In an unprecedented turn of events, the director generals of the country’s premier intelligence service and the military’s media wing on Thursday addressed the media and questioned the events leading up to senior journalist Arshad Sharif’s murder in Kenya and the narrative that proceeded the “unfortunate incident”.
Director General Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) Major General Babar Iftikhar, accompanied by Director General Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), said the purpose of the press conference was to shed light on the events surrounding Arshad’s murder.
The military spokesperson said the purpose of the press conference was to ensure “facts, fiction and opinion can be differentiated” and added that Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif was also informed regarding the sensitive nature of the media talk.
“It is necessary to determine the factors through which a particular narrative was formed and the people were misled,” said the army spokesperson.
Regretting that the army chief was also targeted and faced criticism, Lt Gen Babar said “an attempt was made to create a divide in the society.”
“The death of Arshad Sharif is an unfortunate incident and we are all deeply saddened by it, said Gen Babar, adding that Arshad’s family had served in the army and he was an “icon of journalism in Pakistan”.
“Arshad Sharif was an icon of Pakistani journalism. Son of a soldier, a martyrs brother, and the relative of a serving officer, hence, he conveyed the true sense of loss and sincerity in his shows related to the army.”
He added that whether it was Siachen, tribal areas, or the Line of Control (LoC), his shows will be remembered as a “role model in the world of journalism”.
Gen Babar said as Arshad was an investigative journalist when the issue of the diplomatic cypher arose, the journalist did numerous shows on the issue.
“In connection to this, he met the then-prime minister several times and conducted interviews,” said the army spokesperson, adding that the journalist might have also been shown the minutes of meetings and the cypher.
“It is very important to determine the facts regarding the cypher and Arshad Sharif’s death…to ensure the people know the truth.”
“As far as the cypher is concerned, the army chief himself raised the topic on March 11 at Kamra, to which the former prime minister said it was not a big issue”.
He said it was “surprising” for the army when a piece of paper was waived on March 27 and “an attempt was made to build a narrative that was far from reality”.
Terming the cypher “baseless and unfounded”, the military spokesman said the National Security Committee found no proof regarding a conspiracy against the PTI government and neither did the ISI.
“This is all part of the record and we wanted these findings to be in front of the people.”
The military spokesperson added that it was then left to the then-government to make public the ISI’s findings regarding the cypher, but “that was not done”.
“In fact, more rumors and fake news were spread with the aim of gaining political benefits, and a narrative was pushed that the constitutional and legal vote of no confidence was an attempt at regime change.”
“Pakistan’s institutions, especially the military leadership, were targeted and everything was linked to treason and the regime change operation.”
Gen Babar said Arshad and other journalists were later fed a particular narrative and “an attempt was made to defame Pakistan and the country’s institutions across the world”.
He further said that during the “media trial, ARY news channel played the role of a spin doctor in targetting the army and promoting a false narrative” and the NSC meeting was presented in the wrong context.
Adding that the military was expected to intervene in domestic politics, he said the words “neutral and apolitical were turned into abuse”.
“The army chief and the institution showed restraint and we tried our level best that politicians sit together to resolve their issues.”
“We tried our level best to ensure that the politicians sit and sort out their political issues, but this did not transpire.”
Gen Babar further said that it was also alleged that the cypher “was hidden”. He then asked if such was the case, what action was taken against those who tried to hide the diplomatic communication.
“And if no action was taken, why was it not taken and why are they not named? Twisting around words, spreading fake news, and calling the leadership of institutions traitors, they were then put in the dock.”
The military spokesperson, referring to the comments made by the slain journalist earlier against the institution, clarified that the army “did not have any negative sentiments about him [Arshad] and there are no such feelings now”.
“Many other journalists were also discussing the cypher and remained in Pakistan. They also raised very tough questions, which is their constitutional right. During the entire cypher drama, whenever we talked with any channel, we asked them to not label the institution’s leadership as traitors on the basis of fake stories and to not turn the army’s apolitical stance controversial.”
‘Facts’ surrounding Arshad Sharif’s death
DG ISPR said the provincial government of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (CP) had issued a threat letter, on the directives of the provincial executive, on August 5 which claimed that the militant Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) group was planning to target the journalist in Rawalpindi.
He added that no information was shared with the federal government or the agencies regarding “who or why” provided the provincial govt with the information”.
