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Photo Source: Daily Times

Pakistan Reader# 123, 21 July 2020

The Cynthia Ritchie Saga:

The search for a positive story on Pakistan ends in controversy

The primary questions are: what is she doing in Pakistan? Who has invited her to Pakistan? What is the status of her visa? How has she managed to stay in Pakistan for such a long time? Who is her enabler/host within Pakistan? If there is a link between Cynthia and the ISPR, a final question would be: Why would the ISPR want to engage her? If that is the case, is she another experiment by the Deep State, that has gone bad? 

Lakshmi V Menon

In the News

Cynthia D. Ritchie, a US blogger, has created a political storm in Pakistan. 

The primary questions are: what is she doing in Pakistan? Who has invited her to Pakistan? What is the status of her visa? How has she managed to stay in Pakistan for such a long time? Who is her enabler/host within Pakistan?

On 3 July, the federal government informed the Islamabad High Court (IHC) that Cynthia's visa had expired in February 2020, and that the applied extension was subject to clearance by intelligence agencies. ("Cynthia's visa expired in February, IHC told," Dawn, 4 July 2020) ("Cynthia Ritchie not involved in anti-state activity, Interior Ministry informs Court," The Nation, 17 July 2020)

On 17 July, in a report submitted to Islamabad High Court (IHC), the Ministry of Interior has notified that Cynthia was staying in Pakistan on an 'extended' visa. It is reported that Cynthia "informed in her application that she had been working with Walkabout Films in collaboration with Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR – military's media affairs wing) and the KP government on various film projects in the country." Additional Attorney General Tariq Mehmood Khokhar maintained that her visa extension was till 31 August and that no illegality or anti-state activity, as being alleged, has been committed by her. According to the interior ministry, Cynthia has denied all allegations, and since the process of further extensions of foreigner visas had been paused due to the Covid-19 situation, blanket extensions were granted to all. ("Cynthia working on ISPR & KP govt projects, court told," Dawn, 18 July 2020) The Court has adjourned further hearing of petition.

Her accusations against the PPP and its leaders are serious. The PPP in its response to her accusations, have questioned her presence in Pakistan. Earlier, in May 2020, Cynthia created a storm, when she accused former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto of ordering physical assaults on women who had affairs with her husband - Asif Ali Zardari. Later in June 2020, she accused former Interior Minister Rehman Malik of raping her in 2011. She also accused PPP's former minister Makhdoom Shahabuddin and former Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani of physical misconduct.

On 13 June 2020, Islamabad High Court directed the Federal Investigation Agency to probe the allegations of defamation of former PM Benazir Bhutto, against Cynthia. ("Islamabad court orders FIA to initiate probe against Cynthia Ritchie for tweets on Benazir," Dawn, 14 June 2020) Later, on 26 June, the IHC demanded an explanation from the Ministry of Interior (MoI) regarding the terms and conditions and status of her visa. ("IHC calls for explanation about Cynthia visa status," Dawn, 27 June 2020) 

Ritchie, in a letter to the FIA claimed that she was a "law abiding resident of Pakistan" who for the past many years has been "investigating PTM (with the assistance of supporting agencies and the military)". She also claims to have unearthed "links of anti-state activities between PTM and PPP". (US blogger claims to have been probing anti-Pakistan activities," Dawn, 9 June 2020) A report quoted Ayesha Siddiqua stating that "Since the late 1970s, the ISPR and ISI have engaged with White foreign academics so that they can be encouraged to write about the military and Pakistan in a positive light." ("Cynthia Ritchie, American writer in Pakistan who accused PPP leaders of rape, assault," The Print, 15 June 2020) 

If there is a link between Cynthia and the ISPR, a final question would be: Why would the ISPR want to engage her? If that is the case, is she another experiment by the Deep State, that has gone bad? 

Issues at large

Who is Cynthia Ritchie? And what is she doing in the tribal regions? How does she manage to access the region, which is restricted even for the Pakistani journalists?
In November 2009, during Cynthia's first documented Pakistan visit, she met with Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) leaders. She tweeted, "Met leaders of the MQM movement. If you enjoy int' l politics, I would encourage u to read about this party". The then Federal Minister for Narcotics Control Azam Swati, whose relatives she knew from Houston, helped her socialize in Pakistan. Her first two jobs were at the Omair-Sana Foundation and Humanity Hope, establishments managed by US-based Pakistani doctors.

