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 after the “unfortunate incident”.

Director General Inter-Services Public Relations (DG ISPR) Major General Babar Iftikhar, at the start of the media talk, said the purpose of the event 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. 

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.”

Terming the journalist’s death in Kenya as an “unfortunate incident”, he said Arshad’s family had served in the army and he was an “icon of journalism in Pakistan”.

Elaborating on events preceding the journalist’s death, DG ISPR said the provincial government of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) had issued a threat letter, on the directives of the provincial executive, on August 5 which claimed that the militant Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) splinter group was planning to target the journalist. 

He added that no information was shared with the institutions “who provided them the information”.

“There were reports that he [Arshad] did not want to leave the country but was constantly reminded that his life was in danger.” 

Referring to the diplomatic cypher which PTI claimed was part of the ‘regime-change’ operation against the then-government of Imran Khan, Gen Babar said Arshad was an investigative journalist and he conducted several shows when on the diplomatic communication when PTI chief Imran Khan claimed it as evidence of a foreign conspiracy. 

He added that several meetings were held between Imran and Arshad. “As a result, it was stated that he was shown meeting minutes and the cypher.”

Reiterating that the facts behind the cypher and Arshad’s death have to be determined, he said the army chief had discussed it with Imran on March 11 and the PTI chief had said it “was not a big thing”.

“It was surprising for us when on March 27 a piece of paper was waved and an attempt was made to build a that was far from reality.”

Major General Babar Iftikhar requested the people to ‘trust their institutions’.

“If we have made mistakes in the past, we have been washing them without blood for the past twenty years. We will never fail the people of Pakistan, this is our promise,” said the military spokesperson.

DG ISI speaks

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 to,” said DG ISI.

“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 percent 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.

Cypher

Gen Iftikhar said that Sharif’s popularity was based on being an investigative journalist and when the cypher — which PTI chief Imran Khan has touted as evidence of a foreign conspiracy to oust his government — surfaced, he conducted several programmes on the issue.

He held several meetings with the former premier and interviewed him, the DG ISPR said. “As a result, it was stated that he was shown meeting minutes and the cypher.”

The facts behind the cypher and Sharif’s death have to be determined, he said.

Talking about the cypher, Gen Iftikhar said that the army chief had discussed it with Imran on March 11 when the latter had termed it to be “not a big thing”.

“It was surprising for us when on March 27 a piece of paper was waved and an attempt was made to build a narrative that was far from reality.”

He said that several facts had come to light regarding the cypher revealing the “baseless and unfounded” narrative surrounding it. The ISPR informed the National Security Committee that no proof was found regarding the conspiracy against the PTI government, he said, adding that the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) also did not find any evidence regarding the conspiracy.

“This is all part of the record. We wanted to bring this to the public. And we left the decision to the-then government.”

However, this did not happen and more rumours were spread to gain political mileage, he said, adding that the Pakistan Army was also targeted.

At this time, Sharif and other journalists were fed a particular narrative and an attempt was made to defame Pakistan and the country’s institutions across the world, he said.

“In this media trial, ARY News played the role of a spin doctor in targeting the army and promoting a false narrative […] the NSC meeting was presented in the wrong context.”

Gen Iftikhar stated that the army was expected to intervene in domestic politics. “The word neutral and apolitical was turned into an abuse. To all this baseless narrative, the army chief and the institution showed restraint and we tried our level best that politicians sit together to resolve their issues.”

He noted that Sharif made strong comments regarding the army during this time but added that “we did not have any negative sentiments about him and we don’t have such feelings now”.

Threat letter for KP

During the press conference, the DG ISPR revealed that the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government on August 5 issued a threat letter on the directives of Chief Minister Mahmood Khan which stated that a Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) splinter group was looking to target Sharif.

“In this regard, no info was shared with the institutions who provided them the information.

This shows the threat alert was issued with the aim to force Sharif to leave the country, Gen Iftikhar said. “There was reports that he (Sharif) did not want to leave the country but he kept being reminded that he was facing a threat” to his life, he said.

He went on to say that on August 8, Shahbaz Gill’s statement on ARY News regarding the country’s institutions was condemned and the politician was arrested a day later.

He said that when ARY News head Ammad Yousuf, who was arrested in August, it emerged that ARY CEO Salman Iqbal had asked the former to send Sharif abroad as soon as possible.

The DG ISPR stated that a manager in the ARY Group booked a ticket for Sharif for Dubai, according to which he was supposed to be back on September 9.

“On Aug 10, he left Peshawar airport thorough PK-637 for Dubai. He was provided complete protocol by the KP government,” he said, adding that the late journalist was escorted by KP officers to the airport.

“Arshad remained in the UAE until he had a valid visa. He left for Kenya when his visa for Dubai expired.”

He said that no one “forced” Sharif to leave Dubai at a government level and questioned who exactly forced him to leave. He also questioned who processed the journalist’s documents in the UAE, who looked after his accommodation, who forced him to not return to Pakistan and who assured him that he was safe in Kenya.

He also questioned who was in contact with Sharif from Pakistan and who was hosting him in Kenya.

“Kenyan police accepted their mistake and it has to be examined whether this is a case of mistaken identity or one of targeted killing. There are several questions that have to be answered,” he said, calling for a “transparent and fair probe”.

Therefore, the government has been requested to form a high-level inquiry commission, he said.

Salman Iqbal

The DG ISPR said that the name of the ARY CEO was surfacing again and again. “He should be brought back to Pakistan and made part of the probe.”

He said that after Sharif’s death, people had started pointing fingers at the army. “It has to be determined who exactly benefitted from his killing.”

“It’s your responsibility now unearth the facts and bring them to light. We have to wait for the report from the inquiry commission. Until the report is released, it is not appropriate to make allegations”.

He said that Pakistan was a “dignified and independent nation”, urging people to “have belief in your institutions”.

“No one wants to be labelled a traitor after serving for 30-40 years. We can be weak, we can make mistakes, but we can never be a traitor or conspirator. The army is nothing without the people,” he said, adding that now was the time for “unity and discipline”.

The story was filed by the News Desk. The Desk can be reached at info@thecorrespondent.com.pk.

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