“This implies that the threat alert was issued with a specific thought, which perhaps had the objective of making Arshad Sharif leave the country,” said Gen Babar.
“There were reports that he [Arshad] did not want to leave the country but was constantly reminded that his life was in danger.”
Revealing more details, he said that PTI leader Shahbaz Gill, on August 8, gave a statement on ARY News on the country’s institutions, for which he was condemned and arrested.
Adding further, the military spokesperson said the ARY News senior staffer Ammad Yousaf was also arrested and during the investigation, it was revealed that the CEO of the news channel had asked Ammad to send Arshad abroad following Gill’s arrest.
“During this time, a narrative was formed that Arshad Sharif would be murdered abroad.”
A ticket for Arshad was booked for Dubai by an employee of ARY Group. “On August 10, he [Arshad] left Peshawar airport through PK-637 for Dubai.”
“During his departure, authorities did not try to stop Arshad Sharif.”
DG ISPR added that the journalist was provided “complete protocol” by the KP government and Arshad remained in the UAE “until he held a valid visa”.
The military spokesperson reiterated that the journalist was not “forced” to leave Dubai at the governmental level and asked who could have urged Arshad to leave the country.
He also questioned who looked after the slain journalist’s stay in the Gulf country and told him to repeatedly leave for Kenya.
“He left for Kenya when the visa expired,” said Gen Babar and added that there are 34 countries with visas on arrival for Pakistani passports, and questioned why Kenya was chosen as a destination.
Gen Babar raised further questions regarding the journalist’s stay in the east African country and who was hosting him. “Who all was he in contact within Pakistan and what role do Waqar and Khurram Ahmad play in his death?”
“Did they know Arshad from before, or did someone get them in touch? Some people also claimed meeting Arshad Sharif in London, who were these people, and who asked them to make such claims?”
He further asked if the claims were also part of fake news and the misinformation campaign.
“Arshad Sharif died in a faraway place and Kenya police did not recognise him. So who was the first person to get news of his death and by whom?”
“Kenyan police accepted their mistake and it has yet to be examined whether this is a case of mistaken identity or of targeted killing.”
“Therefore, the government has been requested to form a high-level inquiry commission”.
Gen Babar also said that ARY CEO Salman Iqbal “should be brought back to Pakistan” and made a part of the probe as his name has surfaced repeatedly.
“It has to be determined who exactly benefited from his [Arshad’s] killing,” said the military spokesperson as he referred to the finger-pointing at the army.
“It’s your responsibility now to unearth the facts and bring them to light. We have to wait for the report from the inquiry commission,” Babar added that until the report was released, it was not appropriate to make allegations.
Major General Babar Iftikhar requested the people to “trust their institutions”.
“This is your army. If we have made mistakes in the past, we have been washing them with our blood for the past twenty years. We will never fail the people of Pakistan, this is our promise,” said the military spokesperson.
“We can be weak or make mistakes, but can never be a traitor or conspirator. The army is nothing without the people.”
DG ISI speaks at media talk
The military spokesperson, in an unprecedented move, said DG ISI Lieutenant General Nadeem Ahmed Anjum will also address the media “keeping in view the sensitivity of matters”. ”
If you have any questions on the issue he may be in a better position to respond”
“I know you are shocked to see me amongst yourself, and I can understand your surprise. My policy on my pictures and public appearances has been clear for the past year to which my agency and I strictly adhere,” said Gen Nadeem.
“But today is a different day, I am not here for myself but for my institution, whose soldiers and officers sacrifice their lives every day for this country. Especially, I have come here for my agency whose officers and agents all over the world protect this country 24 hours a day”
“I cannot remain silent when they are made targets of uncalled-for criticism on the basis of lies then as the leader of this institution, I cannot remain silent.”
“You should know that this narrative has been 100 per cent constructed on the basis of lies,” said DG ISI.
“But you should know why this narrative was constructed in the first place. Calling someone Mir Jaffar, Mir Sadiq, traitor, neutral and an animal was not because my agency or the army chief were disloyal. It is also not because he [army chief] did something unconstitutional or unlawful. It is because he, his institution, refused to do something unconstitutional and unlawful”.
“Last year, the establishment decided to confine itself to its constitutional role. This was not an individual decision, this was not just a decision on part of the COAS. It was something that was heavily debated within the institution and we came to the conclusion that the country’s benefit and the institution’s benefit are only in limiting ourselves to our constitutional role” and “get out of politics”.
