The family of retired Lieutenant-General Asim Saleem Bajwa, shown here at a press conference in 2016, allegedly has a business empire overseas. Metin Aktas / Anadolu Agency

On August 27, Pakistani investigative journalist Ahmad Noorani dropped a bombshell with a story on the assets of retired Lieutenant-General Asim Saleem Bajwa and his family. Noorani provided documentary evidence of Bajwa and his brothers getting rich in the US and gave details of their pizza franchises and other companies in the US, the United Arab Emirates and Canada.

Asim Bajwa, former director general of Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), now is chairman of the CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) Authority, and also serves as special adviser to Prime Minister Imran Khan on information and broadcasting. At this writing, he is yet to respond to Noorani’s story.

According to that article published by Fact Focus, in his official declaration of assets, Bajwa did not record his wife’s ownership of shares in franchises of Papa John’s Pizza and other companies, including real-estate and marketing services. According to documents provided by Noorani, Bajwa’s wife Farrukh Zeba is a shareholder in these companies.

He also raised questions as to why the business of Bajwa’s brother grew phenomenally during the time Asim Bajwa held high positions in the Pakistani military.

Since Noorani’s detailed report with its documentary evidence is available on the Fact Focus website, there is no need to repeat the details here. The question is when Asim Bajwa will provide an explanation, and why the mainstream media, both electronic and print, are not investigating this story.

In fact, ever since the story went viral, a campaign against Noorani and other dissident journalists has been run on the mainstream media, alleging a conspiracy against CPEC by by India’s intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW).

Even the so-called champions of journalism are silent, as giving this story coverage on mainstream media means consequences for those who do.

Whether Bajwa will present a rebuttal and deny this story with logic and documentary proof remains to be seen, but the failure of the mainstream media to cover this issue has made one thing clear: that in a country like Pakistan it is only the politicians who can be held accountable, and the media can assassinate their characters around the clock.

In fact, along with the politicians, journalists like us already laid off by the controlled section of the press are easy targets and can be harassed both visibly and invisibly.

This is not a small scandal by any means, as Bajwa is being accused of using his position to help his family build a business empire outside the country. However, from Imran Khan to the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) to the media, all are behaving as if nothing has happened. 

This makes it clear that “accountability” in this country has only one purpose, to undermine dissident political leaders and journalists. No one else, if he is submissive, can ever be sent notices by accountability institutions to clarify his sources of income.

After all, if Nawaz Sharif, a thrice-elected prime minister, can be sent packing by the courts for allegedly supporting his family by creating offshore companies, why can no other person, no matter how high a position he holds in the powerful military establishment, be brought to justice?

Bajwa’s family business empire for sure is not the only such case, and there are many in the establishment who have earned fortunes from properties they own outside the country and yet remain free. And thanks to the propaganda of “patriotism” and enemies conspiring against the country, they remain untouchable.

In 2018 the NAB summoned former military dictator Pervez Musharraf and his wife in a multibillion-dollar corruption probe, asking them to explain how they purchased 10 expensive properties but he did not face any consequences. But in the end, the special court’s decision to hang Musharraf for subverting the constitution was overturned by another court.

Major-General Syed Mustafa Anwar, who after retirement from the military was appointed as Pakistan’s ambassador to Indonesia, sold the embassy building in Jakarta in 2001-2002 at a throwaway price, but only recently did the NAB file a reference against him.

The dictators Ayub Khan, Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, and Yahya Khan were never brought to justice for manipulating the political discourse, subverting the constitution and losing East Pakistan, and perhaps neither will others like them who are still busy playing the same old games.

While running business empires that consist of housing authorities, selling cement and cornflakes, and running department stores – the list goes on and on – the establishment largely remains above anything, and even asking questions about these businesses or their political role brings consequences for inquiring journalists and elected political leaders.

In fact, most journalists are trying to pretend nothing has happened and that this Bajwa scandal is a conspiracy against CPEC and the military establishment. These are the same journalists who always undermine elected leaders and bend with the prevailing wind.

So perhaps one can understand that they have nothing to do with real journalism that demands sacrifices and the courage to speak the truth no matter if someone powerful likes it or not. No one in a country like Pakistan where one cannot criticize the establishment can dare to report the truth knowing that he along with his family may have to pay a very heavy price.

But perhaps it is time that the establishment understands that in the age of the Internet, there will be more scandals like this that will keep coming out, and controlling the press will not hide them forever.

Sweeping things under the carpet cannot save the image of anyone. The only way to deal with scandals is to rebut them with documentary proof and let some sort of intellectual and press freedom prevail in the country.

Muzzling the press and trying to divert the attention of the masses by calling investigative journalism propaganda will only strengthen the case of dissident journalists and voices in the international forum, that not only is “accountability” selective in Pakistan but the military establishment enjoys hegemony over all the institutions in the country.

In fact, major political leaders also need to end their silence on this matter. As of now only Farhatullah Babar, a senior politician in the Pakistan Peoples Party, and Maryam Nawaz have spoken on this issue. Maryam on Tuesday bluntly said that demanding the accountability of one person would not affect the CPEC and asked Asim Bajwa to face the allegations against him.

One hopes that sanity will prevail and instead of terming Noorani or other dissident journalists traitors, the powers that be will not make this an ego issue and Asim Bajwa soon will publicly defend himself and his family and produce the money trail of their business empire.

Presenting himself before an accountability court can stop his critics from raising further objections. After all, accountability should be equal for all, as it is the supremacy of law and upholding the constitution that guarantees smooth sailing for nations everywhere. 

Imad Zafar is a journalist and columnist/commentator for newspapers. He is associated with TV channels, radio, newspapers, news agencies, and political, policy and media related think-tanks.

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