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Press Freedom

Where Journalism Is a Battlefront

KARACHI, Jun 19 2012 (IPS) - “It does not matter if we ever find out who killed Saleem; whoever it was has destroyed my family,” says Anita Shahzad, Saleem Shahzad’s 36-year-old widow and mother of three. “It won’t bring him back,” she tells IPS.

Saleem Sahzad’s body was found two days after his abduction on May 31, last year near Mandi Bahauddin, 130 kilometres southeast of the federal capital Islamabad. The body bore marks of torture.

Shahzad, who was Pakistan’s bureau chief for Asia Times Online, a Hong Kong-based news site, had told Human Rights Watch (HRW) that he had been getting threats from intelligence agencies.

His book ‘Inside Al-Qaeda and the Taliban’ was released just weeks before his murder. It contained insight into Al-Qaeda and Taliban factions – he had, at different times, been their hostage and their guest.

His wife cannot bring herself to read the book.

One dispatch by Saleem Shahzad was on an incident at Mehran naval base in Karachi on May 22, 2011. The base was under siege by militants for over 15 hours. Six military officials and five militants were killed in the fighting. Three aircraft were destroyed with rocket-propelled grenades. Last month three naval officers were court-martialled for the security lapse.

Shahzad had written an investigative piece pointing to infiltration by the Al-Qaeda into the armed forces. He said they had helped coordinate the attack.

“Pakistan must take urgent steps to bring (Shahzad’s) killers to justice and properly investigate claims of intimidation against journalists, including by intelligence services,” Amnesty International said in a statement released on the journalist’s death anniversary.

“Shahzad’s killing last year highlighted the perils faced by journalists in Pakistan,” says Polly Truscott, South Asia director at Amnesty International.

With at least three journalists killed in the last six months, Pakistan remains one of the most dangerous countries for the press. In 2011, the International Federation of Journalists recorded at least eight deaths, all in the line of work.

The independent New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists has recorded the deaths of 42 journalists in Pakistan since 1992 in the line of duty. Of these 24 were assassinated. In most cases, killers go scot-free. Only the killers of Wall Street Journal correspondent Daniel Pearl have been convicted.

Mazhar Abbas, former secretary-general of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, tells IPS, “Three, including a former Sindh minister, were caught for the murder of cameramen Munir Sangi of the private Sindhi TV channel in 2006. But being influential they were released on bail after a few weeks.

“Five people were arrested for the murder of Wali Khan Babar in 2011 and are facing trial. Police, however, recently claimed that the mastermind was killed in an encounter. In a majority of cases killers were not arrested even if identified.” Wali Khan was a journalist working for Geo, a private television channel, who was killed by gunmen in Karachi.

The media in Pakistan are caught between a rock and a hard place. They can get caught in the crosshairs of either the spy agencies or the militants who consider their cause above reproach. They see any negative reporting as a call for severe reaction.

A judicial commission set up to investigate Shahzad’s murder spent six months interviewing 41 witnesses and going through 33,000 of Shahzad’s emails. It concluded in its 146-page report that “various belligerents in the war on terror which included the Pakistani state and non-state actors such as the Taliban” were responsible for his death.

But by failing to name the killers, the commission showed that Pakistan’s spy agencies remain outside the ambit of the criminal justice system.

“It was a courageous effort on the part of the commission to point fingers at the killers, which is a major step forward, but they stopped short of questioning the two intelligence agencies – the Military Intelligence and the Inter Services Intelligence – very important parts of the investigation,” says Hamza Ameer, brother-in-law of Shahzad, also a journalist.

“There was a sophisticated, well-organised attempt by Shahzad’s killers to cover their tracks – all the more reason why Pakistan’s intelligence services, and especially the ISI, must be thoroughly investigated,” says Truscott.

Following the government inquiry report, Human Rights Watch said the commission was “fearful of confronting the ISI over Shahzad’s death.”

In the face of the dismal performance of Shahzad’s inquiry commission, Asma Jehangir, a prominent human rights activist who recently accused “high level security authorities” of planning to assassinate her, has refused to seek an inquiry commission.

She says Pakistan is not the only country where leaders are killed, but it is the only country where the assassins are never caught.

Ameer believes it was Shahzad’s writing that took his life.

The commission’s report also said the motive seemed to be the “writings of Saleem” but said it was unclear “who had that motive and actually acted upon it.”

The National Human Rights Commission Bill was passed by the National Assembly on May 4 this year, and was signed into an act by President Asif Ali Zardari – on Shahzad’s death anniversary. But the proposed law states clearly that the “functions of the commission do not include inquiring into the act or practice of intelligence agencies.”

“Pakistan’s military and its intelligence agencies have a long and well-documented history of serious and systematic abuses,” says Asia director of HRW Brad Adams. “A primary reason to create a national human rights commission should be to address longstanding impunity for the army and intelligence services.”


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