With Pakistan journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad's death, the media has began to ask the security establishment tough questions.
“I have never worked for any well-funded international news organizations. Nor have I worked for the mainstream national media. My affiliations have always remained with alternative media outlets. This has left me with narrow options and very little space to move around in. Those who loom large on the political horizon by and large target mainstream information outlets and well-financed news organizations for the launch of their media campaigns, interviews and/or disclosures. Alternative media persons need to work twice as hard as others to draw their attention…,” wrote Pakistani journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad, who was tortured to death, in the preface to his book Inside Al-Qaeda and the Taliban: Beyond Bin Laden and 9/11 that hit the stands just 10 days before his brutalised body was fished out of a canal.
But in death, Shahzad — who was the Pakistan bureau chief of the Hong Kong-based Asia Times Online — has turned out to be a game-changer in a country where journalists are often part of the collateral damage in the war on terror. Before his body was found on May 31, over 70 journalists had been killed in the country since 2000. And, in the fortnight after his end, at least three journalists have been killed — two while reporting a blast in Peshawar and a third in mob violence outside the Multan Press Club.
While some of these journalists killed in the line of duty were victims of targeted attacks, Shahzad's case shook media honchos to the core. Top guns of the industry — seldom seen in protest meetings over attacks on freedom of expression and minorities — took to the streets; rubbing shoulders with lesser mortals in the profession and, more importantly, began openly questioning the feared Inter Services Intelligence by name.
Had Shahzad been killed at any other time, the volte face by some of the media bigwigs would not have been so evident. But, Shahzad died at the end of a month which began with the U.S. raid in Abbottabad to take out al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden and terrorists laying siege of a naval airbase for 17 hours three weeks later.
After the initial loss for words at these show-stopping events, the media — particularly, the mood-setting television news networks — stuck to the all-too-familiar narrative on security-related matters; pedalling conspiracy theories that sought to put the blame outside Pakistan. Of course, there were some notable exceptions who questioned the country's strategic policy that has harmed Pakistan most than any other country and called for introspection, especially by the military which has shaped not just the nation's history but also its thinking. But the mainstream narrative focussed on the U.S.' violation of Pakistani sovereignty in the Abbottabad raid and the “outside hand” in the “PNS Mehran” attack; prompting columnist Ayaz Amir to write: “Islam is not the state religion of Pakistan, denial is. And our national emblem should be the ostrich, given our proclivity to bury our heads in the sand and not see the landscape around us as it is.”
Shahzad changed that. Known to have contacts within terror networks and intelligence agencies, the unsaid view is that he had crossed some “red lines.” What these lines were or who drew them will probably never be known — given the track record of enquiries in Pakistan — but it drove home the fact that proximity to the security establishment does not necessarily ensure personal security.
Overnight, several prime time television anchors and columnists — known to toe a certain line — changed their tone, began asking searing questions and joined the 24-hour protest staged outside Parliament House on Wednesday to demand the setting up of a commission to enquire Shahzad's killing. Some of them did live talk shows from the site of the dharna and openly admitted that the media — which had been so supportive of the security establishment — had been forced by circumstances to turn against it.
In all this the democratically elected government got a bit of a breather for the first time since it was voted to power three years ago. The guns were trained elsewhere with even the higher judiciary coming in for some fire over the Supreme Court taking suo motu notice of actress Atiqa Odho being let off by airport authorities after detention for carrying two bottles of liquor in her luggage. What peeved a lot of people was that the Court could take notice of this but not to a petition filed in January to act against a cleric who had issued a fatwa against Asia Bibi, the Christian woman facing death sentence for blasphemy.
However, this comfort was short-lived. Though the federal government accepted journalists' demand for a commission headed by a sitting Supreme Court judge, the past-midnight decision to assign the task to Mian Saqib Nisar was taken without consulting the Chief Justice. As a result, Justice Nisar has made his acceptance conditional to approval by the Chief Justice. The Government's contention is that the law does not mandate consultation with the Chief Justice before appointing a judge of the apex court to head a commission. But, Supreme Court Bar Association president Asma Jehangir said, “the government just cannot disturb benches of the apex court by picking judges of its choice to head such commissions with consulting the Chief Justice.”
Given that there was an identical hiccup in the setting up of the commission to enquire into the circumstances that led to the U.S. raid in Abbottabad, the government's decision to walk the same path has led to questions about its own seriousness in getting to the truth in both instances. So much so that now the Pakistan People's Party — which has always been regarded as an anti-establishment party and one of the few that does not owe its existence to the powerful military — is being called the security establishment's bedfellow.