“Every citizen of Pakistan, irrelevant what their political leaning is, should have their equal right [to hold opinions]. [The institution] should not be associated with one group or name.” said the intelligence chief.
“Since last year, and especially since March this year, there was a lot of pressure on us, and the pressure was placed in various ways but the institution and army chief decided to stand their ground.”
Lt Gen Nadeem further said that the army chief “made this decision for the benefit of the country and sacrificed himself for it”.
“In March, the army chief was offered an indefinite extension for his tenure in front of me,” said the country’s spy chief.
“If you think he is a traitor, then why did you meet him in secret,” questioned DG ISI.
“It cannot be that you meet the chief in the darkness of the night and express your constitutional and unconstitutional desires, you can express them, that’s fine, but don’t then go out during the day and call him a traitor”.
Responding to a question regarding criticism of the military and associated press freedoms, DG ISPR said that “just as Pakistan’s Constitution grants the freedom of expression, it also does not grant the right for character assassination and especially the Pakistani Constitution also does not grant the right to speak against institutions”.
“And when somebody does that we have always approached the government. It is not our prerogative to take action, all we can do is request the government.”
“There was no danger to the life of Arshad Sharif in Pakistan,” said DG ISI after he admitted that there may have been “some opposition to his political leanings”.
“He was in contact with the establishment and my own institution when he was here and even when he went out of the country he maintained contact. In fact this month, he was in touch and wished to return to the country” added Gen Nadeem.
“We are not fully satisfied” with the Kenyan official’s initial claims that “this was an accident that occurred due to mistaken identity,” revealed DG ISI.
Answering a question on possible propaganda against the military in attempts to influence the selection of a new army chief in November, DG ISPR said that “criticism is everyone’s right”.
“We have never had an issue with criticism as an institution. We only have an issue when criticism enters the domain of propaganda and fake news.”
“That is something we need to avoid because we don’t have a forum where these things can be addressed on a daily basis. Neither does it suit us nor should we do that. That is why the government defends the institutions. But criticism is not an issue.”
“As far as the selection of the new army chief is concerned, it will happen on time and as per the constitutionally defined method. There should be no doubt about that,” added Gen Babar.
“I have already said it is the constitutional right of every Pakistani that they freely express their opinions, even if that opinion is my own criticism and I will repeat this for you: It is my duty to respect that right and as a soldier and spy I am ready to protect that right. You criticize us, by all means, do it day and night, but ask what I did for the country and the nation, not what I did for your or your own political gains,” said the intelligence chief.
“If I am not meeting the nation’s expectations then please criticise me. I will happily bring improvement in my work”.
“You have a right to an opinion, but don’t manufacture facts,” added Gen Nadeem.
Responding to another question about the PTI’s upcoming long march, Gen Babar said “coming to Islamabad, participating in a long march and protesting is a constitutional right. I don’t think that is a risk to the country’s safety”.
“If people go and assemble somewhere or gather in a constitutional manner, that should not worry anyone,” he continued.
“I will tell you this much, we will not allow anyone to destabilize Pakistan, that should be very clear to everyone.”
DG ISI also added that “the Pakistani constitution grants fundamental rights to its citizens, one of which is the right to protest therefore we should not oppose anyone’s long march, sit-in, or protest”.
“The Supreme Court has allowed the government to use whatever resources it has to maintain the law and order situation and what the COAS stated earlier is definitely correct, that he will not allow anyone to bring political or economic instability to the country,” he added.
“I have full faith the SC will order clear directives on the matter, but despite that, this danger always stands that when so many people gather then terrorist organisations and other anti-state elements will want to take advantage of it.”
“It is our duty to provide security and if God forbid need be that the Pakistan army needs to be called in by Article 245 by the government – as is its right – then the military will help the government to control the situation.”
When asked about the impact of the former ruling party’s long march on the premier’s upcoming foreign visits and how seriously he would be taken when there is “apparent political turmoil” in the country, DG ISPR said that “all over the world, such upheavals come and go in democracies”.
However, he added that “this does not mean that the government in any way holds any less merit, whoever holds the office is the prime minister of Pakistan”.
“I don’t think there needs to be too much alarm over it, this happens in democracies,” he said.