Investigative journalist Greg Palast interviews Raza Ahmad Rumi, Director of the the Park Center for Independent Media and a courageous Pakistani journalist, who in 2014 barely escaped assassination when Taliban supporters ambushed his car (his driver was murdered).
Palast and Rumi have much in common, highlighting inconvenient truths through their work in areas where the mainstream media often colludes with those in power to bury them. The pair met up in Ithaca, NY earlier this year, when Palast was invited by Rumi to screen his new film, Vigilante: Georgia’s Vote Suppression Hitman, at the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival, which is sponsored by the Park Center for Independent Media. In this conversation, Rumi talks about his fight between truth and the powers that want to suppress it.
Greg Palast: Raza, you are the living image of courage and your work in Pakistan with DAWN and broadcasters, you’ve been probably been in every major outlet in Pakistan.
Raza Ahmad Rumi: I’ve written for them, yes.
Palast: Also you did television, et cetera, you’re a major journalist in Pakistan and in South Asia… Why are you in the US?
Rumi: Long story. So, just like you, I also studied economics. That was my degree. I worked for a number of organizations such as the UN, the Asian Development Bank, the government of Pakistan, and then switched to journalism in my late thirties or so.
Palast: Same with me.
Rumi: Yeah, late thirties, early forties. I realized that the real power or meaning in life is to actually inform the people, tell them what is the truth, uncover things that are, you know, hidden away from them. That is what I was doing in Pakistan. I used to be in the Philippines with the Asian Development Bank. I quit, came back to Pakistan, joined a paper called The Friday Times — I’m still affiliated with them — and then later on got onto TV.
I angered some powers and some really violent groups who tried to kill me in March 2014. I was attacked. My driver died. Because I was at the back of the car, I ducked and I just barely survived. At that time I had young kids and I wasn’t sure what to do. So, because some of my family lives here in the US, I came here initially just for a break.
Palast: They tried to assassinate you? Who tried to kill you.?
Rumi: The government and the police say these were the religious extremists, groups affiliated with the Taliban, the Pakistani branch of Taliban.
Palast: Is it safe for me to be sitting here with you in Ithaca?
Rumi: Yes, I suppose so. But Greg, as you know, the militant groups, like the Taliban and the Pakistani branch of Taliban, have deep relationships with the deep state of Pakistan. So, that was the gray area. I wasn’t sure, was it the deep state that was trying to do that? I mean, the intelligence agencies in Pakistan. Or were these autonomous militant groups? One can never know about these things… It’s so murky. And so, for me, at that point, I just thought that I should live for another day and do my work later.
So, I took a break and I worked here in in Washington, DC with the USIP [United States Institute of Peace] and a couple of other think tanks, and then moved to Ithaca, got a job with the Ithaca College, and then later at Cornell. But then I went back to writing and went back to journalistic works. I’ve also set up on my own a digital outlet over the past few years. It’s very Pakistan-centric, of course, and South Asian-centric. Then I teach journalism here. I’m doing this work for Park Center for Independent Media. So, in a way, I feel that being here makes me feel at least notionally safe, although the gun violence in the US is also now really, really…
Palast: You know you’re being targeted, when you talk about Taliban, but they can’t operate without the approval of the government.
Palast: No one went after the guys who killed your driver?
Rumi: They did…and they arrested a few people, members of one sectarian militant organization. One was a member of the Pakistani branch of Taliban. They were arrested and they were tried…They were also sentenced, but then their sentences were suspended in an appeal. They still are in jail and I don’t know what happens to that case. I keep on following up and it’s all stuck up somewhere in the judicial and bureaucratic rut. To be honest, I don’t even know whether they’re the real culprits or not. In our country, police just pick up people. Here in the US also. Wrong time, [wrong place].
Palast: Right? Because there was international attention to your case.
Palast: And they had to get someone.
Palast: You’ve pissed off some presidents there and some leaders.
Rumi: Well, not presidents per se, but I think I did piss off members of the intelligence agencies. Because it’s just like you were talking about, the whole label of being unpatriotic if you’re critical of their policies. And I was critical of Pakistan’s foreign policy, Pakistan’s support to groups like Taliban, its blind eye to militant organizations, of spreading religious extremism in the country. That was my major beat. A lot of my talk shows on TV, my writings, my research focused on that. And that obviously angered those who were supporting these groups, right? And they thought that maybe… And another angle is that I’m also a proponent of peace between India and Pakistan, which are waring neighbors, as you know.
I wrote my first book [Delhi by Heart] on the war on the Indian capital of Deli, which, as a Pakistani, I said I don’t consider to be an enemy, because we need to… I wrote a whole book on the capital of the enemy, quote unquote, right? So, that was also deemed as unpatriotic, because you take a line different from the mainstream.
But, anyway, being here, all of that’s passed now. I have been wanting to move on, and that’s my goal in life, that life goes on. If you live, then you move on and you do your work.
Palast: It’s gotta be tough to be in exile from your country and your family.
Rumi: Yes, it was. For five years I did not go back, almost five years. I was too scared to go back. Then, once they arrested these people and they were tried… And then my parents live there. They’re aging. So, I’ve started going back. I do visit now. But it was tough. For those years, it was not easy…
But also the trauma. You see a human being dying, you keep on blaming yourself. My driver, he was 25-years old. He had been recently married and he just died in a flash. I saw him, I picked up his dead body to take him to the hospital, and it took me years and years of counseling to deal with that trauma. That’s what we often forget. And to be honest, I’m not the only one. There’s so many other journalists in Pakistan, in Mexico, in places you’ve worked, who go through these traumatic incidents. I’m, in a way, privileged because I had family here. I came here, found employment. A lot of people don’t even find employment or even the visa to go abroad. So, I do place myself in that larger fight between truth and powers that want to suppress truth.
Palast: Well, thank you very much. You are truly the image of journalistic courage.
Rumi: Thank you.
Palast: And the fact that you keep going despite the dangers is more than impressive.
Rumi: For the five years I did not go [home], it was psychologically taxing. The idea that you cannot go there because then it also puts you in that deep traumatic state of being. For me it was very important to overcome that as well. It was part of my healing process, that I have to somehow regain and retain the courage and face things. I had a long break, five years of voluntary exile. No visits…I think, to recover fully as a human being… And then, of course, it’s my country. At the end of the day, I feel for my people, I feel for my friends, my family, all the work I’ve done all my life. I just cannot sever those links either.
Palast: If I want to really understand what’s going on in Pakistan, what should I read?
Palast: Thank you.
Rumi: You’re very welcome.
Writer, editor, photographer, videographer, social media consultant, and tactivist (tactical activist), Nicole Powers uses art and technology to share ideas that make the world a better place.