Murder most foul
Seven journalists were killed in the line of duty Pakistan in 2011, making the country one of the most dangerous on the planet for the media. But the brutal killing of 40-year-old Syed Saleem Shahzad at the end of May sent the biggest shockwaves through Pakistan and abroad. Not only was he murdered after being abducted from the generally sedate capital Islamabad — no tribal-area war zone, insurgency-wracked Balochistan or mafia-ridden Karachi — the circumstances of his murder seemed to point the finger of blame at the state’s intelligence agencies.
Shahzad, who worked as Pakistan correspondent for the Hong Kong-based Asia Times Online and the Italian news agency Adnkronos, went missing on the evening of May 29 while on his way to a television studio in the federal capital to participate in a talk show. Two days later, a body fished out of a canal from Mandi Bahauddin district, about 150km from Islamabad, was identified as his. The car he had been travelling in was found abandoned about 10km upstream. Post-mortem examination revealed he had been severely beaten, which cracked his ribs and ruptured a lung, and that the exacerbation of a previous injury had ruptured his spleen, leading to his death. His body seemed to have been thrown into the canal in an unsuccessful attempt to dispose of the evidence.
Questions were immediately raised as to how Shahzad could have been abducted and spirited away with such ease out of Islamabad with its numerous security check posts. Government officials initially pointed to the fact that since he primarily covered militants and terrorist outfits, Shahzad could have faced threats from multiple sources. Indeed, his first book, Inside Al Qaeda and the Taliban, which contained plenty of contentious claims, had been launched in London just three days before he was kidnapped, and his often sensational stories had frequently been called into question by colleagues.
But media rights activists raised the issue that his last published piece, which appeared on May 27, had controversially claimed that the Pakistan Navy was negotiating with Al Qaeda over the alleged arrest of some navy personnel thought to be linked to the militant group, and that the attack on the PNS Mehran naval base in Karachi a few days earlier was the outcome of these failed ‘negotiations’. Whether Shahzad’s claims were true or not (the military strongly denied their veracity), they touched upon sensitive issues for the security establishment and many saw a reason for it to be upset with the journalist over the piece. Substantially adding to the outcry were claims by Human Rights Watch that Shahzad himself had earlier contacted its country director in Pakistan to express fear that harm would come to him and to allege that he had received veiled threats from officials of Inter-Services Intelligence because of his reporting.
Protests from journalists’ bodies eventually led to the government forming a judicial commission in late June to investigate the murder and ascertain the facts. While ISI called the allegations against it “baseless” and “totally unfounded” in an unprecedented public statement, The New York Times reported in early July that the US government had “reliable and conclusive” intelligence that implicated senior ISI officials. Former US Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Michael Mullen also stated that he believed Shahzad’s killing was “sanctioned by the government” but added that he did not have a “string of evidence” linking it to ISI. The state-controlled Associated Press of Pakistan termed these reports and statements “extremely irresponsible”, especially in light of the fact that the commission had yet to investigate the case and present its findings.
Meanwhile an initial deadline of six weeks given to the commission was extended on its request and finally, on Dec 12, the secretary of the commission issued a handout stating that its report would be presented to the government by the end of the month. Observers both within the country and abroad are waiting for the outcome of the findings, because on it may hinge the accountability of the Pakistani state towards its citizens and the freedom of the Pakistani press, even when that press may have acted irresponsibly in the eyes of some.
For their part, journalists in Pakistan have become used to the proverbial sticks and stones associated with reporting on sensitive matters, particularly because of the poor enforcement of the law and the fragmented and polarised nature of the country’s social fabric. Yet Shahzad’s murder was a chilling reminder to them that words can prove deadly as well.
— Hasan Zaidi is a journalist and film-maker