The country is still as unsafe as it was a year ago, when Raza Rumi was attacked.
It was on this day exactly a year ago that our colleague and friend Raza Rumi luckily escaped a brazen murder attempt on his life. While Raza received only minor injuries, his young driver lost his life, for no fault of his. Raza’s car was sprayed with bullets by six men from a close distance as he was on his way home after recording a show that he anchored on Express News. A few months later, six “target killers” allegedly belonging to the anti-Shia Lashkar-i-Jhangvi (LeJ) were arrested.
Supposedly they had claimed responsibility for the killing of popular Shia leaders as well as the attack on Raza for his anti-LeJ and anti-Taliban views.
Raza was and remains a liberal and outspoken voice on politics, society, culture, militancy, human rights and persecution of religious minorities. Maybe this was the reason those disagreeing with his views wanted him to go silent. Raza is thankfully alive, but has anything changed even though a year has passed since the attack? Continue reading →
March 28 marks the first anniversary of the attack on Pakistani blogger and prominent political commentator Raza Rumi. Once a contributor to Global Voices, Rumi was added to the Taliban’s hit list after he opposed government peace talks with the militant group in 2014. His moderate views also have been misinterpreted by some as anti-Islamic. When two gunmen opened fire on Rumi’s car at a market in Lahore, his 25-year-old driver and confidant was killed. Rumi departed for the US shortly thereafter, at the urgings of family and friends.
Raza Rumi, pictured in Washington, D.C. in March at a rally for a murdered Bangladeshi blogger, has been living in the U.S. since gunman attacked him last year. (Raza Rumi)
One year ago Raza Rumi, a TV anchor and widely-respected analyst in Pakistan, narrowly escaped death when gunmen opened fire on his car in an attack that killed his driver, Mustafa. When I wrote about the March 28 attack, the fourth on the Express Group in eight months that had left four people dead, I highlighted the lack of a police investigation.
I went on to repeat a recommendation the Committee to Protect Journalists has made many times:
First and foremost, Friday’s attack on Rumi and his driver were crimes: murder and attempted murder. They must be investigated as such. It does not require a special commission, as came after the killing of Saleem Shazhad in 2011, or Hayatullah Khan in 2006, or after the sadistic attack on Umar Cheema in 2010. Practice has shown that those commissions achieve little or nothing, and the perpetrators go unprosecuted.
It’s not like the government took my advice, but there was no special commission named to look into the attack on Rumi and his driver. The police did investigate and there has been some movement, but little conclusive. In the past week, Rumi and I have been communicating about last year’s events. He moved to the U.S. soon after the attack, stringing together fellowships and think tank appointments, writing for papers in Pakistan and online, but no longer hosting his TV show. He filled me in on the status of the case:
ISLAMABAD: Before he allegedly killed 14 people and narrowly missed four “high value targets”, Abdul Rauf was obsessed with the Tom and Jerry cartoon series.
He took a great pleasure in watching how Jerry always outsmarted deceptive moves of Tom. He used to laugh a lot.
Not only that, he regularly watched daily current affairs shows to get a better understanding of the political and ideological inclinations of prime-time anchors.
Time and money were two luxuries that he could afford and enjoy.
According to police sources, Rauf tried to kill a senior journalist, Raza Rumi, and a renowned playwright, Asghar Nadeem Syed.
But how did a Tom and Jerry lover become a ruthless killer? Who were his handlers? Or was he a lone wolf, ready to devour his next target?
Investigation by Daily Capital reveals Rauf came from a wealthy family running a wholesale business in Badami Bagh, Lahore. The family owned a big, sprawling house and owned hundreds of acres of land in Kasur and other districts.
Though conservative and religious, his family members never displayed signs of extremism. Infact, a few of Rauf’s aunts were married in Shia families.
In April 2014, police arrested six suspects, including Rauf.
“The mastermind Abdul Rauf Gujar belongs to a banned militant outfit, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ),” Capital City Police Officer (CCPO) Chaudhry Shafiq had told the media.
