Sixteen journalists have died in Pakistan in the past 18 months but the killing of Saleem Shahzad, linked to the ISI spy agency, has sent fresh shockwaves.
The brutal murder of Saleem Shahzad, a Pakistani investigative reporter whose battered body was found in a canal outside Islamabad two weeks ago, remains unsolved. But one thing seems certain. While the men who beat him to death employed ruthless violence — smashing his face, cracking his ribs and piercing his lungs — the cause of death was his own pen.
“They didn't like what he wrote. That's why they killed him,” says Ali Dayan Hasan of Human Rights Watch, which has played a central role in investigating the case.
Chasing the truth is a perilous business in Pakistan, the world's deadliest beat for journalists. Sixteen have died in the past 18 months, according to Reporters without Borders — more than in the drug wars of Mexico, the street battles of Somalia or the battlefields of Afghanistan.
The causes of these deaths are as varied as Pakistan's myriad conflicts. Some are caught in suicide blasts; others targeted by Taliban militants or Baloch insurgents. In Karachi, several reporters have been gunned down as part of the city's vicious political wars.
But the death of Shahzad, a 40-year-old correspondent for the Hong Kong-based Asia Times Online, has touched a raw nerve because the chief suspect is Pakistan's most powerful spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). “Who will protect us from the protectors?” asked sub-editor Shaheryar Popalzai on Twitter.
Shahzad was no stranger to danger. A specialist in Islamist militancy, he delved deep into the murky underworld of spies, soldiers and militants. He was briefly kidnapped by the Taliban in Helmand in 2006, and interviewed Ilyas Kashmiri, a notorious jihadi reportedly killed in a CIA drone strike last week. And he probed controversial links between those militants and Pakistan's military.
In late May, his career reached a new peak: he had just published his first book, Inside Al Qaeda and the Taliban: Beyond Bin Laden and 9/11. At 5.30pm on a Sunday, he left his Islamabad home for the Dunya television studios. He was to discuss a story he had written about Islamist infiltration of the military.
But as he passed through the city centre — one of the most heavily guarded precincts in Pakistan — he disappeared. The following morning Human Rights Watch raised the alarm, saying it had established through credible sources that Shahzad was in ISI custody. But it was too late.
Later that day, police in Mandi Bahauddin, a Punjabi backwater 80 miles south of the capital, recovered his battered body from an irrigation canal. His car, the keys still inside, was abandoned about 12 miles away. An autopsy revealed 17 different injuries. News of the killing cast a pall of fear and anger over Pakistan's media. Some papers reported the news tentatively, skirting the ISI links. The president of the All Pakistan Newspapers Society, Hameed Haroon, bolstered accusers. “Nobody, not even the ISI, should be above the law,” he said.
The ISI, already under immense pressure following the death of Osama bin Laden on May 2, responded with a 374-word statement — possibly the longest in its history — rejecting the allegations as “baseless and unfounded” and warning reporters to act “responsibly.”
“[The ISI] will leave no stone unturned in helping to bring the perpetrators of this heinous crime to justice,” it said. But the spy agency was also being accused from beyond the grave. Before he died, Shahzad sent an email recounting a worrisome meeting at the ISI headquarters last October. The head of the ISI media wing, Rear Admiral Adnan Nazir, summoned him to divulge his sources for a story on a released Taliban commander. Shahzad, by his own account, said nothing.
The atmosphere was generally friendly. But before the meeting was over, Nazir told him the ISI had captured a dangerous terrorist with a “hit list”, and allegedly said: “If I find your name in the list, I will certainly let you know.” Taking this as a veiled threat, Shahzad emailed his account of the meeting to Human Rights Watch and several journalists, with instructions to release it in the event of his death.
In its statement the ISI insisted the meeting had “nothing sinister about it”. The purpose of such briefings was to provide “accurate information on matters of national security” and notify journalists of threats, it said.
The furore over Shahzad's murder has roiled Pakistan's media, which has undergone massive change over the past decade. Since President Pervez Musharraf liberalised the television sector in 2004, the number of news channels has gone from one — state-run — to dozens. The boom has created thousands of jobs and fostered a vigorous culture of debate that, ironically, helped unseat Gen. Musharraf in 2008. Criticism of the military, previously cautious, has become bolder and more frequent.
But there have also been negatives. Reporting can be reckless, with some channels spreading lurid conspiracy theories in pursuit of ratings. Military and civilian leaders use the media to manipulate public opinion through bribery, intimidation or coercion. And clear “red lines” about what is permissible still exist.
The most egregious case is in the conflict-hit Balochistan province, where about a dozen reporters have been killed, kidnapped or tortured by ethnic nationalist rebels or military intelligence since 2009. Media coverage of the conflict is insipid.
In the rest of the country, militancy and the military are the sensitive stories. In 2005 Hayatullah Khan, a reporter in the tribal belt, disappeared after he photographed a fragment of a U.S. missile fired from an unmanned drone. Six months later, he was found dead; relatives blamed the ISI.
In 2008, a local reporter working for the Guardian on a story about extra-judicial detention was abducted and tortured by men he believed worked for the government. Most victims remain silent, fearful of repercussions. One exception is Umar Cheema, a correspondent for the News, who was abducted from Islamabad last September. Bundled into a jeep and blindfolded, he was taken to a safehouse where he says he was stripped, beaten with a leather strap and threatened with rape. After seven hours, he was dumped on a road in rural Punjab.
Mr. Cheema, who recently won the Martha Gellhorn prize for journalism, has accused the ISI of responsibility for his ordeal. “I realised I had to speak up, because that's the only thing that protects me. Keeping silent will get me killed,” he said.
Expectations are low for the inquiry into Shahzad's death. The police are reluctant to pursue the case and, according to the Express Tribune, phone records for the last 18 days of Shahzad's life have been mysteriously erased. “If it is true the ISI was involved, there will be no result,” says Benjamin Ismail of Reporters Without Borders.
Meanwhile, some “red lines” have shifted. In the wake of the bin Laden debacle and Shahzad's death, the ISI has faced unprecedented scrutiny. Former army officers question its tactics; last week, Opposition MP Ayaz Amir called for the spy agency's budget to be made public. “We must raise the curtain of silence now,” he told Parliament.
But will journalists be more secure? An Interior Ministry proposal to issue reporters with gun licences has been dismissed as a political stunt. More serious proposals involve setting up a 24-hour “hot-line,” manned by colleagues, for journalists in danger.
The most likely outcome, says Mr. Ismail, is self-censorship. “Journalists are afraid. Now, even the most famous reporters can be targeted if people don't like their writing. They realise they will have to stop writing if they want to survive.” — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2011