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 that proceeded 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 (CP) 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".
He said it was "surprising" for the army when a piece of paper was waived on March 27 and "an attempt was made to build a narrative that was far from reality".
Terming the cypher "baseless and unfounded", the military spokesman said the National Security Committee found no proof regarding a conspiracy against the PTI government and neither did the ISI.
"This is all part of the record."
Gen Babar said Arshad and other journalists were later fed a particular narrative and "an attempt was made to defame Pakistan and the country's institutions across the world".
He further said that "during the media trial, ARY News played the role of a spin doctor in targetting the army and promoting a false narrative" and the NSC meeting was presented in the wrong context.
Adding that the military was expected to intervene in domestic politics, he said the word "neutral and apolitical was turned into 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."
The military spokesperson clarified that the army "did not have any negative sentiments about him [Arshad] and there are no such feelings now".
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.
#Live: Director General Inter-Services Public Relations Lieutenant General Babar Iftikhar addressing a news conference in Rawalpindi @OfficialDGISPR https://t.co/Rgj0wg2G1J
— Radio Pakistan (@RadioPakistan) October 27, 2022
DG ISI speaks at media talk
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,” 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 per cent 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.
Answering a question on possible propaganda against the military in attempts to influence the selection of a new army chief in November, DG ISPR said that "criticism is everyone’s right".
"We have never had an issue with criticism as an institution. We only have an issue when criticism when it enters the domain of propaganda and fake news."
"That is something we need to avoid because we don’t have a forum where these things can be addressed on a daily basis. Neither does it suit us nor should we do that. That is why the government defends the institutions. But criticism is not an issue."
“As far as the selection of the new army chief is concerned, it will happen on time and as per the constitutionally defined method. There should be no doubt about that," added Gen Babar.
“I have already said it is the constitutional right of every Pakistani that they freely express their opinions, even if that opinion is my own criticism and I will repeat this for you: It is my duty to respect that right and as a soldier and spy I am ready to protect that right. You criticize us, by all means, do it day and night, but ask what I did for the country and the nation, not what I did for your or your own political gains,” said the intelligence chief.
“If I am not meeting the nation’s expectations then please criticise me. I will happily bring improvement in my work”.
"You have a right to an opinion, but don't manufacture facts," added Gen Nadeem.