Pakistan media’s insensitive reporting on Kabul Gurdwara carnage

Terrorists of the Islamic State of Khorasan (IS-K) admitted to having killed 25 Sikhs at the Gurdwara in Kabul. (Photo: AFP)
Terrorists of the Islamic State of Khorasan (IS-K) admitted to having killed 25 Sikhs at the Gurdwara in Kabul. (Photo: AFP)

Wednesday’s carnage (March 25th, 2020) at Gurdwara Har Rai Sahib in Kabul that left 25 Sikh worshipers dead was a despicable act that has been widely condemned across the globe in the severest of terms. Yet, instead of adopting a somber tone and tenor while reporting this despicable crime against humanity, Pakistan’s ‘The Express Tribune’ instead chose to publish this piece under a highly insensitive headline (‘Indian citizen carried out Kabul Gurdwara carnage’; March 28, 2020). which was in very bad taste as it made light of a humongous human tragedy.

Foul Words

But this wasn’t all– the very opening sentence of the report wells up a feeling of utter disgust. It reads, “India, which routinely blames its neighbour of exporting terror, might be having a taste of its own medicine as a top English-language news channel of India has indicated in a shocking expose that terrorism might have been exported from a southern Indian state since 2016.” How could a well read and popular Pakistani daily like The Express Tribune be so callous and impervious to the sensitivities of the kith and kin of deceased worshipers, defies any logical explanation.

The only plausible reasoning is that this decision to abandon all acceptable norms of journalism and civility might have been influenced by the media house’s attempt to remain in the good books of the all-pervasive Pakistan Army! But, is currying favour with Rawalpindi at the cost of a newspaper losing its own credibility really worth it? One does empathize with Pakistani media since it is working under tremendous pressure. One understands the dangers of truthful reporting, which renowned award-winning Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir (who himself survived an assassination attempt for his factual reporting that incensed the establishment) aptly described as “naked censorship.”

Pakistan Media’s Dilemma

One also remembers how during his press conference in June 2018, the then Director General (DG) of Pakistan Army’s media wing Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor boasted that “We have the capability to monitor social media as to who is doing what.” As if this “spine-chilling” indirect threat wasn’t enough, he went on to brazenly violate an individual’s fundamental right to privacy by flashing a graphic with photos of journalists and other Pakistani nationals who according to him were using social media for spreading anti-state and anti-army propaganda.

The fact that Umar Cheema of ‘The News’, recipient of prestigious CPJ’s 2011 International Press Freedom Award was one of the alleged ‘delinquents’ just goes to show that the list of ‘offenders’ prepared by ISPR may have been influenced by extraneous considerations!

This unwarranted act of ‘media-bullying’ was rightly criticised by Asia programme Coordinator of US-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) Steven Butler who noted that “Displaying photos of journalists alleged to help push anti-state propaganda in Pakistan is tantamount to putting a giant target on their backs.” He also demanded an apology by DG ISPR, but since the army in Pakistan is a law unto itself, nothing of this sort ever happened and the country’s media (understandably) didn’t consider it prudent to raise their voices against the gross violation of media freedom and strong-arm tactics employed by the army to intimidate scribes and media houses.

Luckily, all isn’t lost because the media in Pakistan continues to show spine, both individually and collectively. Despite escaping death by a whisker in what is commonly believed to be a ‘hitjob’ by Pakistan’s spy agency Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Hamid Mir has always stood his ground when it comes to upholding ethical journalism and truthful reporting. Similarly, Cyril Almeida of Dawn too displayed immense moral courage and outstanding professional integrity in reporting about the government’s unhappiness on the army’s patronage to certain terrorist groups. At the same time, by publishing this explosive and damning report (which became famous as ‘Dawn leaks’) and refusing to back down and withdraw the article despite direct and indirect coercion by Rawalpindi, the Dawn management has made Pakistani media really proud!

Calling spade, a spade

Any confrontation on the irresponsible manner in which The Express Tribune has chosen to report on this incident is best avoided as it would serve no meaningful purpose. But at the same time, since this piece tends to divert the reader’s attention from the unspeakable barbarity unleashed by the Islamic State of Khorasan (IS-K), putting the record straight becomes a moral responsibility that can’t be shied away, even though it runs the danger of being misconstrued as politicising human tragedy. To start with, while one of the assailants was definitely an Indian citizen, he perpetuated this grizzly attack as a member of the IS-K and not in the capacity of being an Indian or at behest of a terrorist organisation patronised by New Delhi.

