November 23, 2009

Spies and Journalists in Pakistan

A story has been rumbling on in Pakistan for a couple of weeks now that just plain refuses to go away. 

The daily newspaper, the Nation, published an article on Nov 5 claiming US journalist Matthew Rosenberg, South Asia Correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, was spying in Pakistan. Rosenberg left the country and the WSJ responded with an open letter signed by a bunch of US, British and French outlets along with Al Jazeera.

Now, Londonstani finds this "foreign journalists are spies" rumour mongering really distasteful. It looks like the article fulfilled a couple of aims for whoever thought it was a good idea.

1) It embarasses a couple of senior officials, who are named, for potentially providing information on military matters to an American spy

2) It plays to suspicions about America and might sell a few more copies

3) Last but not least, it gets rid of a journalist who might have been printing stories someone somewhere didn't like

Stories like this are common all over the Middle East, and it always surprises Londonstani that people reading this stuff in countries with strong US ties stop and think "hmm.. maybe they're are up to something dodgy", since, it's absolutely no secret that the militaries of these places are briefing US intelligence agencies several times a day. Seriously people, what does everyone think the president, prime minister and head of the army were doing when the CIA director visited Islamabad last week??

So, about this story in particular:

"To the surprise and shock of many, top bosses of Federally Administrated Tribal Area (FATA) Secretariat are allegedly feeding these journalists with secret reports and information regarding Pak Army and militant groups operating there."

How secret are these "secret reports and information" exactly? Is it stuff the Pakistanis would give the American intelligence agencies anyway?

Why would officials meet a journalist anyway? In Londonstani's experience, officials don't meet journalists unless they have some spin they are trying to get out into the open. Were these Pakistani officials trying to press upon US public opinion that their country was serious about going after militants? In this case maybe Shireen Mazari, the editor in chief of the Nation, has actually harmed her country in her unthinking and unblinking one-woman mission to protect Pakistan. She did something similar when she responded to the Seymour Hersh article on Pakistan's nukes by telling everyone that Hersh couldn't be believed as he got the protection levels on Pakistani nuclear weapons totally wrong. They were, in fact, she said, stored in a way that made them much easier to activate.

In a television interview on the brewing controversy, Mazari repeated the pointed out that Rosenberg has broken the law by going up to FATA and NWFP without getting proper clearance.

Now, getting this clearance, is cumbersome and bureaucratic and most journalists go up to Peshawar and the rest of NWFP without it. This doesn't make them spies, as it doesn't make Rosenberg a spy. It should be added that the journalists who went up to Waziristan for Hakimullah's first interview last year were all Pakistani and all sneaked up past checkpoints in violation of the law. If you are going to do some reporting that involves more than shooting the breeze with friends you're likely to end up breaking  rules. That's not the same as spying.

Rosenberg's safety was threatened by this article. Londonstani hopes that anyone reading this who is angered by the treatment that Rosenberg received, also takes a moment to remember what happened to Sami al Hajj, the Sudanese Jazeera cameraman who ended up in Guantanamo for six years without charge after Pakistani forces handed him over to the US.

Finally, the Nation article is just terrible news writing. The title doesn't match the lede, there is no quote to back up the central argument. There are a bunch of unanswered questions; If Pakistani officials were feeding sensitive information to a foreign national, could they be prosecuted? What was Rosenberg doing with this information? (If he was writing articles, then, ummm.. he's just a boring journalist). It's a legal minefield, etc etc.

Anyway, Londonstani thought spies never pose as journalists anyway, that would just be too predictable.