In 2011, when the US was hunting down Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan's Abbottabad, Cynthia Ritchie was working for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa's health ministry. She was working in the region where a fake anti-polio campaign that to led the confirmation of Osama's whereabouts was conducted. However, Cynthia maintains that her visits to the region (which commenced two years prior to US's search for Osama) were a mere "coincidence". She then cultivated strong PPP-government links. Note, her rape allegations against Senator Malik are from 2011; then he was a minister. ("Why a US blogger is at the centre of controversy in Pakistan," Al Jazeera, 15 June 2020)

Professional background, Work, Connections
Pakistani media describes Cynthia as a filmmaker, a blogger and "a social media enthusiast". Hailing from Louisiana, she obtained a Bachelor degree in Criminal Justice and a Master of Education in Psychology from the Louisiana State University. According to her Facebook handle, she has additional certificates/degrees from Universities of Houston School of Law, Pepperdine and George Washington in the "faculties of mass communications, criminal justice, conflict resolution, clinical & behavioural psychology and strategic public relations."

She is currently working with a filmmaking company "A Different Lens Production". The company's page features short videos of the Swat Valley published in December 2019. Although Cynthia has been claiming to be working on a documentary for the past decade, internet searches do not display her blog or any documentary. Cynthia claims to be working on "reshaping perceptions" between civil societies of Pakistan and America with "contra-positive" images of Pakistan. In 2012, she first announced her 'what Pakistanis are doing for Pakistan' project. In 2015, she announced a Kashmir documentary which she claimed via social media was with Pakistani government's authorization. In 2019, the project was seemingly ongoing. (US blogger claims to have been probing anti-Pakistan activities," Dawn, 9 June 2020)

The Rise of Cynthia in Pakistan's Blogsphere
Her social media fame began in 2016, at a time when Pakistan was globally looked at as a terror hub dangerous for foreigners. Cynthia's posts of mingling with ordinary Pakistani folks and street-cycling projected her as Pakistan's friend; commencing her "social-media influencer" role. In 2017, she launched the 'Emerging Faces: Exploring Pakistan's Hidden Treasures' documentary that was screened at Washington's Pakistan Embassy. The event titled 'Colours of Pakistan' was hosted by then Pakistan ambassador to US Aizaz Chaudhry and his wife Najia Ahmad.

In the letter addressed to FIA, mentioning her articles published in South Asia Magazine, eTribune, and The News International, Cynthia claims to be "an active force in promoting Positive Pakistan". "I've worked closely with CTD's, Female Commandos in KP, Highways and Motorways Police, Military, NACTA," she says. Note, no foreign TV channels or publications were mentioned. Her articles titled "Pakistan through a different lens: Turn the page on the pervasive popular narratives" (14 October 2018), "That little girl" (21 October 2018), "When will the US do more?" (11 November 2018), "Light a candle, curse the darkness" (25 November 2018) and "Post-truth politics and the anti-fragile state Part II" (31 December 2018) all do provide a position outlook towards Pakistan. Meanwhile, her cover story in the South Asia Magazine titled "PPP's Leadership Crisis" is highly critical of the PPP and calls the party a "family legacy of deception, with no real sense of responsibility – even to the poor people of Sindh. If PPP can't run a desert, how can PPP run a country?" she asks. 

Interestingly, all her articles only feature in Pakistani media or news houses. Critics argue that she did more to build her image amongst Pakistan's domestic audience than to project Pakistan's soft image to the international community. Then, who is she really influencing?

The search for positive stories on Pakistan gets clashed with domestic politics
Cynthia has often used Twitter to converse with PTM and PPP. On 27 December 2007, Cynthia questioned the security of former PM and PPP chairperson Benazir Bhutto. She made a series of tweets on the security (and its lapses) of Benazir Bhutto. "I saw bad things from Blackwater operatives & I formally complained to US Ambassador @MunterCameron at the time. Journos should ask when/who authorized/facilitated Blackwater's presence in Pak? Zardari? Rehman Malik? Why did BB request Blackwater's protection?" 

