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|January 29, 2002||
T V R Shenoy
The abduction of Daniel Pearl
Was it Jefferson or Lincoln who described the journalist as "a disturber of the peace, a roiler of nations"? Neither man is a hero in a dictatorship, but this is one description which has often been taken all too literally. Several members of the media fraternity have been jailed like common criminals for doing their job sincerely. And this brings up the case of the unfortunate Daniel Pearl.
Who is Mr Pearl? Some of you might have seen his name in print from time to time. He is the South Asia correspondent of The Wall Street Journal based in Mumbai. A few days ago, he was abducted while doing a story from Pakistan. And therein lies a tale...
In relating what follows, I would like to stress that I have never met Pearl. But I happen to know that Pearl, though based in Mumbai, knew certain people in Delhi (I shall not be more specific than that). Through this person (or persons) Pearl gained access to a report from Indian intelligence. This report gave the lie to claims made by the Pakistani authorities about clamping down on militant outfits.
Pearl did not immediately swallow this report. He insisted, as any responsible journalist should, that he would try to verify the tale. Specifically, he wanted to find out about the Bahawalpur connection for himself.
Bahawalpur, for the benefit of those who do not know, was the capital of a princely state in British India, noted chiefly for the eccentricity of some of its nawabs. It lies south of Multan, strategically located at a point close to the Indian states of Punjab and Rajasthan. More to the point, it is also, as Pearl found out, the operational headquarters of the Jaish-e-Mohammed.
On January 1, 2002, a story filed by Pearl from Bahawalpur featured prominently on the front page of the Asian edition of The Wall Street Journal. The headline summed it up: 'Militant Groups in Pakistan Thrive Despite Crackdown'. The sub-head read: 'Jaish-e-Mohammed Says It Is Still Operating After Police Detained Some Staff'.
The report proceeded to make several highly damaging accusations about the Pakistani government's efforts to rein in terrorism. Jaish-e-Mohammed representatives said the police "left behind enough people to keep the office running". When Pearl visited Bahawalpur, a "nearby Jaish-e-Mohammad regional center was still operating Thursday, its traditional recruiting day. The group's name has been painted over, but posters praising holy war are still hung inside. And a bank account that Jaish-e-Mohammad uses to solicit contributions remains open, despite a November order by Pakistan's central bank freezing the group's account."
Ordinarily, one might have dismissed this as nothing more than the standard Indian foreign office press release. But this is something more -- an independent report by a correspondent belonging to one of the most respected media groups in the United States. Having learned what was going on in Bahawalpur so openly, it was on the cards that Daniel Pearl would try to dig a little deeper. And this possibility posed a problem for several people...
Some days ago, Pearl was seized by person or persons unknown. The kidnapping has been attributed to terrorists. An anonymous message sent to the police and the media in Pakistan accuses the journalist of being a CIA agent and promises to mete out the same "inhumane" treatment to him as to the Al Qaeda prisoners being held by the United States. Is there more to the story of this supposed kidnapping than meets the eye?
I was in Washington shortly after Pearl's story came out and can personally testify to the embarrassment and rage it caused to the Pakistani representatives (as well as to those Americans in high places who continue to turn a blind eye to militant activities in Pakistan). But the Musharraf government certainly could not afford to detain or expel an American journalist, least of all one representing a journal as influential as The Wall Street Journal.
I am sure General Musharraf himself would never do something as silly as arrange for Pearl's convenient disappearance. But is he completely in charge of the situation? In his speech on January 12, the Pakistani leader regretfully admitted that the authority of the State had deteriorated. A section of Indian intelligence suspects that the hapless journalist has been spirited away by the Inter-Services Intelligence; others believe that it is actually terrorists who carried out the operation. Whichever it is, it underlines a couple of facts.
First, the fact that an American journalist of some repute can suddenly go missing in Pakistan is a reminder of the professional hazards of journalism in that country. Second, it questions the assumption that General Musharraf is in complete charge of his nation.
Some of my friends have wondered why the Western media has handled India so much more roughly than they do Pakistan. This has often been put down to the traditional leftist bias of the media reacting to the fact that a Bharatiya Janata Party-led government rules India today. Others say it is an implicit racism reacting to a new assertiveness in India's conduct of her affairs. I mean no disrespect to my foreign colleagues, but could there be a third reason, namely fear?
Journalists can write anything they choose about India without fear of retribution. (And many do just that!) But, as the case of the unhappy Daniel Pearl dramatically demonstrates, honest reporting on Pakistan can be a dangerous affair. Irrespective of whether the Inter-Services Intelligence or terrorists are at fault, Mr Pearl has been silenced quite effectively, has he not?
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