By Taha Siddiqui
5 Apr 2018
To The Chief of the Army of Pakistan,
I did not want to write an open letter to you. But after much deliberation, I thought it was important – not just for you to know what is happening in our beloved country, but also for the world to be aware of how dissent is being targeted in Pakistan, forcing journalists like me into exile.
It is also important to write this now. This week Pakistan’s leading news channel, Geo, is being shut down across the country, under orders alleged to have come from your office.
Insiders say the intensification of attacks on the press is part of an organised campaign by the army of Pakistan to ensure that efforts to engineer and manipulate the 2018 elections are not openly discussed in the media. But did you not just recently say that you are the biggest supporter of democracy? If that statement was true, then you must stop your men from pulling the plug on freedom of speech, which is an essential characteristic of democracy.
But before I tell you more about why freedom of speech is a fundamental right, I want to bring you up to date with what has been happening in my life. I currently live in Paris and have been here for the last seven weeks. When I decided to go into exile from my homeland, my wife and I were on the same page about it.
After my failed abduction attempt on 10 January this year by people I suspect to have been under your command, and the arrest warrants issued for me last year for “maligning the army”, we were left with no choice but to escape our own country. But we had to deal with another person in our family – Miranshah, our four-and-a-half-year-old son. We did not tell him what had happened or why we were being forced into exile. We decided to keep his childhood intact and to not burden him with the dark realities of his country of origin. Instead we told him that we were leaving to find better work in France.
He started to cry, and would not stop asking us what was wrong in Islamabad, and saying how he did not want to go to any other school as his friends would not be there. He screamed and shouted at us, and eventually just sobbed, with his head in his mother’s lap.
Once he had calmed down, all he asked was whether he could take his toys. We immediately said yes. But his simple request broke my heart. It was so tough for me, a father, and for my wife, his mother, to see our young child being asked to wrap up his life in Pakistan. Given the urgency of the situation, we had to do it all in a couple of weeks. And in return, all he asked for was his toys.
During those last days in Islamabad, I remember meeting Pakistan’s interior minister, Ahsan Iqbal, who invited me over for a cup of tea to discuss my abduction attempt. It was there that I had the idea of writing this letter, as the interior minister, who is technically your boss, suggested that I write to you to say sorry, and seek a pardon. He told me I should explain how I am a patriot, and want the best for Pakistan.
It was then that I decided that if the highest law enforcement officer in the land, the federal interior minister, could not help me, I was on my own, and I needed to get out to stay alive.
Now I am taking up his suggestion of writing to you. But I want to do this publicly, and to make some different points to those he had in mind. As a journalist I am trained to speak about issues publicly, and since the matter of freedom of speech does not concern just me or you, but our homeland, there needs to be an open dialogue about it.
As I write these words, news has come in of a tribal belt journalist picked up by men from security agencies. And I know journalists back home will not talk openly about this or the hundreds of other enforced disappearances, fearing for their own safety. When I was abducted, your men did it in broad daylight, on one of the the main highways of Islamabad. There was traffic all around, and everyone saw the whole episode, but apart from one female student no one has come forward to talk about it.
Is this the society you want future generations to grow up in, where those in power can do what they like and no one even dares to come forward to help or speak about it?
Back in 1947, my grandparents left everything behind in India to migrate to Pakistan. They wanted the freedom they would enjoy in a country where they were not in a religious minority. Little did they know that this freedom would be short-lived, and their own grandson would be forced out of the country? Is this why our ancestors struggled to create Pakistan?
Pakistan was, is and will always remain my home. My life in Islamabad was comfortable. I had a lovely two-storey residence overlooking a garden, where I made my son plant trees – an early lesson for him in making Pakistan a greener place. I had a good job, and so did my wife.
Now I live in a foreign country where they do not speak my language and I do not have proper means to provide for my family. My wife is unemployed and my child has no friends at school. I am pointing this all out for you so that you and your team of social media trolls understand that being uprooted from one’s homeland is not as charming as you perhaps want to make it sound.
Our country faces a great deal of turmoil. The only way to address this is to first talk about the issues, and not silence that conversation, because dissent is an essential part of progress. If you do not get to hear what is wrong in Pakistan, you will live in a fool’s paradise, thinking all is well. And one day you will wake up to find the country imploding, as it did in 1971.
And suppressing dissent only makes it more credible. In my case, after my exile, not only has my voice become louder, given the safety I now enjoy, but what I say now has more weight. Was that the best strategy for your men to follow? Perhaps not, since I now speak at international summits about attacks on press freedom in Pakistan.
I therefore humbly request you revisit the idea of censoring the truth. This censorship only promotes ignorance. If you wish to see a pluralistic, progressive and democratic Pakistan, as we all do, you and your organisation need to allow dissent, and permit dissenters like me to return and enjoy the freedom our forefathers intended Pakistan to symbolise.
• Taha Siddiqui is an award-winning journalist from Pakistan