Foreign Policy Blogs

Does Pakistan Kill Its Own Journalists?

The disillusioned community of journalists in Pakistan is directly blaming the Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI), a spy agency of the Pakistan army, for the killing of a renowned investigative reporter, Syed Saleem Shahzad, who worked as the Pakistan Bureau Chief of Asia Times.  The reputed correspondent went missing on May 29th on his way to a television studio from a highly-guarded part of the nation’s capital, Islamabad. Two days later, his dead body was recovered. According to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ),Shahzad was “more likely beaten to death fairly quickly, apparently with iron rods.”

Ironically, according to Mazhar Abbass, a former secretary general of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), Shahzad, 41, had moved from Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, to Islamabad, perceived by many as relatively a safer place after receiving threats to his life because of his reporting of “sensitive issues” pertaining to terrorism, militancy and ‘national security’.

The slain reporter was kidnapped mysteriously and murdered after he had revealed in a story that Al-Qaeda had penetrated inside some groups of the Pakistani Navy which culminated in the 17-hour siege of th PNS Mehran naval air station in Karachi by the activists of the terrorist network. The siege, according to the killed reporter, was the outcome of failed negotiations between Al-Qaeda and the Pakistan Navy on May 22 under which the global terrorist network had demanded the release of the Navy officers who  had been detained for their suspected contacts with Al-Qaeda.

On May, 27th, Mr. Shahzad, also the author of  Inside al-Qaeda and the Taliban: Beyond Bin Laden and 9/11 reported:

“Several weeks ago, naval intelligence traced an al-Qaeda cell operating inside several navy bases in Karachi, the country’s largest city and key port.

“Islamic sentiments are common in the armed forces,” a senior navy official told Asia Times Online on the condition of anonymity as he is not authorized to speak to the media.

“We never felt threatened by that. All armed forces around the world, whether American, British or Indian, take some inspiration from religion to motivate their cadre against the enemy. Pakistan came into existence on the two-nation theory that Hindus and Muslims are two separate nations and therefore no one can separate Islam and Islamic sentiment from the armed forces of Pakistan,” the official said.

“Nonetheless, we observed an uneasy grouping on different naval bases in Karachi. While nobody can obstruct armed forces personnel for rendering religious rituals or studying Islam, the grouping [we observed] was against the discipline of the armed forces. That was the beginning of an intelligence operation in the navy to check for unscrupulous activities.”

The official explained the grouping was against the leadership of the armed forces and opposed to its nexus with the United States against Islamic militancy. When some messages were intercepted hinting at attacks on visiting American officials, intelligence had good reason to take action and after careful evaluation at least 10 people – mostly from the lower cadre – were arrested in a series of operations.

“That was the beginning of huge trouble,” the official said.”

While the ISI has publicly denied the charges in a rare interaction with the Associated Press of Pakistan (APP), the official news agency,  through an unnamed official, journalists and newspaper editors refuse to buy the official explanation. Abbass Nasir, a former editor of Dawn, Pakistan’s most respected English language newspaper, questioned the ISI’s statement in a fresh article.

“What’s your reaction to this statement? You wouldn’t be blamed for being sceptical. Who would, given the perceptions about the agency? But read the statement carefully. Have you found the most significant bit?

“Yes, the ‘irresponsible’ among the media men and women are now being threatened with ‘possible legal course’ which, I am assuming, means that if we continue accusing the ISI of doing nasty things without proof we’ll be made to answer in court.”

The ISI, which is believed to run a state within the state of Pakistan that dictates the country’s internal and external policies,  has had a long history of torturing journalists and newspaper editors in the past. Accountable to none, the rogue agency uses torture as a prime tool to muzzle inquisitive correspondents.

Prior to his murder, Mr. Shahzad had informed the Human Rights Watch about threats he had already been receiving from the mighty secrete service which is currently under global pressure for the alleged support its officials allegedly provided to Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden to hide in Pakistan’s garrison town of Abbottabad.

The ISI controls and influences the national media by[putting them on its payroll after recruiting journalists, television anchor persons and young reporters. While it bribes editors of some newspapers to publish stories that promote the military as the country’s “most competent institution” and form an anti-India-USA public opinion through news stories and op-ed columns, it bribes younger journalists by providing them ‘inside stories”.

Reporters and editors who refused to accept such offers often end up facing a fate similar to the Asia Times reporter.

Last year in September, Umar Cheema, another reputed investigative journalist, Umar Cheema of The News International who had formerly worked with the New York Times as a Daniel Pearl Fellow, was kidnapped, stripped and beaten up by people he suspects were affiliated with the ISI. In an Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal, Cheema wrote:

“There are many reasons we suspect the ISI (for the kidnapping). For years, I have written investigative reports criticizing the army, the intelligence agencies and the government. But only the people from the ISI would approach me, directly or indirectly, when my stories were published. The spy agency has a history of sorting out its critics whether they are journalists, politicians or ordinary citizens.”

Had his prediction not been overlooked, reporters in Pakistan would not perhaps see more colleagues getting brutally killed.

“I strongly appeal to the community of journalists world-wide, to the World Editors Forum and other organizations, to stand with us in this time of crisis. The outcome of my case is critical to the fate of all journalists in Pakistan and beyond.”

Though Cheema was lucky to survive after six-hour ISI torture, his colleague Shahzad was not.

The government of Pakistan indeed has a responsibility to provide an accountability for the cycle of targeted and mysterious killings of brave journalists. Last year, the country was ranked by the CPJ as the world’s deadliest place for journalists, as reported in an article by the Washington DC-based Iwatch News. If press freedom is curtailed inside Pakistan, the deep and unaccountable state of the  ISI will further go deeper and nastier.



Malik Siraj Akbar

Malik Siraj Akbar is a freelance journalist based in Washington DC. A 2010-11 Hubert Humphrey Fellow, Malik is the editor-in-chief of The Baloch Hal, the first online English newspaper of Balochistan, Pakistan's largest province. He worked for five years as the Bureau Chief of Daily Times, a reputed Pakistani English newspaper.