Five other suspects were Shafaqat Farooqi alias Muavia, Mohammad Hashim, Sheikh Farhan, Suleman Pathan and Sabir Shah.
Rauf and his gang had attacked Raza Rumi on March 28, 2014. The anchor made a narrow escape, but his driver, Mustafa, lost his life in the incident. Continue reading →
The toll of Taliban attacks is measured in more than bodies.
Stay in the news business long enough, and you become hardened to brutality. But the reports from Pakistan overnight hit me hard on Tuesday morning. How to comprehend such evil? One hundred forty-five dead at the Taliban’s hands, more than a hundred of them children, executed while trying to learn. Coffins piled outside a Peshawar school. Hallways packed with small bodies, many still dressed in green school blazers. The news was horrifying, even for a country now all too used to horrific news. For me, it hit home because I am a mother, and also because it was unfolding in a place that I care about.
I’ve traveled to Peshawar, more than once, trying to understand people’s complicated relationships with the Taliban. But I’d think twice before going today. I suspect most reporters would. What follows is the story of one of them, a Pakistani journalist named Raza Rumi.
Rumi knows far better than I the dangers of covering Pakistan. Until a few months ago, he anchored a nightly news show for Pakistan’s second-biggest TV network. Maybe it’s a stretch to say that he was the Brian Williams of Pakistan, but he was something like that. Right up until the night, this past spring, when assassins came for him.
“There was this flash of light,” he says. “And that noise that submachine guns make, you know? I thought, ‘Oh, my God—they’re actually here for me.’”
Both on his show and in his newspaper column, Rumi was known for speaking his mind. He admits that on March 28, he was in rare form. On the air that evening, he condemned the Taliban and other jihadist groups, then switched gears to criticize the government and its strict blasphemy laws.
“Afterwards, when I stepped off the set, my producer was shaking his head and saying, ‘I think the time has come for you to seek asylum in Norway.’ But he was laughing. And I was laughing back.”
An hour later, on the road home, gunmen surrounded his car. “They shot my driver first, to slow down the car,” Rumi tells me. “He lost control, and we rammed into an electricity pole.” Rumi dove to the floor. “The bullets were coming and I kept telling myself, if they hit my leg, I have another leg. If they hit my arm, I have another arm. But if they hit my head. … So I was trying to jam my head under the front seat.” He lay still, covered in shattered glass and drenched in his driver’s blood, until he heard a crowd gathering and judged that his attackers must have fled.
Rumi survived. His driver did not. “Nobody was willing to help me pull him out of the car. Finally some guy brought a shawl, to cover him, while we waited for the ambulance to come.”
Raza Rumi tells me this story over lunch, on a chilly recent day in Washington, D.C. A mutual friend has introduced us, figuring we’ll hit it off because we’re both journalists and close in age (Rumi is 44), and because of my interest in Pakistan. We wedge ourselves into a back table at Rasika West End, an Indian place that’s perpetually packed with the power-lunch crowd from the nearby World Bank.
Rumi tells me he is staying, for the moment, in the northern Virginia suburbs. He asks me not to write exactly where. He says that for two weeks after the attack, he laid low in Pakistan and considered his options. The police warned him not to return to his house in Lahore. “They said, the killers will realize they missed their target, and they’ll come after you again. One option was to buy a bulletproof, bombproof car. And you know, get the house security-proofed, get cameras, get extra guards. But I don’t have that much money! And even if I hypothetically had half a million dollars to spare, why would I do that? They’ll still find a way to kill you. I saw that I was not going to get any justice or protection. So one night, I just packed up, and I grabbed my kids, and we came here.”
In person, despite his troubles, Rumi has warm eyes and an easy laugh. He responds politely to my questions. But he has relived the attack enough times that he can now do so without visible emotion. When our waitress delivers a fresh round of dishes, he interrupts his gruesome account to snap a photo of the cashew-crusted beetroot cakes, which he will share with his 159,000 followers on Twitter. (“Lunch today had these amazing appetizers,” I later see he has posted.)
