Asia-Pacific, Headlines, Human Rights, Press Freedom

MEDIA-PAKISTAN: What Price Truth

Zofeen Ebrahim

KARACHI, Pakistan, Jun 1 2011 (IPS) - When journalist Umar Cheema, 35, first heard of the death of his colleague Syed Saleem Shahzad, considered an expert on Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants, on May 31, he could not help but relive his day-long captivity with one of Pakistan’s intelligence agencies last year on Sept. 4.

Shahzad, 40, was Pakistan bureau chief for Asia Times Online and also contributed to an Italian news agency Adnkronos International (AKI).

His book ‘Inside al-Qaeda and the Taliban: Beyond Bin Laden and 9/11’ was launched last month. But observers say it was the first part of his May 27 article about Al-Qaeda infiltration in Pakistan’s navy, following the May 22 attack on a naval base in Karachi, that may have ruffled a few feathers.

His body was found two days after he went missing on Sunday May 29. Human Rights Watch said it has credible information that Shahzad was in the custody of Pakistan intelligence.

Shahzad’s body was fished out of a canal by the police in Punjab province near Mandi Bahauddin, a small town 162 km from the federal capital, Islamabad, where he lived.

The post mortem report stated that there were 15 torture marks on his body but no bullet wounds.

Recalling his encounter with Pakistan’s ISI intelligence agency, Cheema says that when he was stripped naked, hung upside down and beaten severely for a solid six hours, “the only thought that came to my mind was I’ve done nothing wrong except write the truth. And I was paying the price for that,” he told IPS over the phone from Islamabad.

Cheema now lives a life of paranoia that he is being followed every time he steps out of his house. While he confesses to have confined himself to his home, he refuses to throw in the towel.

While Cheema may have been sent home alive to tell his tale and censor others, in Shahzad’s death, he says, the message is loud and clear: “Shut up, or get killed!”

But the journalist community also believes that in Shahzad’s case the intention may not have been to kill him since he was very well connected to the agencies as well as the militants. “About a year back, he had been shot in the chest and the wound had probably not healed completely, so when he was hit on the same spot, it proved fatal,” Cheema surmised.

It also makes sense to Adnan Rehmat, who heads Intermedia, an organisation that works to build the capacity of Pakistani reporters. “Most journalists who have been murdered previously have been shot at and killed, not picked up, tortured and then killed.” Rehmat said the killing is indicative of a mindset that prevails within the “deep state” that when push comes to shove they can use the “strongest censorship”.

And by releasing the photo of Shahzad’s dead body to the media, the message sent out is that “you can criticise but only in general terms; when you get into specifics they don’t like it,” he said.

Today Pakistani media, considered quite free and robust, is caught between a rock and a hard place. They seem to continually come in the crosshairs of both the militants and the military. In 2010, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Pakistan was the deadliest country for a journalist to work in.

Shahzad’s death is the third this year in which a journalist was clearly killed because of his work. Nasrullah Khan Afridi died when his car blew up in Peshawar, and popular TV reporter Wali Khan Babar was gunned down on the streets of Karachi.

“Al-Qaeda and all the other related conflicts have been an everyday reality for us for the last ten years, and there are very few who have a nose and the courage to make sense of what is going on; Shahzad had been doing that,” said Rehmat, who was a close friend of the slain journalist.

Through his writings, Shahzad showed the mainstream media that there existed “multiple perceptions, wheels within wheels and nuances in this conflict, and he was helping us understand them,” Rehmat said, adding: “He was one of the finest in investigative journalism.” In 2006, Shahzad was held for five days by Taliban forces in Afghanistan’s Helmand province.

His name will now be added to the long list of 70 journalists who have been killed since 2000. The last three years have seen a rise in targeted killings of journalists, with at least 17 killed in the line of work.

Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani has ordered an investigation into the tragic incident.

Exactly a week before Shahzad’s death, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) had pressed Interior Minister Rehman Malik to “conduct an urgent appraisal of investigations by local authorities into the murders of journalists, and to make public a report stating the progress of such investigations,” according to an IFJ press release.

CPJ counts 15 cases of Pakistani journalists purportedly killed for their work since the 2002 killing of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. None of their killers have been brought to justice.

Condemning the killing of Shahzad, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said: “His work reporting on terrorism and intelligence issues in Pakistan brought to light the troubles extremism poses to Pakistan’s stability.” She said Washington welcomed Pakistan’s launch of an investigation into the killing.

While there is no set technique to protect yourself from either the militant groups or the agencies, according to Rehmat, Shahzad took “calculated risks”.

He would always leave a chain of information of his whereabouts behind when he went on one of his adventurous journeys for his stories, Rehmat said.

But Shahzad’s death also demonstrates the urgent need to protect the community that “brings information that empowers us,” he added.

Intermedia has launched, in conjunction with the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, a programme and plans to introduce safe practices in journalism, raise awareness about risks journalists face, and set up a safety fund to help journalists in distress.

Rehmat said the consultations Intermedia has held with the media stakeholders, including civil society, the security apparatus, independent media, and government, have highlighted the need for raising awareness among senior journalists, including editors, reporters and camera persons, about the importance of “developing standard safety protocols that can serve as guidelines on reducing risks for reporters in the field.”

“A Pakistani journalist in the field faces appalling levels of intimidation, which is never documented, and there is no institutional responsibility. We took five major media houses on board and discussed the set of safety protocols that need to be followed, and they were quite amenable to the idea,” Rehmat explained.

With an initial 42,000 Euros, Intermedia will begin to disburse the safety fund to journalists or their families in need in the next few weeks. It hopes that with lobbying with business groups, philanthropists and most importantly, media houses, the kitty will remain well endowed.

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