So, on what grounds has The Express Tribune so definitely concluded that this ghastly mass murder of unarmed and innocent worshipers amounted to India “having a taste of its own medicine”?

Also, while the newspaper may be right to some extent in saying that India “routinely blames its neighbour of exporting terror,” but does an Indian citizen’s personal decision to join IS-K actually translate into India “exporting terror”? Taking minor liberties while establishing correlations in order to arrive at deductions that endorse a particular line of argument may sometimes be acceptable in journalism, but just like elasticity, inferences too cannot be stretched beyond a limit. Accordingly, perhaps it would do The Express Tribune some good to educate its News Desk on this aspect!

Setting the record straight

Islamabad denies any links with IS-K and there isn’t much evidence of this as well. But this doesn’t mean that Rawalpindi doesn’t have any association with IS-K. Why much isn’t known about Pakistan Army IS-K nexus is simply because rather than having direct interaction, Rawalpindi’s communication with this terrorist group is completely done through its proxies. Besides several authoritative sources, details of IS-K and ISI symbiosis can also be found in a well-researched report titled ‘The Islamic State-Khorasan: Capacities and Future Prospects’, available on Canadian Government’s official website.

Though the ISI’s close ties with Haqqani network is a conclusively established fact, few know that in December 2017, IS-K entered into a working arrangement with the Haqqani network and according to sources, IS-K even agreed to pay it for “its support, including help in organising terrorist attacks in Kabul.” You would agree that as a proxy of Pakistan Army, the Haqqani brothers couldn’t have made any agreements with IS-K without obtaining explicit prior approval from Rawalpindi.

Next, as per Washington-based Middle East Institute, unlike all previous ‘amirs’ (chiefs) of IS-K, the current incumbent Mawlawi Abdullah aka Mawlawi Aslam Farooqi, is a former Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) commander. Now, with the LeT being the Pakistan Army’s ‘most favoured’ proxy, isn’t it obvious that the IS-K under Farooqi would obey ISI! Further, by revealing that “Faruqi (Farooqi) was an advocate of appeasement with Pakistan, in exchange for being granted a safe haven by the Pakistani authorities,” the Canadian report confirms that he’s completely subservient and furthers ISI interests without any reservations. This report further reveals that “Farooqi has spent most of his time inside Pakistan, as have most of the other senior figures in the organisation. According to IS-K sources, Pakistani intelligence have even started providing some financial support to the organisation.” With such damning evidence available, can the ISI still deny its unholy alliance with IS-K?

One may argue that since IS-K has carried out some attacks against civilians in Pakistan and the army has also taken retaliatory actions, there’s no likelihood of any nexus between the two. However, the Canadian government report rightly observes that even though IS-K may have attacked “non-state targets’, they haven’t targeted security forces of Pakistan and the mutual ‘friction’ is “either (because) both sides constantly are trying to renegotiate the terms of the agreement or that its implementation is a matter of dispute.”

In addition, since this report reveals that IS-K “has been able to move its main base from Afghan territory, where it was vulnerable to US air strikes, to the Tirah Valley in the tribal areas of Pakistan,” and that “it is also able to maintain several training camps in various locations throughout the tribal areas” the existence of ISI-ISK nexus is far-far beyond any reasonable doubt!

Mystery Deepens

IS-K claimed responsibility for the Kabul Gurudwara attack and identified the murderer by his nom de guerre ‘Abdul Khalid al-Hindi’ indicating that he was an Indian national. It also said that this attack was “revenge for the Muslims in Kashmir.” This purported reason for the carnage raises suspicions that there’s more than meets the eye, because even if one goes by IS-K’s demented sense of logic, attacking the Sikh community in faraway Kabul to avenge the alleged ‘atrocities’ committed by a ‘Hindu Government’ in India against the Muslim community in Kashmir makes just no sense!

But when the already heightened sense of insecurity within the Sikh community in Kabul is correlated with ongoing motivated opposition in India against the Citizen Amendment Act (CAA) that provides asylum to certain religiously persecuted minority communities (including Sikhs) living in countries neighbouring India, then a method definitely appears in the madness of perpetuating this carnage!

Tailpiece– The tragedy is that whether it be Kabul or Kashmir, it’s ultimately the Sikh community that’s always at the receiving end as far as senseless violence perpetuated by fundamentalists in the garb of ‘jihad’. Such a peaceful sect which embraces others without pre-conditions or reservations based on religion and ethnicity, feeds and takes care of them just like their own family members certainly deserves much better.

Last but not the least, no community grieving the loss of its near and dear ones deserves to be taunted by the fourth estate about getting “a taste of its own medicine!”


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