Rumi winces only once during our long conversation. It is when I press him on whether he feels free to speak as freely as he once did. After an awkward silence, he shakes his head. “I still have family there [in Pakistan],” he says. “My parents. I do censor. I mind my words. If I were to go on television tomorrow, I would be very careful.”
What is lost, I ask him, when a journalist is muted? When he is no longer able to hold up a mirror to his country, or hold its government to account?
Another silence, and then, softly, Raza Rumi answers: “A lot.”
The loss of a voice like Rumi’s reverberates beyond Pakistan. The consequences can be felt here in Washington, too, as day by day we know less about a country that is at once both an ally and an antagonist to America.
Many billions of American dollars have flowed to Pakistan since Sept. 11, pulsing through official and covert channels. That money is supposed to have paid for schools and roads and disaster relief and—above all—for fighting terrorism. The U.S. forks over about $2 billion a year in security aid to Pakistan; U.S. taxpayers have treated Pakistan’s army to everything from attack helicopters to barbed wire fences. How, then, to make sense of this week’s massacre at a military-run school? Pakistan’s political leaders have cried outrage. But for many years the ISI, the intelligence service, has been known to play a double game: holding out one hand for American dollars, even as the other slips beneath the table to fund and arm the Taliban. This latest carnage is enough to make you weep, both for the lives lost and for the strikingly succinct way that it illuminates the rottenness of the Pakistani state.
The blame cuts both ways. Islamabad’s corruption has been enabled by Washington’s arrogance and lack of oversight. But a hard fact remains: Pakistan is one of the most dangerous places on earth, producing both violent extremists and nuclear weapons at alarming rates. U.S. leverage is inevitably limited, and our knowledge is riddled with holes as to how secure those nukes are, who’s really running things, and just how deeply infested the ISI and the rest of the security apparatus are with jihadist sympathizers. Take the nuclear example. Every Pakistani official I’ve interviewed insists the arsenal is safe; every American official will privately, once the microphone clicks off, confess to doubts.
What is lost, when journalists are no longer able to ply their trade, is the effort to investigate these competing claims, or to ask tough questions of government officials, or to witness a nation and its people firsthand. And Raza Rumi’s voice is not the only one that has been muzzled. Weeks after he was attacked, another prominent TV anchor, Hamid Mir, was shot and wounded. Dozens of Pakistani journalists have been killed in recent years. Many others have chosen, understandably, to switch professions.
For foreign correspondents, the risks have also multiplied. When I first traveled to Pakistan as a BBC producer in the 1990s, I was able to move freely. I hailed taxis on the street, ate alone in restaurants and showed up for interviews in Western clothes, without a head scarf. This remained possible even after Sept. 11, even after the horrific slaying of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. I do remember a moment in 2006, turning on to the Grand Trunk Road to make the two-hour drive from Islamabad to Peshawar. My translator, a young woman from Pakistan’s troubled tribal areas, pulled a head scarf from her bag, wound it tightly to cover every feature but her eyes, and advised me to do the same. “Always, outside Islamabad,” she whispered. Still, that afternoon, she took me to her family’s village. We passed army checkpoints to get there but met no resistance. Men wandered up from their work in the sugar cane and tobacco fields and crowded around us. We stood in a muddy paddock and interviewed them until twilight fell, without a guard, without a cellphone, without having told anyone where we were.
My former colleague, NPR Pakistan correspondent Philip Reeves, chuckles when I tell him this story, as if I am describing reporting tactics from Ye Olden Days of Yore. He explains the precautions he is now forced to take to pull off a single interview in Peshawar, the frontier city where Tuesday’s siege unfolded: “You don’t get out of your car on the street. You know the exact address, you go straight there, you make sure your driver is parked in a way that he can get out quickly. And you take an electronic tracker, so they can trace you if you disappear.”
