Pakistan and the Danger to Journalists

The execution murder of Syed Saleem Shahzad, one of the most respected journalists in Pakistan, spotlights the fact that the country has become the most dangerous in the world for reporters.

The body of Shahzad, the bureau chief of Asia Times Online, was found May 31 in his car, 100 kilometers from where he had disappeared in Islamabad on May 29. Experienced reporters in Pakistan said the murder bore the hallmarks of Pakistan's feared Inter Services Intelligence agency, over his reporting that Al-Qaeda had infiltrated the Pakistani Navy.

Shahzad's death was the 16th since the start of 2010, the world's highest toll of journalists. The situation is so dire that on May 3, World Press Freedom Day, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists sent a delegation to meet with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, Interior Minister Malik and several other members of the government to press for a halt to what the organization called "the abysmal level of impunity with which journalists are killed in Pakistan."

If anything, it is a demonstration once again of the weakness of the Zarrdari government in the face of the military and the ISI. CPJ counts 15 cases of reporters murdered for their journalism since Wall Street Journal correspondent Daniel Pearl was killed in 2002, Reporters Without Borders counts 16 since the start of 2010. Many others have been intimidated by the military and the ISI

"President Zardari and Interior Minister Malik each personally pledged to address the vast problem of uninvestigated and unprosecuted targeted killings of journalists in Pakistan," said Bob Dietz, CPJ's Asia program coordinator. "With the murder of Saleem Shahzad, now is the time for them to step forward and take command of this situation."

Shahzad began writing for Asia Times Online 10 years ago and ultimately was recognized internationally as a leading expert on al-Qaeda and the Pakistani militancy. He wrote the book Inside al-Qaeda and the Taliban: Beyond Bin Laden and 9/11. He is survived by his wife, two sons and a daughter

Human Rights Watch cited a "reliable interlocutor" who said Shahzad had been abducted by the ISI. "This killing bears all the hallmarks of previous killings perpetrated by Pakistani intelligence agencies," said a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch in South Asia, Ali Dayan Hasan. He called for a "transparent investigation and court proceedings."

Shahzad told Asia Times Online that he had previously been summoned to ISI headquarters over the publication of an exclusive report that Pakistan had released the supreme commander of the Taliban in Afghanistan, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, so that he could play a pivotal role in back-channel talks through the Pakistani army with Washington. The ISI demanded that Shahzad reveal his sources and write a rebuttal, which he refused to do.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a prepared release that "The United States strongly condemns the abduction and killing of reporter Syed Saleem Shahzad. His work reporting on terrorism and intelligence issues in Pakistan brought to light the troubles extremism poses to Pakistan's stability."

"Killing, in cold blood a man of letters like Saleem amounts to an open declaration of war against the fundamental principles of Islam and defiance of the teachings of its Messenger, Prophet Mohammad, who bestowed the greatest honors on a seeker of truth by intoning that "the ink of a scholar's pen is holier than a martyr's blood," wrote Karamatullah K Ghori, who served for 36 years a Pakistani ambassador to Algeria, Mali, Kuwait, Iraq, Turkey, China and other countries.

Reporters Without Borders, the international press organization, said it was appalled to learn of Shahzad's death, saying it had sent a joint letter with the International Federation of Journalists to Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani calling for immediate action over Shahzad's disappearance.

"We are stunned by this news and we would like to express our full support for his family and colleagues," Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Jean-François Julliard said. "Shahzad was an experienced journalist who covered very sensitive subjects and it is highly likely that his reporting upset people within the government or armed forces.

Pakistan is ranked 151st out of 178 countries in the 2010 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.

When Prime Minister Gilani passed through Paris on 5 May, Reporters Without Borders handed him a report on press freedom violations in Pakistan and told him that the safety of journalists should be a priority for his government.

Shahzad's death was the second at Asia Times Online in the last year. Editor-in-chief Allen Quicke was murdered by an intruder in his home in Thailand in August 2010. The crime apparently had nothing to do with journalism.