Being a truth-telling journalist has always been a liability in Pakistan. If one manages to evade the bullying of this or that political party, there is the omniscient Pakistani military and its long shadow. The powerful in Pakistan believe that truth is something that can be molded; they expect journalists to do the molding to their liking. It follows, therefore, that independent investigative journalism is a dangerous, sometimes fatal, pursuit.
Arshad Sharif was a renegade journalist, and in the past several months he had been playing with fire while walking a tightrope. Since April of this year, when a no-confidence motion in Parliament led to the removal of then-prime minister Imran Khan, he had been digging to expose the truths behind this regime change. At issue was the allegation that Khan, a right-of-center populist leader, had been removed because of disagreements with General Qamar Javed Bajwa, the head of Pakistan’s bloated military. Sharif was chasing this story.
In the last video that he posted on YouTube, he remained committed to exposing how collusion between the Pakistani military and the opposition political parties had led to the no-confidence motion in Parliament. Khan’s government, the legitimately elected one, had thus been wrongly removed from power. This summer, the new government slapped Sharif with sedition charges, allegedly for criticizing state institutions and “abetting mutiny” within the military. They also temporarily shut down the television channel where Sharif worked, citing the same reasons. The channel, ARY News, announced in August it had parted ways with Sharif. Meanwhile, in July, at the behest of friends who told him that his life was in danger, Sharif had fled Pakistan. He left his family and his children in Islamabad.
He would not return. On Sunday, October 23, Sharif was killed in a shooting in the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya. Sharif was being driven by a Kenyan host, and was shot in the car, but the driver was not killed. Almost as soon as the news was released, the Kenyan police took responsibility for the shooting, alleging that it had been a case of “mistaken identity,” while also claiming Sharif’s car had failed to stop at a checkpoint. “We don’t believe the version of the Kenyan police,” journalist Hamid Mir said at a rally in Islamabad the day after the killing.
News of Sharif’s death was a shock, perhaps particularly so because it had happened outside of Pakistan. Reports from Sharif’s friends and family members revealed that the journalist had first fled to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. However, when his visa for the United Arab Emirates expired, he had to leave for Kenya, one of the few countries that do not require Pakistani citizens to obtain a visa prior to arrival.
Just as the murder of Mahsa Amini was a catalyst in the protests that erupted in Iran, the death of Arshad Sharif has ignited Pakistan. Around the time of Sharif’s burial, former prime minister Khan declared that his political party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (Pakistan Justice Movement), would be marching on Islamabad to demand new elections in the next few months. Khan said he had warned Sharif his life was in danger, and called his death a “targeted killing.”
Sharif’s funeral was held on October 27 at Islamabad’s Faisal Mosque. Tens of thousands of people gathered for his funeral prayer. Before Sharif’s body was even lowered into the ground, another unprecedented event took place. In between clips of the funeral prayer, Pakistanis saw two men, one in a suit and one in military uniform, on their TV screens. For the first time in Pakistan’s history, the head of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Lieutenant General Nadeem Ahmed Anjum, and director general of Inter-Services Public Relations, Lieutenant General Babar Iftikhar, appeared together for a joint press conference and took questions from journalists. Their ostensible purpose was to shed light on Sharif’s death, such that “facts, fiction, and opinion can be differentiated.”
The entire sum of Pakistan’s existence has been taken up in the tussle between an overreaching and controlling military establishment and weak civilian institutions that attempt to serve up some minimal form of democracy. There have been coups and assassinations and every manner of machination; the heads of the powerful ISI have never felt the need to defend themselves before the Pakistani public. The death of Sharif, however, appears to have instigated a special source of unease in the otherwise unshakeable military establishment. During the press conference, the intelligence dons even insisted that the Khan Government had itself offered General Bajwa, the army chief, an extension in his tenure in March, as a means to avoid the no-confidence motion that brought down the Khan government in April. Arshad Sharif, they insisted, had faced no danger at all in Pakistan.
Yet it is a dangerous moment now. As Imran Khan has continued to lead his march to Islamabad, he was shot at a rally on Thursday, wounded in both legs, in what was widely seen as an assassination attempt. His strong following continues to roil the political waters. In two recent by-elections, Khan secured a landslide victory, winning seven seats in the National Assembly and two in the Punjab assembly, even though voters knew that he would not actually be serving in Parliament under the new government. The terrible economic conditions of the country and general dissatisfaction with how the government has handled the recent devastating floods—and now suspicions that enemies of the state are in physical danger—have not bought Khan’s opponents any popularity.
Arshad Sharif is not the only Pakistani journalist who has faced harassment and intimidation in the past few months, nor is this the only time the military and allied civilian powers have pursued journalists. Imran Riaz, another journalist who was very close to Sharif, posted a vlog on his YouTube channel just after he had returned from Sharif’s funeral prayers. In it he alleged that he was facing severe intimidation as well. Riaz said that he had been approached by a man while seated outside Sharif’s home after news of the journalist’s death. The man pointed to his phone screen and flipped through photos, showing Riaz a photo of the home where Riaz was staying while in Islamabad and a picture of the room in which he slept. The message, Riaz alleged, was quite clear: We are watching you and we can get to you at any time, anywhere.
The enormous gathering of people at Arshad Sharif’s funeral could be an indicator of things to come, with the unprecedented press conference a recognition of the seriousness of the situation by Pakistan’s military establishment. At the Faisal Mosque, where the funeral for Sharif was held, the crowd chanted, “From the blood of Arshad Sharif there will be revolution.” Former prime minister Khan has also referred to the long march his party is leading as the march of “soft revolution.” If Khan succeeds in his objective and a new date for elections is announced, it will be only the second time that a civilian Pakistani leader and political party have been able to arm wrestle the military establishment. The last time it happened was in 1971, when the leaders elected from then-East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) refused to be cowed. The military lost that battle, a grim outcome that the military surely does not wish to repeat. In announcing the march, Khan and his party have chosen to call the military’s bluff by refusing to back down.
Like everything that happens in Pakistan, this latest episode of turbulence has consequences for the larger region. The United States has openly backed the current coalition government, helping prime minister Shehbaz Sharif to obtain loans and flood relief. On the other side, China and the newly strengthened Xi Jinping might rather have Khan back in the driver’s seat so that they can continue to make inroads on their China-Pakistan Economic Corridor—though Sharif met with Xi in China on November 2, amidst all the usual diplomatic niceties. Neither the Pakistan military’s affinity with authoritarian tactics—nor Khan’s, potentially—would be a cause of concern for China. The dismal irony of the moment amid all the cries for revolution is simply that were Khan to take over, there is nothing at all preventing him from forcing journalists and dissenters to flee also. The choice, then, is not between good and bad, but bad and worse. Those who trust the military despite its lack of accountability and its looting of the civilian exchequer would argue that it is not so bad to be a bomb with a country even it means several dead journalists paving the way. Those who do not will likely be coming out onto the streets in the next weeks, taking their chances with former prime minister Imran Khan and his promised revolution.