In another tweet, she wrote against Zardari, Rehman Malik, Hussain Haqqani and Sherry Rehman. She tweeted: "Why inadequate security the day of BB's assassination? Of all the people in PPP who were in positions of power at the time of BB's death Zardari, Rehman Malik "security advisor", former Amb Hussain Haqqani then @sherryrehman ... who is still alive? How did they benefit?" she added. Cynthia blamed Babar Awan and Rehman Malik for the security lapses. ("Cynthia alleges PPP trying to get her deportedDawn, 11 June 2020) ("In a bombshell, US blogger Cynthia Ritchie accuses PPP's Rehman Malik of rape," Dawn, 7 June 2020) In 2018, she also accused PTM activist Gulalai Ismail, activist Marvi Sirmed, Academia Nida Kirmani and former diplomat Hussain Haqqani of online-harassment when her images with military officials in Miran Shah were released. While talking to Geo News, Cynthia explained how Rehman Malik orchestrated her alleged rape and how the US Embassy did nothing to avenge her loss. ("Cynthia leaks more secrets," The News International, 8 June 2020) Later, she asked PTM leaders via Twitter "Did you get my written statement of harassment against the men in PPP? I admired BB for some of her liberal ways. However, Zardari destroyed her legacy. Anyone associated w/ GEO or DAWN is just as bad as PTM and #ZardarisFilthyPPP. The women in PPP will rise against the cowards."

A Pawn, but Whose? 
Some Pakistanis believe Cynthia to be a CIA mole who has her claws deep into Pakistan's security establishment; others suspect her to be a Pakistan military designate, the Deep State's latest pawn against civilian politicians, particularly the PPP and PTM. Cynthia has been campaigning on social media to prove PTM a rogue organization. She has simultaneously targeted PTM, PPP, PML-N, Geo and Dawn; a striking harmony with the state's highest echelons and the establishment. The lack of a reliable source of income to afford her not-so-humble/philanthropic lifestyle makes her position and her role in Pakistan murkier. Some believe she ticks all criteria to become a disguised lethal weapon in the hands of the establishment – tall, attractive and single with brilliant communication skills. If Cynthia is playing her cards to appease the establishment, the question 'why' remains.

Cynthia, who has been living on and off in Pakistan since 2009, has a substantial presence amongst the Pakistan's netizens. However, Cynthia's free access to Pakistan's tribal areas, implicit support extended by the security forces, and Ritchie's statements about working on film projects with the KP provincial government and Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) have raised eyebrows in Pakistan as tribal areas and Balochistan are typically inaccessible to foreign journalists. 

Other foreign correspondents who have faced the severity of Pakistan's Deep state have questioned and raised suspicions over her freedom within Pakistan. How does Cynthia enjoy such high levels of freedom while a state-sponsored crackdown on journalists is ongoing? ("Pakistan ranks 145 on press freedom indexDawn, 22 April 2020)

The legal case against Cynthia's stay
PPP activist Chaudhry Iftikhar Ahmed filed a petition in the IHC, on 24 June, questioning Cynthia's extended stay in Pakistan after her business visa expired on 2 March 2020 and her source of income. ("Petition in IHC seeks deportation of Cynthia Ritchie," The Express Tribune, 25 June 2020) While referring to 'derogatory and objectionable' involvement, activities, social media posts and media statements of Cynthia, he alleged her involvement in a media campaign against Opposition party's leaders. Chaudhry also said the respondent was granted the visa without fulfilling legal formalities. The petitioner called for Cynthia's deportation and movement restrictions within Pakistan. The Court is looking at these issues now.

Finally, is she a diversion?
Some believe Cynthia is being used by the Deep state and the government to divert public attention from the menacing, domestic issues of the peaking Covid-19 situation and the dwindling economy that are revealing the incumbent federal government's governance incapabilities. The Center-Sindh strife over the handling of the pandemic, and the related lockdown is no secret.

What people have noticed is the timing of Cynthia's accusations. The fact that she waited for so many years to start this political ruckus with rape accusations against PTM and PPP. Call it the #MeToo wave if you may, but her utterances have sensationalized Pakistan's politics. Cynthia may be a nobody in America but she has become a celebrity in Pakistan over the past few weeks. No doubt, the issue will get messier in the coming days. 

Far away from the reality of Pakistan's crumbling economy and health sector due to the peaking pandemic cases, the curious case of Cynthia Ritchie is the perfect diversion for the country that loves to romanticize Turkey's 'Ertugal'. A glamourous slanderous l'affaire involving a sassy woman and the highest echelons. Supper has been served!

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