News / Asia

Pakistani Journalist's Death Raises Questions Over Press Freedoms

Pakistani journalists protest against a killing of a Pakistani journalist Saleem Shahzad, in Hyderabad, Pakistan, June 1, 2011.
Pakistani journalists protest against a killing of a Pakistani journalist Saleem Shahzad, in Hyderabad, Pakistan, June 1, 2011.

A Pakistani reporter who investigated terrorism and was found slain after telling a rights activist he'd been threatened by intelligence agents was buried Wednesday.

Many in Pakistan believe the killing was the act of the country's intelligence organization, the ISI. Fellow journalists vowed his killing would not silence them.

Syed Saleem Shahzad was buried in Pakistan's southern port city of Karachi on Wednesday, as relatives, journalists and local politicians looked on.

"We will not allow this to happen, we will not let them shut our voices down, said Azhar Abbas, a friend of Shahzad and a fellow journalist. "So the journalist community is united on it, we will not stop, our protest will continue on things like that. We may lose more lives because this place has become a very dangerous place for journalists. But our fight will continue, they cannot silent us," Abbas said.

Pakistan was the deadliest country for journalists in 2010, with at least eight killed in the line of duty, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. Six died in suicide attacks, the group said in a report late last year.

CPJ's Asia program Coordinator, Bob Dietz said he showed Pakistani President Asaf Ali Zardari a long list of killed journalists just a month ago. But little was done in response.

"We had a list of fifteen murders, targeted killings of journalists, since the death of Danny Pearl in 2002, that we presented to President Zardari. None of those killings has been investigated," said Dietz. "Not one of them has ever made it beyond a cursory investigation by police. There is an incredible amount of impunity for anyone who would kill a journalist in Pakistan," he said.

Since the May 2 U.S. raid that killed al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden in a garrison city in Pakistan's northwest, the media has reported critical stories about the country's security establishment.

Before he was abducted and killed, Shazad Saleem said he had been repeatedly approached and threatened by the Pakistani intelligence organization over his work, which revealed infiltration by extremists into the ISI and other military institutions.

The threats became so severe in fact that he contacted Human Rights Watch's representative in Pakistan to provide details should anything happen to him or his family.

Reading an account left by Saleem, Human Rights Watch's Ali Dayan Hasan said there was a thinly veiled threat against his life.

"At the end of the conversation with the ISI official who was speaking to him said, 'I must do you a favor. We have recently arrested a terrorist and have recovered a lot of data, diaries and other materials during the interrogation. The terrorist had a hit list with him. If I find your name on the list I will certainly let you know.' Now, the manner in which the statement was delivered implied that this was in fact a threat from them. That he could be murdered and some militant group could be blamed for it," Hasan said.

On Wednesday, an unnamed official with Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency said allegations that the spy agency had threatened Shahzad or was somehow involved in his murder were "baseless" and "unfounded."

The ISI official told the Associated Press of Pakistan that the journalist met with ISI officials in October of last year to discuss a story Shahzad had written and that the meeting was "polite" and "friendly."  The intelligence official added that Shahzad's death should not be used to target and malign the country's security agency.

Because it is often a journalists job to reveal hard truths that certain elements would like kept secret means they are a repeated target for a number of groups,
said Zora Yousef, the Head of Pakistan's Human Rights Commission.

"In Pakistan, they are the targets, not just of the intelligence agencies but also of non-state actors, whether it's these extremists groups or political groups, they all tend to threaten journalists," Yousef said.

Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani has expressed regret over Shahzad's death and ordered an immediate investigation.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also strongly condemned Shahzad's killing and welcomed Pakistan's probe.  She said the journalist's reporting on terrorism and intelligence issues exposed the troubles extremism poses to Pakistan's stability.

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