Death of a journalist in Pakistan

Pakistani journalist Saleem Shahzad was found dead after publishing an article on the links between al-Qaida and Pakistan’s military, writes Ayyaz Mallick.

The case

On 30 May 2011, investigative journalist Saleem Shahzad’s dead body, bearing marks of torture, was found near the Pakistani capital of Islamabad just two days after he mysteriously disappeared on his way to a television debate. Shahzad had been in the limelight after publishing the first part of an explosive story allegedly uncovering the penetration of radical Islamist group al-Qaida into various organs of the Pakistani military. He disappeared before the second part could be published in the wake of a brazen attack by militants on a Pakistani naval air station in Karachi on 22 May.

Earlier, in October 2010, Shahzad had been summoned to the headquarters of the ISI, Pakistan’s main intelligence agency, where he was asked to retract a story he had published about the organisation’s release of Taliban leader Mullah Baradar. In the aftermath of the meeting with ISI officials, Shahzad had emailed Ali Dayan Hasan, Pakistan director of Human Rights Watch, expressing fears about his safety at the hands of the intelligence agencies.

Following Shahzad’s death, the ISI denied any involvement in his murder and a governmental commission was set up, comprised of provincial police chiefs, senior judges and journalists’ representatives, to investigate the incident. The commission released its report in mid-January 2012. It recommended appropriate compensation be given to Shahzad’s family but was unable to identify the culprits. Human rights groups, however, severely criticised the report for exonerating the intelligence services of responsibility for Shahzad’s murder and the ISI for being beyond the ambit of Pakistan’s criminal justice system.

Author opinion

Although conclusive decisions from the investigative commission are not forthcoming, experienced activists and journalists familiar with Pakistan’s security institutions contend that Saleem Shahzad’s murder is one in a series of killings undertaken by the intelligence apparatus in order to suppress compromising information. Reports of human rights abuses in the tribal areas and the Baluchistan province of Pakistan have been routinely suppressed, and journalists and investigators silenced through pressure tactics such as intimidation and even death. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, in 2011, Pakistan was ranked as the most dangerous country in the world for journalists for the second year running. Assaults on press freedoms have once again brought to the fore the age-old questions of individual freedom and right to information versus national security in Pakistan. The repressive state apparatus and military institutions would do well to learn lessons from their own history: because in 1971, neither the purge of intellectuals nor the blackout of news from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) could prevent secession from the country. The course of history is against such centralisation of power and quelling of dissent and unless Pakistan’s overpowering security institutions realise this soon, they may find themselves, once again, on the wrong side of history.

- Ayyaz Mallick

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