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The Death of a Pakistan Security Journalist

by JOSH SHAHRYAR

02 Jun 2011 16:34Comments
6014a9dd41539689a74343d64839.jpgWas country's top spy agency involved in Syed Saleem Shahzad's torture killing?

[ comment ] In life, Syed Saleem Shahzad was a brave journalist who boldly investigated subjects few Pakistani journalists dared to cover. But while he sought to unravel and simplify things, his death has created enough complications to keep the Pakistani government, military establishment, intelligence agencies, media, and public busy for weeks, if not months.

A correspondent for Hong Kong-based Asia Times Online, Shahzad covered terrorism, militancy, and Pakistan's military and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the country's main spy agency. He was viewed by his peers as one of the most well-informed sources on the inner workings of those subjects. The problem is that it is extremely perilous to cover those very topics in Pakistan.

So when the 40-year-old went missing in the capital of Islamabad while on his way to a TV interview on May 29, it was not exactly shocking. After all, over a dozen journalists covering taboo subjects -- mostly related to internal and external security -- have been killed in the past year alone. Few suspects have been arrested for these crimes and almost none have been punished. The situation is so bad that the Committee to Protect Journalists last year ranked Pakistan as the most dangerous country for reporters.

Yesterday, Shahzad's body was found just over 90 miles away from the capital. The next day, an autopsy revealed that he died as a result of severe torture.

Suspicion may have fallen on al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban, with whom he'd had close contact. But Shahzad's death does not bear any of the hallmarks of a terrorist abduction and killing. The kidnappers neither claimed publicly that they had abducted him, nor did they announce his death and shoulder the responsibility, the modus operandi of both of the closely linked terror networks.

Instead, evidence seems to be pointing toward Pakistan's military and intelligence establishment.

"Yes, there are militants roaming around Pakistan, but the capacity to carry out such an attack -- pick up Shahzad from a safe area of Islamabad, torture him, and then dump the body more than 90 miles away -- is possessed in Pakistan by only one institution," a Pakistani analyst and reporter told me.

"The only people who can pull off something of this nature are agents of the ISI."

There is evidence to support that assertion. Last October, Shahzad was summoned by the ISI and asked to retract a story he had written about Pakistan releasing a feared Afghan Taliban commander, which he refused to do. While Shahzad was not threatened during the meeting, he nonetheless was fearful enough to forward an official email summarizing the session to Ali Dayan Hassan of Human Rights Watch. Shahzad told him, "I am forwarding this email to you for your record only if in case something happens to me or my family in future." Dayan has blamed no one, but suspects ISI involvement.

As he penned his last story, which hinted that the recent bloody attack on a naval air base in Karachi by the Pakistani Taliban was a result of a breakdown of talks between them and the ISI, Shahzad must have been well aware of the potential repercussions.

Veteran Pakistani reporter Umar Cheema, who works for the country's largest English newspaper, The News, was abducted only six weeks before Shahzad's encounter with the ISI. Not long after he received a warning from the intelligence agency, Cheema was kidnapped from his car, blindfolded, stripped, beaten, and videotaped in humiliating postures. Eventually released, he now claims that the ISI carried out the attack against him.

Shahzad's fate was far grimmer.

It seems to be the almost unanimous view among veteran independent journalists in Pakistan that Shahzad's killing is the ISI's handiwork. However, some believe that the motive behind his murder wasn't simply that he had been writing stories that seemed critical of the military and intelligence establishment, but something more sinister.

Another Pakistani policy analyst and journalist said he believes that since the attack on the naval air base in Karachi, a rift has grown between the terrorists and the military and intelligence community in Pakistan. Shahzad may have simply known too much about the two sides for their comfort.

Both sides, the terrorists and the military and intelligence apparatus, would have wished to have him silenced: the terrorists are deeply suspicious of anyone who knows a whole lot about them and the military and ISI -- who are under heavy U.S. pressure to clamp down on the Taliban -- don't want their past dealings to be exposed at any cost, according to this analyst.

The ISI meanwhile rejected the notion that it might be behind the attacks, calling the allegations "absurd."

And not everyone is ready to pick a culprit. Raza Rumi, an editor and columnist at Pakistan's Friday Times, told us it was simply too early to conclude who was responsible. He said that the government needs to establish an independent, powerful commission to launch an investigation into the matter. Before such a commission has even been formed, however, its future findings are already being rejected by some.

Cyril Almeida, a columnist and assistant editor at Dawn, another leading English-language newspaper, is one of the early doubters. "Nothing is coming out of the inquiries, zilch, zero," he said. He is far more certain about the results of the killing, though, which he believes was carried out to warn any journalist who writes on sensitive matters such as militancy, terrorism, and the intelligence agencies in Pakistan to give up or die.

The Pakistani media has suffered from state repression almost from the day the country was born in 1947. Official government stances were almost exactly mimicked by the media up until the late 1990s when a shift began toward more independent journalism, pioneered by Pakistani journalists who refused to veil the truth in order to remain safe.

Today, Pakistan's media is sharply divided between a majority that still reports merely what the government wishes to be reported and a minority that tries to break free of self-censorship. One of the clearest examples of this could be seen in the way the diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks were covered. While Dawn started publishing the leaks as is, others decided to run a fabricated cable that blamed India for militancy in Pakistan.

Cheema -- the journalist who was tortured, but released -- believes that Shahzad's death could have been accidental and that his abductors might not have wanted to kill him, but just to send a strong message to deter further reports. Whatever degree of harm was intended, if the objective in the attack on Shahzad was to dissuade reporters from covering sensitive subjects, then it is already showing signs of success.

Dawn editor Zaffar Abbas told the Guardian that he was considering scaling back the newspaper's reporting of militants and security agencies alike because of the risks involved. Almeida echoed Abbas's sentiment: "Pakistan was a frightening place for journalists before. Now, it's become a little more frightening."

At his funeral in Karachi, though, members of the Pakistani press rejected timidity and instead promised defiance. Azhar Abbas, a respected journalist, told Dawn: "We will not shut our voices down. The journalist community is united on this. We will not stop."

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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