Saleem Shahzad’s death and Pakistani journalists living dangerously

By Fifi Haroon

Even in the face of daily suicide bombings and a recurrent crisis of governance Pakistanis tend to get prickly when the troubled country is tagged by the western media as the most dangerous place on earth. There is even a motley crew of turgid television anchors and sundry media commentators loosely termed the Ghairat (Honour) Brigade which devotes itself to defending the nation from what it perceives as a western conspiracy to sully its reputation.

The Ghairat Brigade was revved up when CIA operative Raymond Davis killed two muggers in Lahore but very quiet indeed when news of the cruel murder of investigative journalist Saleem Shahzad hit the headlines the same time his book, Inside Al-Qaeda and the Taliban: Beyond Bin Laden and 9/11 was published. Others, especially more liberal factions of Pakistan’s journalistic community were not so silent when Shahzad was found dead, with torture markings, on a canal bank 80 miles south-east of the Pakistani capital of Islamabad. Curiously the police took it upon themselves to arrange a hurried burial and the body had to be exhumed for a proper autopsy.

Angry journalists across the county demanded explanations, many openly claiming he was picked up by the country’s intelligence outfit, the ISI, which is purportedly one of the most ruthless in the world. Last year the News reporter Umar Cheema came forward to describe how he was abducted on his way home, stripped, blindfolded, handcuffed, and beaten. He is convinced the ISI was responsible. So when Salim Shahzad disappeared a few days ago the conclusions were fast and furious. "Any journalist here who doesn’t believe that it’s our intelligence agencies?" tweeted reporter and bestselling author Mohammed Hanif.

Adding weight to this assertion was Human Rights Watch (HRW) Senior Researcher Ali Dayan Hasan who disclosed that a “reliable interlocutor” had confirmed the ISI was behind the abduction.

"This killing bears all the hallmarks of previous killings perpetrated by Pakistani intelligence agencies," he said.

When the ISI uncharacteristically issued a detailed statement through an unidentified spokesperson challenging the HRW statement, Hasan’s remarks were emphatically verified by All Pakistan Newspaper Society (APNS) President Hameed Haroon.

“Nobody not even the ISI should be above the law,” said Haroon, recalling that Saleem Shahzad had spoken to him in detail about receiving death threats from the intelligence agency and veiled warnings in supposedly “cordial” meetings. Haroon confirmed that he was one of the three recipients of an email from Shahzad disclosing these exchanges, he other two being HRW and Asia Times.

The army, specially the ISI, have long been sacred cows in Pakistan. Reporters and media groups have been quick to attack the political establishment but have been less eager when it comes to criticising the men in uniform. Writing in Foreign Policy after Shahzad’s death Pakistani journalist Huma Imtiaz, highlighted the perils of reporting on the ISI: 

Reporting on the security services for Pakistan’s electronic media is a tricky, deadly game. In most cases, journalists end up censoring themselves, fearful of the either verbal or physical repercussions. In some cases, when journalists do file reports, channels refuse to air them — again, fearful of upsetting the men in Rawalpindi.

Yet in the revised climate of the American attack on Osama Bin Laden and the terrorist takeover of the naval base PNS Mehran at Karachi (both incidents exposing gaping chinks in the army and intelligence make-up) many more seem to be ready to take them on. Just a few days ago Supreme Court Bar Association President Asma Jahangir openly called Pakistani generals a bunch of “political duffers” on a local news channel and demanded they tried doing their job instead of playing politics. This is evidence of shifting ground – disparaging remarks against the country’s most organized political entity rarely make it to national broadcast.

However Shahzad, who worked for the Hong Kong based Asia Times and an Italian news wire service had hardly been the most circumspect of reporters and was particularly fearless in the first part of a comprehensive report last week where he detailed negotiations between Pakistan’s navy and al-Qaeda. Within a week of that report Shahzad was dead.

Salim Shahzad’s access to some of the world’s most treacherous terrorists was impressive enough for him to be occasionally labelled as a Taliban mouthpiece. Actually it was probably more that his reporting style was extremely accessible and that he forged relationships over time. He first interviewed Ilyas Kashmiri and Sirajuddin Haqqani when they were almost foot soldiers; Kashmiri later went on to mastermind the Mumbai bombings and Haqqani became the most influential Afghan Taliban commander. Along with his newly published book which offers an unparalleled view of the neo-Taliban, Shahzad’s contributions to reporting from the frontline of Pakistani terrorism is invaluable.

Saleem Shahzad’s murder has brought the dangers of being a journalist in Pakistan to the forefront. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) more journalists were killed in Pakistan in 2010 than anywhere else. Omar Warraich, who covers Pakistan for The Independent and Time magazine says that local journalists bear the brunt of the attacks from the agencies even though all journalists face equal danger from militant groups:

Western journalists are not subject to the same levels of harassment that officialdom can visit on local reporters…It is a testament to Saleem Shahzad’s bravery that he regularly travelled to the most dangerous parts of Pakistan to report important stories. He survived those trips. The chilling thought is that he faced the greatest danger in Islamabad, the sleepy capital we’ve long depended on as a safe base to work from.

It has taken Salim Shahzad’s sudden, brutal death to galvanise the Pakistani Press to act definitively. Protests have been organized at Press Clubs in Islamabad, Lahore, Karachi and Peshawar and the APNS has officially committed itself to the creation of a national body for the investigations of serious threats to the lives of journalists. The Interior Minister, Rehman Malik, has ordered an investigation into Shahzad’s murder but it will surprise many if this will yield any real results. According to the CPJ’s Bob Dietz,

the problem in Pakistan is that there is an incredibly high level of impunity. And that is, people who kill journalists are not brought to justice. The government does not fully pursue the cases and does not bring trials and prosecutions.


  • Fifi Haroon is a Pakistani journalist and producer based in London. She was previously Commissioning Editor at GEO TV and now a columnist for the Express Tribune