Arshad Sharif’s death reminds me of Aristotle’s “Poetics,” in which the philosopher laid down the foundations for literary criticism of Greek tragedy. Questions he raised more than two thousand years ago aptly describe what Pakistanis suffered through in the last few months and are still battling with increasing rage. Why is it that people are drawn to watching tragic heroes suffer horrible fates? Aristotle had observed: First, the audience develops a passionate attachment to the tragic hero; second, the audience fears what may befall the hero; and finally (when tragedy strikes), the audience then mourns the suffering hero. When Arshad embarked on his journey of speaking truth to the power, somewhere around March of 2022, my producer, Tahir Khan, would complain to me literally every day, “Doctor Sahib, Arshad Pagal ho Gaya Hay, Yeh Mara Jaye Ga.”
For Aristotle’s theory, the tragic hero had to be a complex and well-constructed character, as in Sophocles’ Oedipus the King. As a tragic hero, Oedipus elicits the needed responses, including an “essential personality flaw” deeply embedded in his psyche. No doubt, Aristotle and subsequent critics had labeled Oedipus, the ideal tragic hero. But unlike ancient Greek’s flawed hero who falls in love with his mother and goes on to kill his own father providing the context to Sigmund Freud’s “Oedipus Complex,” Pakistan’s tragic hero did not have to do much to cross “red lines” of a moribund collapsing political order. Arshad Sharif only tried speaking truth to the powers that controlled the system. He did not realize there was not much space and whatever existed was fast shrinking – a sign of a collapsing order.
In Aristotle’s understanding, all tragic heroes have a “hamartia” (tragic flaw), but this is not an inherent part of their characters. Had it been so, the spectators of the drama of life would lose respect for heroes and will be unable to fall in love with them. While Pakistan’s failing political order and the custodians of its collapsing walls could see Arshad as someone who was crossing limits, but to countless millions of Pakistanis, he was the knight with shining armor boldly fighting the corrupt authoritarian system on their behalf. Similarly, in Aristotelian philosophy, if the tragic end were entirely unexpected, the audience would not fear for the hero. In the case of Arshad, producer Tahir Khan was not alone, countless millions feared a tragic end for their hero, and so when the shocking news came from Kenya, they instinctively knew it was not a case of mistaken identity and while Kenyan police may have been used the actual murderers are in their midst – in Pakistan.
They also knew that inquiry committees, judicial commissions, and fact-finding bodies would be set up to divert, mislead and defeat truth through alternate theories. But how could these official contraptions find truth when their hero’s only crime was “speaking the truth.” This public belief in what happened to Arshad reminds me of American author James Surowiecki’s 2004 masterpiece, “Wisdom of Crowds,” in which he explains how thousands of minds collectively grasp reality better than a few. Wielders of power in Pakistan innocently believe that they can manufacture a synthetic truth through commissions and courts, and the public ought to believe in this official truth. But unlike Aristotle’s Oedipus, Pakistan’s Arshad was fighting this “official truth,” and his tragic end proves that the system of “official truth” and control of information is not working.
Arshad Sharif (February 22, 1973 – October 23, 2022) was one of the most prominent Pakistani journalist, scriptwriter, and television news anchor. He was the winner of a 2012 Agahi Award, and in March 2019, he was awarded the Pride of Performance by the President of Pakistan, Dr. Arif Alvi, for his contributions to journalism. His essential flaw was his romanticism. No wonder he kept on falling in love with women and ideas. Few remember that he had left medical school to study social sciences. Journalism was his passion, and investigating corruption was to his heart. A staunch believer in the Pakistani state, he travelled to war zones to cover conflict and talk to soldiers on the front. His images in bulletproof vests with a tv mic in hand have become iconic. After his death, his admirers have repeatedly posted these in millions on social media in a manner as if these were “their questions.”
Arshad was from a military family; was born in Karachi, Pakistan, to a Commander of the Pakistan Navy, Muhammad Sharif, and his late brother, Ashraf, had also served in the military. But Arshad was a man of letters and expression – elements that drove him out of medical school into the turbulent world of Pakistani journalism. He began his journalistic career as a freelancer in 1993 while he was still a student. He received his Master of Science in Public Administration from Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, and his first media job was with a weekly publication, Pulse, for which he was a columnist, reporter, and managing editor in 1999. He later joined The News in 1999 and Daily Dawn in 2001. And worked for tv channels – AAJ and Dunya – before starting his program, Power Play on ARY News, which became his identity till his death.
