Death of a journalist


THE PAKISTANI journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad knew he was in danger. His beat, which involved delving into the murky nexus that exists between militant groups and Pakistan’s formidable security apparatus, brought him into contact with all kinds of unsavoury characters. Shahzad’s fearless reporting needled many, several of whom wanted him silenced. He had informed Human Rights Watch of repeated threats from the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s powerful spy agency.

Last week, Shahzad’s battered body was fished from a canal after he disappeared from a high-security zone in the Pakistani capital Islamabad. His final article, published two days earlier, suggested that a recent attack on a Karachi naval base was retaliation by militants over efforts to root out al-Qaeda sympathisers in the navy. The audacious 17-hour assault on the facility embarrassed Pakistan’s military establishment, which had already been smarting over the US raid that killed Osama Bin Laden in a garrison town last month.

The manner of Shahzad’s abduction, torture, and killing, along with the knowledge that he felt sufficiently threatened by the ISI to contact Human Rights Watch last October, has caused many to point the finger at the much-feared agency. The consensus in Pakistan is that the investigative journalist was targeted because he knew too much, and revealed too much in his reporting.

Few have much faith in prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani’s pledge that those responsible for Shahzad’s death will be brought to justice, because, not only is Pakistan one of the most dangerous countries for journalists to work in, it is also a place where their killers go free.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, in the years since the kidnapping and murder of the Wall Street Journalreporter Daniel Pearl in 2002, more than 30 media workers have met a violent end in Pakistan, 17 of them targeted specifically for their work. The Pearl killing is the only case where anyone has been brought to book.

Shahzad’s death, which has echoed far beyond Pakistan, raises disturbing questions for the country. It has highlighted yet again the ease with which challenging voices are snuffed out – whether it is someone who shines a light in dark corners, like Shahzad, or politicians like Salman Taseer or Shahbaz Bhatti, both recently killed for objecting to Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws. It has acted as a reminder of a culture of impunity that continues unchecked.