Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 15 November 2018

Scores of Pakistani journalists killed in past decade, no one brought to justice

Nearly two dozen Pakistani journalists who have been killed over the past decade. So far, not a single suspect has been brought to justice for the killings.

The journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad had been beaten so savagely by his kidnappers that his broken ribs had fatally punctured his lungs before his mutilated body was unceremoniously dumped in a canal 150 kilometres south-east of Islamabad.

The murder of Asia Times Online's Pakistan bureau chief in May 2011 remains unsolved, but many observers believe it was the work of members of Pakistan's intelligence community.

"While the facts are never likely to surface, it was clear at the time that Islamabad's journalists blamed Inter Services Intelligence [ISI]," explains Tom Hussain, a regular contributor to The National based in Islamabad.

"Whatever the facts, [Shahzad's] murder does impart a dark lesson: getting too close to the participants of Pakistan's war on terror carries great risks."

This was not an isolated incident. Shahzad is one of nearly two dozen Pakistani journalists who have been killed over the past decade. So far, not a single suspect has been brought to justice for the killings, but the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) hopes to change that. Last week, on the second anniversary of Shahzad's murder, the New York-based NGO called on the country's new government to launch fresh investigations.

"Two years after he was found beaten to death, Saleem Shahzad's case remains unsolved, as have all of the 23 murders of Pakistani journalists in the last decade," said Bob Dietz, the CPJ's Asia programme coordinator.

"At this juncture, the CPJ calls on the incoming government of prime minister-designate Nawaz Sharif to make full police investigations into all the killings of journalists a priority and to take decisive steps towards stemming the impunity with which the deaths have taken place."

Shahzad, a 40-year-old father of three, went missing on May 29, 2011, while on his way to do a TV interview in Islamabad. This was two days after the publication of an article in which he stated that Al Qaeda had been in negotiations with the Pakistani navy to secure the release of naval personnel who had been jailed for their involvement with the terrorist organisation. The May 22 attack on the Mehran naval base in Karachi was, Shahzad asserted, the result of the breakdown of those talks. Many believe his torturers were trying to force him to divulge his source.

There are different schools of thought on who killed him. Some say it was an individual with a personal vendetta, while others have speculated that it was the work of militants seeking to embarrass the ISI, which they knew would be blamed for the killing. But in light of Shahzad's close working relationship with top militants and the fact that they relied on him to report their views, some observers say it is unlikely that they would have targeted him.

What is known for certain is that Shahzad was summoned to the ISI's headquarters by the agency's Information Management Wing on October 17, 2010, to discuss a story in which he reported that Pakistan had quietly released a senior Afghan Taliban militant in exchange for his participation in negotiations.

Shahzad refused to name his source for the story and said one of the officials present issued what he construed to be a thinly veiled death threat, which he reported by email to a human rights group and Asia Times Online's Thailand bureau. Several months later he was dead.

In its latest report, the CPJ said: "The murder of Saleem Shahzad in May 2011 galvanised journalists across Pakistan in a way that few other events have. For a short time their power was felt. They secured a high-level investigation. They named intelligence officers who had threatened Shahzad and other journalists. But two years later, precious little has come of their efforts."

Pakistan is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist and it is getting steadily worse. If the new government does not heed calls to address the culture of impunity that makes the pursuit of truth a life-threatening exercise, the resulting impact on governmental transparency and accountability could, some would argue, move the country closer to failed statehood.