Award-winning journalist, Taha Siddiqui was on his way to the Islamabad airport for a flight to London when almost a dozen men armed with AK-47s changed the course of his journey, and his life.
“I knew if I covered issues which are considered taboo in Pakistan, the threats would become real,” Taha said in an almost stoic manner.
Taha, who is known for his critique of the alleged excesses of the Pakistani military escaped his attackers almost miraculously after running out of the taxi and screaming for help. “I was in some ways, mentally prepared for it”.
Even though he registered a case with the police, no action was taken, as per the norm in attacks against journalists.
Starting out as a business reporter for CNBC, Taha joined Geo News later on, a television network which has suffered a great deal under growing restrictions in Pakistan’s media landscape.
“I don’t believe Pakistani journalists have any freedom. Mainstream media is completely controlled to the extent that even the tickers are managed by ISPR,” Taha claimed, in a statement, many journalists consider to be true but are afraid to accept openly.
Taha spoke about the atmosphere of fear and intimidation journalists faced, after which they resorted to a safer strategy, self-censorship.
Unable to continue living safely in Pakistan, Taha, 35, fled to Paris where he now runs a bar called ‘The Dissident Club’ as well as a news organisation called South Asia Press.
After being told by various sources that he faced a risk of assassination if he returned to Pakistan, Taha decided to stay in France where his life would be ‘longer than expected’.
Reminiscing the homeland he was forced to leave, Taha said he missed everything about Pakistan including his friends, family and a strong journalistic network.
Taha chose France as his new home since he had a lot of experience working with French media, France 24 in particular as a documentary filmmaker. He now teaches journalism courses and highlights the importance of freedom of speech.
Recently, Pakistan witnessed protests against France after Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical magazine published cartoons considered offensive to Muslims.
Taha believes that the protests were ‘engineered’ by Pakistan’s state apparatus. “These protests are orchestrated against the West and go beyond the sensibilities of Muslims, this is not about blasphemy. This is to show Islamic street power”.
More recently, a diplomatic spat between France and Pakistan was witnessed when Pakistan’s minister for Human Rights, Shireen Mazari equated France’s treatment of Muslims to the Nazi’s treatment of Jews. This resulted in the French Embassy issuing a condemnation and Mazari subsequently, deleting her tweet.
“Shireen Mazari should focus more on human rights in her own country,” Taha held, criticising the exaggerated news run by many Pakistani platforms which claimed that France had enacted discriminatory laws exclusively against Muslim children.
Taha, who now runs ‘the Dissident club’ also spoke about the ‘secret alcohol culture’ of Pakistan. In Pakistan, liquor is not allowed to be consumed by Muslims but behind closed doors, one finds well-stocked personal cabinets with premium whisky, (Johnnie Walker Black Label being the favourite) without looking too hard.
“Prohibition came in the 70s, before that Pakistan had bars and people could consume alcohol freely. We have prohibition because we gave in to a more extreme version of Islam we have been importing in recent years,” Taha said.
Pakistan’s hypocrisy is considered to be reflected in its heavy drinking culture, where the elite who impose the ban on alcohol are the ones who most enjoy it.
Taha claimed that the ultimate beneficiaries of the prohibition of alcohol were the players operating in the black market, many of whom are considered to have deep links with every government.
When I asked if he received any backlash for running a bar which serves alcohol from back home, Taha said he was very open about his life. “Everybody knows what we do. Recently there was a video which had photos of me in my bar making drinks but I really don’t care about it. As far as my family is concerned, they realise it’s my choice.
“Many of my friends are very excited, they’ve visited The Dissident Club but you have to understand that the club isn’t a traditional bar. It’s about having a conversation with us, with the people we invite on various issues and topics,” Taha explained the vision behind The Dissident Club.
When asked who is the one person in the world he would like to enjoy a drink with, Taha said it would be none of other than Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, widely considered the most powerful man of the country.
“Maybe General Faiz (DG ISI) can join too, and we can talk our way out of the predicament I have found myself in. I’m generally an amicable and friendly person, I think we can come to a resolution over a drink,” Taha said concluding the conversation and the part I inevitably thought about multiple times before using in the final copy of this feature.