x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Pakistani journalists defiant after reporter's murder

Pakistan's premier spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, calls allegations that it was involved in death of Syed Saleem Shahzad, a reporter who investigated terrorism, 'absurd'.

Family members of the murdered Pakistani journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad react after his death, in Karachi yesterday. Fareed Khan / AP Photo
Family members of the murdered Pakistani journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad react after his death, in Karachi yesterday. Fareed Khan / AP Photo

KARACHI // A Pakistani reporter who investigated terrorism and was found murdered after telling a rights activist he had been threatened by intelligence agents was buried yesterday as fellow journalists promised that his killing would not silence them.

Syed Saleem Shahzad wrote for the Asia Times Online and other publications. He delved into topics that were often sensitive in Pakistan, where journalists face threats from insurgents as well as a security establishment that operates largely outside the law.

Azhar Abbas, a prominent Pakistani journalist, said: "We will not shut our voices down. The journalist community is united on this. We will not stop "

Pakistan was the deadliest country for journalists in 2010, with at least eight killed in the line of duty, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. Six died in suicide attacks, the group said in a report late last year.

Despite the dangers, the media establishment in Pakistan has expanded rapidly over the past decade, and reporters here operate with tremendous freedom compared with many other developing countries.

In recent weeks, the media have carried unusually scathing coverage about the security establishment after it was caught unawares by the US raid on May 2 that killed the al Qa'eda chief Osama bin Laden in a garrison city in Pakistan's north-west.

Shahzad's death could heighten the criticism, though commentators are being careful about how they discuss the alleged link to spy agencies.

After disappearing on Sunday from Islamabad, Shahzad's body was found dozens of miles outside the capital on Tuesday, bearing signs of torture, police said. His death drew numerous condemnations, including from the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton.

Shahzad, 49, was buried in his hometown, Karachi, as hundreds of friends, relatives, political figures and fellow journalists mourned.

The Sindh province information minister, Sharjeel Memon, called the killing a "cowardly act" and promised that those responsible would be brought to justice. But it is unclear how much the weak civilian government can do if, as some suspect, Pakistani security agencies played a role.

A spokesman for Pakistan's premier spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, called the allegations "absurd". He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to media on the record.

However, Ali Dayan Hasan, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, said Shahzad had told him that he feared Pakistani intelligence agents were after him.

The agencies pressured him to reveal his sources in October after he wrote a story about Pakistan allegedly freeing a detained Afghan Taliban commander, according to an email Shahzad sent Mr Hasan. Mr Hasan said Shahzad was still worried in recent weeks, but kept up his reporting.

Just last week, Shahzad wrote a story about alleged al Qa'eda infiltration of the navy. The report came after a 17-hour insurgent siege of a naval base in Pakistan's south added to the recent humiliations suffered by security agencies.

Within days, Shahzad vanished, and his wife contacted Mr Hasan as her husband had instructed in case he disappeared.

In a statement, Mrs Clinton said Shahzad's reporting "brought to light the troubles extremism poses to Pakistan's stability," and said the US supports the "Pakistani government's investigation into the circumstances surrounding his death".