Syed Saleem Shahzad, Pakistan Bureau chief of Asia Times Online (Hong Kong), went missing from Islamabad, Pakistan, on Sunday May 29 as he was driving from his home in an upper-income and secure neighborhood to a studio to take part in a television program. He was to discuss a news report where he had revealed, among other things, that Al-Qaeda and the Taliban had supporters within the Pakistan Navy, and that the Navy had even arrested some lower-rank personnel in this connection.
Saleem Shahzad’s body was found from near a canal, about 150 km from Islamabad, on Monday. The autopsy report confirmed that he had been severely tortured before he was killed. Although the investigation into the gruesome murder is continuing, Shahzad had, well before his disappearance, through an email to a representative of Human Rights Watch in Pakistan, expressed fears that Pakistan’s intelligence agencies might detain him at some point. He had recently moved from Karachi to Islamabad due to threats that he had been receiving from various sources.
Shahzad worked for a number of national and international news organizations, covering terrorism, extremism, and security related issues. He interviewed a number of leading Al-Qaeda and Taliban figures. His latest book, Inside Al-Qaeda and the Taliban: Beyond Bin Laden and 9/11, was published a few days before his death. He was 40 years old, married, and a father of three.
The president, the prime minister, and the minster for interior have publicly assured people that Shahzad’s murder will be thoroughly investigated and his murderers brought to trial. But few people find these assurances credible. Pakistan has been termed as one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists. Shahzad is not the first journalist to be murdered; newspapers report that more than 70 journalists have been killed in Pakistan in the last 10 years. Murderers have never been found and punished.
Many more journalists have been killed in areas where the insurgency has been more active and where military action has also been taking place. The journalists of these areas have allegedly, since no investigations have been made public, been killed by both sides: the insurgents when they have perceived the reporting to be against them and the military/intelligence establishment when the work of journalists was perceived to be against "national" interest. Squeezed between the two, hundreds of journalists have been forced to flee their homes and move to relatively more secure areas.
But journalists have been kidnapped, beaten, and killed in all parts of the country and in some of the most secure urban centers such as Karachi and Islamabad as well. They have been blown up in terror and suicide attacks; they have, allegedly, been target-killed by specific interest groups, parties and agencies; and they have been abducted and tortured by "unknown" assailants.
Only a few months back a reporter was murdered on a main street in Karachi, and another one was abducted from a street in Islamabad, stripped naked and beaten before being thrown on the side of the road in Islamabad. These are not random incidents. Almost all victims have been journalists who have written about national security issues or the role of the military in Pakistan.
Over the last 20-odd years media has become an increasingly important player in Pakistan. From a few state dominated or controlled channels and newspapers in the late 1980s and early 1990s we have moved to a point where we have dozens of private channels covering news and views and providing entertainment—from national to vernacular languages. The same is true of the printed word as well. We now have more newspapers than we have probably ever had in our history.
And the role of the media has also changed over these years. The media is still young and has been known to sensationalize or make frequent mistakes. The sector employs lots of people, but many especially those working at private television channels are not very well trained. Yet the media in Pakistan has definitely risen as an independent voice in the country. It is probably the most potent and vocal means of public accountability and transparency in Pakistan currently. One can understand why powerful interest groups would try to control the media or the message, but at the same time the importance of ensuring that the media remains free cannot be overemphasized also.
Pakistan is going through very hard times fighting insurgents and the war on terror, living in a difficult neighborhood of the world, dealing with tough economic conditions, making a transition to democratic rule, and facing some of the governance challenges inherent in such a transition. A transparent and open media that can hold the government and other important and powerful interest groups accountable is essential if we are to have any hope of managing these challenges.
The Open Society Foundations have been working with the media in Pakistan for the last couple of years. We have been working with partners to strengthen journalist bodies, provide trainings (including security trainings) to journalists, and increase access to information in Pakistan through instituting legal and administrative changes. The battle, clearly, is far from over.
But there is hope too. While many journalists have lost their lives in Pakistan, there are many more who continue to fight the fight everyday and work for a better future. We owe it to each and every one of these journalists to work with them, support them in their work, and to ensure that a free and vibrant media can continue to exist and flourish in Pakistan.