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The war on journalism

June 07, 2012


IT was on May 31, 2011 that Saleem Shahzad’s broken body was found in Mandi Bahauddin, several kilometres from his home in Islamabad.

Abducted, tortured and murdered, the journalist had previously complained of attempts to intimidate him by the powerful Inter Services Intelligence agency (ISI).Twelve months on and, despite a public outcry and a government inquiry, little has changed for reporters covering topics deemed sensitive in Pakistan. No one has been prosecuted for the kidnapping and killing of Shahzad and there are no signs that the wheels of justice are turning. And this story is not unusual.

As Amnesty International documented in its annual report launched recently, the Pakistani authorities have a striking consistency when it came to the killing of journalists. So far as we are aware, no one has been convicted for killing a journalist in Pakistan since Omar Shaikh was sentenced to death for beheading Wall Street Journal correspondent Daniel Pearl in 2002.

And still the death toll rises. At least three journalists have been killed this year in attacks that appear related to their work. The bullet-riddled body of Express News reporter Razzaq Gul, was found in Turbat, Balochistan on May 19, a victim of the alarming trend of abductions and killings of journalists, activists and many others across the province.

In fact, no ethnic, religious or social group has escaped the spiralling violence in Balochistan — or the northwest and Karachi for that matter — reflecting the near total impunity enjoyed by those who project their influence through violence.

The media is often known to sensationalise or selectively play on public sentiments. But it has a vital role to scrutinise and to challenge — be they militant groups, or vested interests such as state security, intelligence agencies or political parties. That is why journalists in Pakistan find themselves targeted.

When courageous reporter Wali Khan Babur was assassinated in January 2011, for example, Geo TV started an unprecedented campaign to find the perpetrators. But Geo quickly fell silent when it appeared Babur’s killers had possible links to a powerful political party. In contrast, the groundswell of media condemnation of Saleem Shahzad’s abduction and killing helped ensure the establishment of an inquiry and several journalists bravely opted to testify.

Shahzad’s had close contacts with the powerful, dangerous forces he reported on. Like almost all respected reporters working on security and conflict issues, he had regular meetings with the ISI. He also boasted of informal contact with the CIA. But none of his professional connections were as profound as those he cultivated with senior members of Al Qaeda. These contacts were developed over several years of fearless, determined investigations.

Routinely embedded on the frontline with insurgent commanders in Pakistan’s tribal areas and Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, to read his weekly reports on the Asia Times Online news website was to be transported to the edges of a conflict that remains remote and largely unknown to the outside world. For a long time he appeared, incredibly, to defy the risks. But in October 2010 he finally felt compelled to tell colleagues of threats he alleged he received from the ISI. They related to his investigations into Al Qaeda infiltration in the armed forces.

Bravely he continued to report on this topic and tragically paid the ultimate price for his extraordinary access. For all its failure to find the perpetrators, the inquiry into Shahzad’s killing did help sketch the limits of justice in Pakistan. Several journalists told the inquiry they had received threats from the ISI. Some journalists said they had even been threatened by the same people that Shahzad had mentioned in 2010.

An ISI official recommended that the intelligence service end its policy of patronising journalists, but there are no indications the close links between the ISI and media have changed. The inquiry also revealed a long list of missing evidence that could have helped to identify the perpetrators, including Shahzad’s cellphone log, the vehicle he had been abducted from, and footage from the security cameras across Islamabad, including near his home.

Not a single witness to his abduction came forward, despite the fact Shahzad would have had to pass through several police checkpoints as he travelled between his home and the television station where he had been due to take part in an interview. In its report, the inquiry criticised police for failing to question fully the ISI and other intelligence agencies about Shahzad. But this censure rang empty given the inquiry itself not only allowed intelligence agency representatives to submit prepared statements but subjected them to limited questioning.

These failings do not serve the cause of justice and they only exacerbate mistrust of Pakistan’s intelligence services at a time when public confidence in the state is fundamental to improving law and order in the country. The authorities must investigate credible allegations of human rights violations implicating members of intelligence agencies as they would any other individual.

No government employee should be above the law, including and especially security and intelligence officials who work in an inherently secretive environment. If the Supreme Court can robustly investigate allegations of corruption by the highest elected officials then why not serving military and intelligence personnel too?

Amnesty International calls on the authorities to uphold internationally recognised human rights such as the right to information, freedom of speech, and right to life — all of which are enshrined in the Pakistan constitution.

The Pakistan authorities simply have no excuses for inaction when it comes to attacks on journalists. It is time for some measure of justice for those who have paid the ultimate price in their search for truth.

The writer is Pakistan researcher for Amnesty International.