Weeks before the Asia Times Online bureau chief, Syed Saleem Shahzad, was brutally killed, I was driving down from Islamabad to Rawalpindi, nonchalantly swishing down the expressway. Suddenly, a vehicle zipped past me from the right, swung across my path, perhaps less than a foot from my bumper, and screeched to a halt on the berm to the left. That reckless manoeuvre made me slam the brake pedal and bring my car to a halt. Reeling under shock, I glanced at the driver, who, in contrast, seemed as calm as a practised Hollywood stunt driver.
Having been a journalist who has faced this sort of unpleasantness over 30 years, I didn’t get out and harangue him, or demand his visiting card. I knew he wanted to convey a message. Did I know what it was? Well, as I began to crawl down the highway, I recalled the stories I had done recently, wondering which of those could have irked the Establishment. It had to be the story published two days back in The News, headlined, Who has been caught with their pants down, ISI or cia? Written at the time the Raymond Davis affair had Pakistan deeply enraged, it was one of those rare stories based on the briefings of ISI officials who, in order to defend themselves against the CIA, had disclosed their identities to me even though the intelligence agency isn’t the beat I cover. They obviously hadn’t told their juniors about the cooperation extended to me, I surmised.
What galled me was the brazen alacrity to convey the message—do such stories at your own peril—to me: they should have at least waited longer than two days before trying to cow me down if they wished to avoid an accusatory finger being pointed at them. But then, dear readers, this is Pakistan, where intimidation, abduction, torture and death are likely byproducts of journalism you accept as stoically as low salaries and overbearing bosses. And it doesn’t matter whether there’s martial law in force or a democratic government in power. The dangers the Pakistani scribe encounters, the Washington-based Committee to Protect Journalists says, are posed by “militant and extremist groups, criminals and thugs and the military and security establishment.” Why, it was during a spell of democratic rule that I had taken to driving around with a licensed revolver in my glove compartment, wary of arrogant politicians and members of the Punjab security establishment who had found my reports inconvenient.
Yet, despite the gory history of Pakistani journalism, the killing of Shahzad is frightening because of the audacity displayed—a well-known journalist snatched from high-security Islamabad and silenced. Such callousness, such finality. These sort of extreme methods to browbeat journalists were earlier buried in the depths of the provinces. The battle against journalism, a fight to monopolise the narration of Pakistan’s reality, has truly come to the heart of Islamabad, claiming as its victims even those whose writings command a worldwide audience. Between 2010 and 2011, 15 journalists (see infographic) have died in what can be euphemistically called mysterious circumstances.
The much-speculated role of the ISI in Shahzad’s killing (no one here believes the ISI’s protestations of innocence) and the rising fatality list of journalists prompts M. Ziauddin, executive editor of the Express Tribune, to say, “For the first time in my career of 45 years, I feel terrorised. I will be doubly careful when assigning tasks to reporters and will be asking them not to dig too deep, not to become too intrusive.” Not too intrusive like Daniel Pearl, the American who was probing links between Richard Reid aka the “shoe bomber” and Al Qaeda, I ask. “Yes,” he replies, perfectly unequivocal. But then, can you capture a glimmer of truth without bringing to surface what vested interests want to keep secret?
Celebrated TV anchor Nusrat Javeed is mock-cynical when he says it is unfair to blame the ISI for Shahzad. “After all, you say Raymond Davis was freely roaming about in Pakistan, Osama bin Laden was living in a secure haven, and militants attacked the Mehran Base. If they were so competent, would all this have happened? Don’t overestimate them.” In a more serious vein, he told Outlook, “If you really love life, then you should be very careful, think a lot before you open your mouth. At least I do. I have a wife and daughters. I have to make a choice.”
The willing suppression of truth under extreme duress just might become the norm among journalists, shocked at the propensity of the powerful to muffle dissent. But this isn’t a journalistic standard Afzal Khan, who has been in the profession for 52 years, wants to subscribe to. He told Outlook, “Journalism is a fascinating profession as you not only witness history but also record it. If you are going to be scared or too careful doing it, you become a ‘jobber’. You have to deal with the hazards of the profession.” Khan feels now is the time for journalists to stand up to the intelligence agencies. “This time the intelligence agencies’ capacity, competitiveness and limitations have been fully exposed. It is not the time to retreat.”
Ambush Craft Army personnel at Mehran naval air base in Karachi after the terror attack
Brave are those who haven’t allowed the killing of Shahzad to affect them. Like Kathy Gannon of the Associated Press. Married to a Pakistani and permanently stationed in Islamabad, Gannon told Outlook, “The killing of Shahzad is deeply disturbing regardless of your profession. However, it will not affect how I do my work. As journalists we do our best to seek out answers, and be witnesses to history in a truthful manner. This is the job we signed up to do.”
