ISLAMABAD: The social media controversy that began with Pakistan-based American blogger Cynthia Ritchie’s allegations against former prime minister Benazir Bhutto is turning murkier after rape accusations against former interior minister Rehman Malik and her claims that she had been “investigating” an ethnic organisation.

In a letter addressed to Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), Ms Ritchie, 44, said she was a “law abiding resident of Pakistan” and had been “investigating PTM (with the assistance of supporting agencies and the military)” for the past couple of years, which led to unearthing of “links of anti-state activities between PTM and PPP”.

The letter seems to have been written by Ms Ritchie to clarify her position after PPP leaders filed a complaint against her with the FIA for maligning Ms Bhutto, who lost her life in a terrorist attack in Rawalpindi in December 2007 while returning from an election rally. Defending her allegation against Ms Bhutto, she contended the accusation did not fall under the ambit of the defamation law.

Her claim about working with the military was not exactly new as she has often in the past bragged about her connection with the security establishment and posted pictures on her social media accounts flaunting the privileged access she enjoyed in the host country.

After rape accusation, she blames PPP for links with anti-state activities

The leaked letter, however, opened floodgates of questions about her activities and their legality, her stay in Pakistan, and her associations.

From the way the controversy has progressed, it is evident that it will become messier in the coming days.

A source in the interior ministry claimed that she was living in Pakistan on a business visa. The Interior Ministry spokesperson was not available for comment because of a family bereavement.

First visit to Pakistan

Ms Ritchie’s first documented visit to Pakistan was in October 2009 and she is believed to have obtained a visit visa from Pakistan’s consulate general in Houston on the recommendation of a relative of federal Minister for Narcotics Control Azam Swati, who at that time had vast businesses in Houston.

“She used to live around Port Arthur area in Texas. An hour’s drive from Houston where Azam Swati has lots of businesses. His son was city councilman there recently and his daughters and grandkids still live there and run his businesses,” a Pakistani American recalled, asking not to be named.

Mr Swati reportedly later helped her socialise in Pakistan and develop local contacts. Interestingly, during her very first visit she met Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) leaders in November 2009. After the meeting, Ms Ritchie had tweeted: “Met leaders of the MQM movement. If you enjoy int’l politics, I would encourage u to read about this party”. The reason for picking MQM for first political engagement in Pakistan remains unclear.

A source in Swati’s family said that she had developed contacts with the minister’s granddaughters in Houston and had expressed her interest in working on social issues in Pakistan. The granddaughters later put her through to Mr Swati. The source said the Swatis, however, distanced themselves from her subsequently.

Ms Ritchie made connections in Pakistan through Houston-based Pakistani expatriates. In this regard, the role of Illinois-based Association of Physicians of Pakistani Descent of North America was important, as per the open source material. At least her first two jobs in Pakistan starting October 2010 were at organisations, owned/managed by US-based Pakistani doctors, the Omair-Sana Foundation and Humanity Hope.

She again surfaced on the radar in 2011 around the May 2011 raid by US Special Forces in Abbottabad on OBL hideout when she gave media interviews and indicated her plans for staying in Pakistan for another couple of years. She had then got a two-year work visa. In an interview at that time, she disclosed that she had got a job with the health ministry for training of doctors to become better communicators. It’s not clear how long her contract continued.

Ritchie then cultivated strong links in the PPP government. Her rape allegations against Senator Malik, the then minister, are also from 2011. The allegations have been strongly denied by Senator Malik.

It was in 2012 that she began her transition from her activities in the humanitarian and development sector to media projects and her first announced undertakings were about projecting ‘what Pakistanis are doing for Pakistan’ and positively projecting relations between the US and Pakistan.

She announced a documentary on Kashmir in 2015, which she claims in one of her social media posts, was authorised by the Government of Pakistan. The project was seemingly continuing in 2019.

Ritchie began getting social media fame in 2016 when people started sharing her photos cycling on the streets of Pakistan and mingling with ordinary folks. The country was then still grappling with the terrorism problem and was viewed by foreign media as a dangerous place for foreigners to live. Her activities thus helped her project herself as a Pakistan friend. From there onwards, she posed as a ‘social media influencer’.

Her critics, however, say that she focused all her activities on Pakistan’s domestic audience and did little for promoting the country overseas, where the real work of projecting its soft image needed to be done.

Connections, work

In her letter to the FIA, Ritchie while detailing her activities writes: “have been an active force in promoting Positive Pakistan my entire time in Pakistan, including numerous articles I’ve written in eTribune, The News International, and South Asia Magazine. I’ve worked closely with CTD’s, Female Commandos in KP, Highways and Motorways Police, Military, NACTA”.

She did not mention any foreign publication where she has been published or a foreign TV channel on which she appeared for advocating Pakistan. “I wonder who she is influencing,” said a Pakistani working on public diplomacy.

She launched a documentary titled ‘Emerging Faces: Exploring Pakistan’s Hidden Treasures’. The video was first screened at Pakistan Embassy in Washington in November 2017 at an event titled “Colours of Pakistan”, according to a press release by the embassy at that time. The event, according to the press release, was hosted by Pakistan’s ambassador Aizaz Chaudhry and his wife Najia Ahmad and Cynthia Ritchie was one of the speakers on the occasion.

Lately, she involved in social media fights with opponents of the government earning her many critics.

Ritchie’s career before coming to Pakistan is not well known.

Academic background

She holds a Bachelor degree with a major in Criminal Justice from Louisiana State University and Master of Education with a concentration in Psychology from the same university in 2005. She claims about degrees from Pepperdine University and The George Washington University, but reportedly she got few certifications from these institutes, but not any formal degree.

She did public relations jobs between 2006 and 2009 and later worked briefly at a computer and phone business. Her last known employment in Houston was as a senior official at a Houston-based company offering janitorial services.

She took over as CEO of Kulture Inc. in 2017, but two years later the company’s status was reported as suspended. She also set up another company – ‘A Different Lens Production’ – in 2017, but that too was suspended by authorities in the US sometime in 2019.

Notice issued to police

Meanwhile, a local court issued notice to the Islamabad police on Monday and sought reply on the petition seeking registration of the first information report (FIR) against Ritchie for defaming the slain Pakistani leader and PPP chairperson Benazir Bhutto.

Another court of the additional district and sessions judge has already issued notice to the cybercrime circle of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) on an identical application filed by PPP’s local leader Raja Shakeel Abbasi.

On Monday, ADSJ Abida Sajjad took up the application filed by Waqas Abbasi and issued notice to the Islamabad police seeking their reply till June 12, adds Malik Asad.

In his application, Mr Abbasi said the FIA had not registered an FIR on his complaint against the blogger who defamed the slain leader of PPP and former prime minister of Pakistan Benazir Bhutto.

Meanwhile, Ritchie posted on Twitter her photo in which she is receiving souvenir from Mr Malik. In another tweet, she said: “How accurate are lie detector tests in Pakistan? Would Rehman Malik agree to take one? I certainly would be.”

Published in Dawn, June 9th, 2020


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