From 2014, he was increasingly popular and could be counted among the best-known media names in Pakistan. He was known for his investigative reports against corrupt politicians, ministers, presidents, and prime ministers. But Aristotle’s tragic hero – that endeared him with countless millions and took him towards his end- emerged from March 2022 onwards, when the controversial nature of “regime change” in Pakistan – being presented as normal democracy – incensed him. The official truth was that whatever was happening was merely a routine constitutional change that could happen anywhere in a democracy.
But the media’s job is to examine the official story, poke holes, raise questions, and speak the truth to the power. And unlike many others, Arshad took his job seriously. He started to dig, bring out facts and raise difficult questions in his programs and on Twitter. Pakistan’s elite and state managers have often complained of a biased worldview towards the country. That has elements of truth to it, but repetition of this self-talk has blinded them to the fragility of Pakistan’s state narratives. They don’t understand how weak and flawed Pakistan’s official stories are and how difficult it is to defend them. Arshad was not the only journalist that fell foul of Pakistan’s authoritarian system after March 2022. But he led the pack. Faced with more than two dozen bizarre cases (FIRs) of anti-state activities, sedition, instigating mutiny, and similar charges, he found himself continuously standing in courtrooms day after day to maintain his freedom and right of expression.
Read More: New development in Arshad Sharif murder case
It was in these circumstances that he left Pakistan for Dubai. A few days before his sudden departure, he invited me in his tv program. I complained to him about not responding to my text messages. In his usual calm expression, he told me that his life is under threat and that “they” have added his name to a “List to be Eliminated.” I thought he was paranoid; how could this be possible? I had always believed that while our system is not a developed democracy and suppresses dissent, yet it is rational and certainly not homicidal. I looked skeptical, realizing that I don’t believe him; he did not insist but shared a British WhatsApp no for staying in touch. I was in a meeting somewhere in August 2022 when I heard that Arshad had left for Dubai via Peshawar. Before his death, we did speak more than once. It was then widely believed that he was in the UK; from the photos he had issued on Twitter, I discerned he was not in London. I asked him his location; he politely told me that he couldn’t divulge where he was but informed me that he was forced out of Dubai under pressure from Pakistan.
Arshad was shot and killed in Kajiado, Kenya, by local police on October 23, 2022. The Kenyan police described the shooting as a case of “mistaken identity.” On October 24, the Kenyan Independent Police Oversight Authority announced an investigation into Sharif’s death. At this stage, at the end of November 2022, no one – in Kenya or Pakistan – is arguing anymore that his killing was accidental. It has been accepted by all that he was assassinated in a target shooting. Yet, more than five weeks after his murder, despite various pronouncements at the highest level and appeals from his mother, his daughter, and media bodies, there is no visible progress from the Pakistani government or judiciary in determining the circumstances of his flight from Pakistan, exit from Dubai and his final death.
Most in the media, legal community, and civil society are convinced that answers to a few simple questions can help expose those who may have planned his murder. Questions are: Who was instrumental in filing more than two dozen bizarre FIRs (criminal charges) against him in Pakistan? Who from Pakistan pressured UAE authorities to force his exit from Dubai, and why? What was the intention? Why did Kenyan police claim that it was a case of mistaken identity? Who pressured his channel to terminate him from his job?
Many believe that Pakistan’s governing system was always like that: flawed and fractured in all possible directions, and it will continue like that forever. I am afraid this political and legal system – whatever name you may give it is fast reaching the end of its shelf life. We are sitting at the edge of a precipice, and we don’t realize it. Arshad’s’ murder and the callousness being shown in finding truth is adding to Pakistan’s burgeoning tragedy!
Moeed Pirzada is the Editor of Global Village Space; he is also a prominent TV Anchor and a known columnist and Vlogger. He previously served with the Central Superior Services in Pakistan. Pirzada studied international relations at Columbia University, New York, and Law at the London School of Economics, UK, as a Britannia Chevening Scholar. He can be reached at: Editor@GlobalVillageSpace.com