Even columnists who are not wont to mince their words have been targeted for expressing their views. Kamran Shafi, who has also written for Outlook, says, “I have been wary of these dangerous duffers for some time now—if you recall they had shot up my house in Wah (Punjab) in November 2010.” But Shafi courageously says their minatory methods haven’t deterred him from writing what he wants. Hasn’t the killing of Shahzad frightened him? Shafi replies, “It has made me more angry than scared, though I cannot say I am not scared—I have a family to look after, particularly a 15-year-old daughter. Anything can be expected from these duffers.”
Shafi’s combative spirit is as heartening as that of the CEO and publisher of Pakistan Herald publications, Hamid Haroon. He publicly endorsed Human Right Watch’s allegation that the ISI was responsible for Shahzad’s murder. “The allegations levelled by HRW against the ISI are essentially in complete consonance with the contents of the slain journalist’s e-mail sent to me,” Haroon says. In miasmic Pakistan, for a publisher to challenge the ISI, irrespective of the consequences to his company’s business interests, needs to be acclaimed.
But Shahzad’s murder has rattled those working in the provinces. For instance, Saleem Shahid, the Dawn’s bureau chief in Quetta, Balochistan, told Outlook, “In Shahzad’s murder there is a message which we have understood. There is no doubt that journalists in Balochistan have to be very careful as we are working in a security situation and have to face insurgents, nationalists, government and the security outfits.” Investigative journalist Amir Mateen agrees, “Even Shahzad’s phone record has been wiped clean. Who could have had access to it but the intelligence agencies? Yes, I will be more careful now.”
Killed In The Line Of Duty
As many as 15 print, television and digital journalists have perished in Pakistan in the last 14 months
|May 30, 2011, Saleem Shahzad, Asia Times Online||May 10, Nasrullah Khan Afridi, Khyber News Agency|
|January 13, Wali Khan Babar, Geo TV||January 3, Ilyas Nizzar, Darwanth|
|Dec 6, 2010, Pervez Khan, Waqt TV||December 6, Abdul Wahab, Express News|
|November 18, Lala Hameed Baloch, Daily Intikhab||September 14, Misri Khan, Ausaf|
|September 6, Ejaz Raisani, Samaa TV||April 17, Azamat Ali Bangash, Samaa TV|
|April 16, Malik Arif, Samaa TV|
- April 2, 2011, Zaman Ibrahim, Daily Extra News
- Dec 5, 2010, Mehmood Chandio, Awaz
- May 28, 2010, Ejazul Haq, City-42 TV
- May 9, 2010, Ghulam Rasool Birhamani, Daily Sindhu Hyderabad
In the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which has faced the brunt of both militancy and counter-militancy operations by government forces, Dawn’s bureau chief Ismail Khan is a harried man, constantly worried about his fleet of reporters, particularly those reporting from far-flung tribal areas. “You see, dead men tell no tales,” he says. “I work between the devil and the deep sea and I have to maintain a delicate balance. Of course, self-censorship is there, and Shahzad’s murder reinforces that threat.”
Editors in Pakistan are revising their policy on reporting, sensitive to mulitple threats. Zaffar Abbas, editor of the Dawn, describes the daily dilemma: “In Karachi, a journalist has to report/write and survive in the midst of police, intel agencies and more than half a dozen gangs of non-state actors. Once you write and the paper is published, the reaction starts to come in; you are never sure how one group or the other is going to react. It is a daily challenge to handle stories carefully so that a reporter’s life is not threatened, and yet the truth is not compromised.” Abbas says the complete media freedom in Pakistan comes at a price: “Once a journalist is targeted, no one is interested in bringing the perpetrators, whether intelligence agencies or militants, to justice. Till this day, not a single high-profile case has been solved.”
Worryingly, even women journalists have begun to feel the heat from the establishment. National Assembly member Sherry Rahman had thought it prudent to invest in a bullet-proof car at the time she was an editor. And when I heard about the death (from natural causes) of journalist Razia Bhatti, never known to hold back punches, the first question to occur to me was: who killed her? Perhaps this vividly illustrates the precarious path journalists in Pakistan have to tread. More recently, a very high-profile journalist had a threat issued in the name of the ISI boss, the redoubtable Lt Gen Ahmad Shuja Pasha. “Tell her, we can take her out whenever we want,” an interlocutor quoted Pasha to her. Subsequently, though, the ISI boss was told that his “eyes and ears” had supplied him wrong information.
Unfortunately, the ISI’s eyes and ears are there in the fraternity as well, those who are on the payroll of the security agencies. Journalist Afzal Khan says, “In most cases they get paid more than what they are earning in their regular jobs, so it is a lucrative business.”
For all those reading this report, and to the many letter-writers of Outlook who have accused me of bias in the past, I should let you know—it has always been a risky proposition to write for an Indian publication. Instead, write to Outlook’s editor, asking him to give me a risk allowance.