surface, you will find out there are topics that are a taboo and self-censorship is the norm.”
“More than a 100 Pakistani journalists have been killed in Pakistan in the last 15 years. And dozens more have been beaten up, kidnapped or threatened into silence.”
“The Pakistan Army mostly uses intimidation tactics to silence the press.”
On escaping abduction by Pakistani authorities:
“On 10th January, just about six weeks ago, I was on my way to the airport in Islamabad when armed men stopped my taxi and tried to take me away. I would have gone missing and not here in front of you if I had not escaped.”
“I jumped out of an unlocked door and ran for my life, managing to get to a nearby police station. The police have failed to find a single trace of my would-be abductors who took away my passport, my electronic equipment and even my belongings.”
“The police in charge in Islamabad says those who tried to take me were quite ‘intelligent’ as they left no clues. I told him the word he is looking for is not intelligent but intelligence agencies.”
“In the last one year only, dozens of similar cases have been reported where journalists, activists and social media users have been beaten up, or picked up…”
On living in exile:
“I currently have been living in exile since last one week and do not know when it will be safe to head back, but I will ensure that I continue to raise voice for the rights of Pakistani public and that is why I made it here today too.”
When I told my parents I was invited United Nations to speak about Pakistan’s attempt to abduct me, they strongly advised against it. A friend warned that by coming here and speaking today – I was being loud – and Pakistani authorities do not like “loud” people. Another colleague said I should be careful because at the end of the day I have to live in Pakistan… All this is true but I have one response – I am doing this for all of us. I tell my family, friends and colleagues that recently they came for me, tomorrow they may come for any of you and it will continue, until one day when there is no one left to speak the truth — But before that happens, I want to ensure that I did everything in my power to fight for our right to freedom of speech.
To a visitor, it may seem that the media in Pakistan is quite vibrant and independent, especially because it has almost absolute freedom when it comes to reporting on government and political parties. But scratch the surface and you will discover taboo topics, and that self-censorship is the norm. Such taboo subjects include – the military and religion, particularly Islam.
Challengers of this topic rarely survive–be it an individual or a news organization.
Over 100 Pakistani journalists have been killed in Pakistan in the last 15 years. Dozens more have been beaten, kidnapped or threatened into silence.
While there are non-state threats, they are usually linked to a state apparatus in some way. For example – when Geo News – Pakistan’s leading news channel accused the intelligence services of orchestrating an attack on one of its journalists – the channel was forcibly closed down on blasphemy charges and a religious lobby was activated to “punish” the network.
Pakistan’s army mostly uses intimidation tactics to silence the press. They also use financial incentives to motivate news organizations. Thus, news organizations constantly run propaganda fed to them by the military, including songs, videos, and news. All this has created a militarized society that the army then uses for its strategic purposes, for example to justify its own expensive presence, or interference in matters in which they should not be involved…
For the last 12 years, I have been reporting on military affairs including military human rights abuses, business empires and political manipulations. The running joke among my friends was that they would take a photo with me at the end of our meetings, saying it may just be the last time they met me alive – given how vocal I have been.
Finally, in May 2017, my fears were realized. Pakistan’s federal investigation agency ordered my arrest over charges they have yet to inform me about. Insiders tell me that the Pakistan Army’s intelligence agency is behind this move. I thus approached the courts through the late Asma Jahangir, who offered to fight my case. The courts ordered the agency to back down and I resumed my work. But the courts did not stop them – on 10th January, just about six weeks ago, I was on my way to the airport in Islamabad when armed men stopped my taxi and tried to take me away. I would have gone missing if I had not escaped. But given my presence of mind and their mistake, I jumped out of an unlocked door and ran for my life, managing to get to a nearby police station. The police have failed to find a single trace of my would-be abductors who stole my passport, my electronic equipment and other belongings. The cameras in the area were not working and even though it happened around 8 am , with traffic all around. Except for the taxi driver who was taking me to the airport and a girl on her way to her university, no one has come forward as an eyewitness.
The day it happened, after I filed the case, I told my investigation officer that I will see him soon when he has caught the culprits and he laughed . The police in charge in Islamabad says those who tried to take me were quite “intelligent” as they left no clues. I told him the word he is looking for is not intelligent but intelligence agencies.
Just before my failed abduction attempt, I was in the city of Lahore, where a peace activist Raza Khan had gone missing and another journalist Zeenat Shahzadi who had been missing for two years had recently returned but disappeared from the public . I was investigating both these cases and had conducted interviews about them, but my attackers took away all the material that I was to send that day to my head office for broadcasting.
For over two months now, Raza has been missing, and his only crime was bringing Pakistani and Indian youth together on a platform called Aghaz-e-Dosti (start of friendship). In the last year alone, dozens of similar cases have been reported where journalists, activists and social media users have been beaten up, or picked up from central Pakistan, unlike previousl cases when such things happened only in remote areas of the country like Balochistan, the tribal belt etc. The common theme among all these cases is that the victims were vocal about issues the military wants to control , like Pakistan-India relations, military policy and the military’s role beyond its mandate in areas like politics and business.
And in response to our words that can never harm anyone – they have tried to silence us with violence. I have chose the pen as my weapon—they have responded with guns.
I truly believe evil does not prevail and I have done nothing wrong but exercise my freedom of speech—it is this conviction that continues to motivate me. I have temporary relocated myself to Europe because of safety concerns and am living in Paris with my family, but without a proper job and without a proper home. Living out of a suitcase is not easy but I decided there was no way I was going to compromise on my freedom of speech and hence I could temporarily compromise on my residence in Pakistan and therefore I currently have been living in exile since a week ago and do not know when it will be safe to head back. Nevertheless, I will ensure that I will continue to raise a voice for the rights of the Pakistani public and that is why I am here today.
I urge fellow diplomats here who believe in the same values as I do, to call out the Pakistan Army. Following my attack, the American government was the only government to issue condemnation. Pakistan has many international partners, especially economic ones. It is time that foreign countries should deal not put their values at the expense of their monetary interests. Together, we dissidents from inside the country and you all from outside the country can pressure the military to stop such practices which have no place in a pluralistic, democratic and progressive Pakistan that we all want to see.