What about reporting from outside Peshawar, from the tribal areas where I had traveled blithely just a few years before? The Pakistani Taliban says the school attack was to avenge recent military operations there; what do we know of the Army’s campaign? Reeves sighs. “There’s a war going on there. We don’t cover it because we can’t go there. There are roadblocks, and they’d stop you and say you violated your visa. And then you’d get kicked out.”
This threat is the trump card wielded against foreign media working in Pakistan. Jeffrey Goldberg, an American reporter not known for shirking dangerous assignments, writes in this month’s Atlantic about traveling to Islamabad to investigate the safety of the nuclear weapons arsenal. One day, he received a phone call that amounted to a death threat, or—as Goldberg interpreted it—“an invitation … to leave Pakistan right away.” He took a taxi straight to the airport.
“Today, even places that shouldn’t be dangerous for journalists are dangerous,” he writes. “Whole stretches of Muslim countries are becoming off-limits. This is a minor facet of a much larger calamity, but it has consequences: the problems of Afghanistan and Pakistan and Syria and Iraq are not going away; our ability to see these problems, however, is becoming progressively more circumscribed.”
In other words: What we in Washington know of such places is increasingly a view from the dark.
Dec. 28 will mark nine months since the assassins came for Raza Rumi.
How his story ends is not yet clear. Rumi’s visa to stay in the U.S. runs out in February. He hopes to extend it, or failing that, he’s weighing the “difficult decision” of whether to apply for asylum. “If the U.S. throws me out, I’ll go somewhere else,” he says. “I can’t go back home.” For now, he has a temporary office near the Lincoln Memorial, from which he writes and blogs. He confides, smiling, that he’s not a bad cook, and invites me to bring my family over for dinner sometime. Perhaps our sons can play together.
As for the story he left behind in Pakistan, it grows bleaker.
“The conditions are getting worse,” confirms my former colleague, Phil Reeves, on the line from Islamabad. “When I look at the number of journalists I’ve personally known here who’ve ended up being taken hostage, or in serious trouble, it’s very large.”
So why stay, I ask?
“Because it’s fascinating,” he replies. “This is a dysfunctional country, in a dangerous neighborhood, with nuclear weapons. How can that not be a story for a long time to come?”
He’s right. This week’s heartbreaking attack will fade from the front pages, but Pakistan never slips from the headlines for long. Its craggy, desolate mountains and stinking, vibrant cities will provide the backdrop for thousands of stories to come.
What’s been lost, though, is that Raza Rumi—and many other journalists like him—will not be there to tell them.
The outspoken liberal will stay in exile and wait for a miracle
It was exactly a week after he had been ambushed by motorbike riding assailants armed with automatic guns in a posh, built up neighbourhood of Lahore. A few minutes after I had been ushered by a bearer into the living room of his first floor apartment, Rumi walked in, attired in casual clothes showing outward calm while visibly disturbed from inside. He hadn’t shaved for a week, his face resembled that of a cerebral scholar with a salt and pepper stubble.
Over tea and cookies he showed me on his Macbook an exchange of direct messages with someone claiming to have inside information. According to the source, he had been attacked by Jundullah, one of the many banned extremist organisations, the message screamed and that he should expect another attempt on his after a month. The exchange had looked all the more chilling when Rumi’s pleas to speak to the higher-up had seemed to hit a dead end. His source was not willing to go any further.
Senior journalist and TV anchor Raza Rumi, working with Express News channel, escaped attempted target-killing on Friday (March 28, 2014) in what appears sequence of events targeting the country’s liberal media house since last year.
“With Friday evening attack on Raza Rumi we have no doubt that it was part of the campaign targeting Express media house for taking up issues concerning the public and defenders of human rights, freedom of press and freedom of expression,” Freedom Network [FN], Pakistan’s first media watchdog organization, said in press freedom alert on Saturday (March 29, 2014). Continue reading →