The price of denial

June 02, 2011

Email

AS the darkness begins to envelop, the emotions are many. Saleem Shahzad was a quiet, private man, so no eulogy here for him. There will be quiet, private moments for that. Suffice to say, thoughts are with his three young children and family.

His murder is a shock, but for reasons more complex and sinister than already widely acknowledged.

One, no one really thought they would kill him. When news of his disappearance rippled through the journalist community, the initial reaction of most was: they'll hold him for a few days, maybe rough him up a bit and then release him.

It wasn't that murder wasn't an option, just that it seemed unlikely to be exercised in the case of a journalist picked up from central Islamabad. Death visited the ones working out in the tribal badlands and other such inhospitable areas. Islamabad was thought to be, well, safer.

Two, Saleem was not mainstream media. He was committed to his work, yes; he knew well the contours of militancy in the region, yes; but he was not mainstream media. He traded in the currency of explosive revelations and, at least in the minds of editors and news directors of major media houses here, there was often that little bit of uncertainty surrounding the reporting.

His last piece was illustrative of this. That the PNS Mehran attack was facilitated by someone in uniform, retired or serving, seemed fairly clear to many. There had also been rumours for months about navy personnel picked up by intelligence agencies for links to jihadi groups, but the veil of secrecy was tight and veteran trackers of militancy had not got very far on the details.

Saleem's last piece, though, was a narrative perfectly formed, all the pieces falling into place in a way most people familiar with such stuff would at least have raised an eyebrow at. The theory didn't get much play locally or internationally and it would be fairly plausible to assume the second part of his two-part series would have been received with similarly cool interest.

So, we are left with the case of a journalist picked up from central Islamabad whose work had long since ceased to make waves in the media, and yet he was brutally tortured to death. That's what makes the 'why' part so thoroughly unsettling, if not downright scary.

We can already know we will never know precisely the reasons for his killing or whether it was intentional or not (why give the benefit of the doubt to killers, though). The wider impact? That is easier to guess.

The freedom to criticise will remain. That's obvious in the bluntness with which some have pointed fingers since Saleem's body was recovered. On the security paradigm and core competencies exposed horribly in May, there will be space to condemn and flog. Drive such stuff out of the media and it will simply hop on to cellphones and the Internet and chatter among friends.

But the deeper recesses of the security state will yet again be probed more hesitantly, at least for a while. Editors and news managers will have to judge whether one of their reporters could be the next data point in a new trend or whether Saleem Shahzad's murder was a one-off.

The more courageous will plough ahead, but the headwinds will be strong. Where once maybe one source would have been enough to convince an editor, now several may be demanded — a way of seeking protection from ire when some revelation is deemed inappropriate (the more people who know the more 'public' the knowledge, which could be an insulant.)

But the development arc of some storylines is sure to be retarded.

American drone strikes are humdrum today, politically controversial perhaps but with no one trying to cover up their origin. But that wasn't the case in 2005 when Hayatuallah Khan flashed a piece of a US-made Hellfire missile that killed an Al Qaeda operative in North Waziristan. Khan was abducted the next day that December and his body was dumped in the Miranshah market six months later.

Because the drones kept firing missiles, it was impossible to cover up what was going on for long. But imagine if Khan had uncovered another story, one that didn't keep leaving a trail of clues in its wake. Who would have followed him down that rabbit hole to dig deeper after his disappearance?

To this day, Khan's colleagues aren't completely sure who killed him. Journalists covering militancy often find themselves in a vice, squeezed on one side by the militants and on the other by the security apparatus. In that murky world of militancy, the closer you get, the harder it is to tell informant from participant and whether a corroborator is really a collaborator.

So, for those who continued to ply the reporting trade after Khan and several other cases, the central lesson was: don't get too close — to either side.

At the individual level, hearts and thoughts go out to the immediate victims and their families. But at the level of state and society, the overall losers in the perennial squeeze on the truth are you and me, the people of Pakistan.

While very real demons stalk this land, most of us are left chasing shadows. And that's because those who dare chase after the truth — some clumsily, others with cerebral precision — are pushed back against.

Yes, the unvarnished and ungilded truth can be dangerous sometimes. But it's not like burying the truth and journalists like Saleem Shahzad is making Pakistan any safer or stronger.

cyril.a@gmail.com