10 Years of Impunity Against Journalists in Pakistan

On May 31st, 2001, Saleem Shahzad, a reporter for the Hong Kong-based Asia Times Online and for the Italian news agency Adnkronos International, was found dead in his car with a bullet in the stomach. Shahzad is the 16th reporter found dead in the country in the past 15 months, making Pakistan the deadliest country for reporters worldwide.

Shahzad knew that his life was in danger. He sent information to the US organization Human Rights Watch giving them information "in case something happens to [him] or [his] family in future." Though you may ask yourself why he went ahead with his job even though he felt threatened, it was because he was committed to the truth, and sharing it with readers. He pursued his job even though doing so eventually cost him his life.

But if Shahzad, who was an experienced reporter in that field, was killed, then who will dare continue to do his job?

Shahzad's latest article for Asia Times was about a Taliban-led attack on a Mehran naval base in Karachi on May 22nd, in which 11 soldiers and four attackers were killed. He said in his report that Al-Qaeda had established a "good network" within the Pakistani navy and that "there were negotiations between an Al-Qaeda operative in North Waziristan and naval officers."

Sources close to Shahzad said he had reported getting several warnings from the security agencies in the past in connection with his reporting. This would tend to support the theory that he was kidnapped and killed in connection with his coverage of the attack on the naval base. Experienced journalists in Islamabad also said they suspected that Shahzad was kidnapped and executed by the military intelligence agency known as the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Human Rights Watch also said it had learned from "credible sources" that Shahzad had been in ISI custody.

Shahzad disappeared on May 29th, 2011. Two days later, Reporters Without Borders and the International Federation for Journalists wrote to the President and Prime Minister of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan to inquire about Shahzad's situation, urging the government to do "its utmost to bring an end to a very worrying and critical trend of arbitrary arrests and enforced disappearances that could turn into a broader crisis, especially if ISI is involved."

A country does not become the deadliest place for reporters overnight. We can't help but be reminded of the cold blooded murder of the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, abducted in January 2002 while researching a story on Islamist militancy. Even though it appears that justice had not been served in his case, it has been acknowledged that the Pakistani police was able to investigate Pearl's death and help the US services to arrest the suspected murderers

Since then, 41 local reporters have been killed in Pakistan. Since then, Pakistani authorities have not taken steps to bring the truth to light in any of the cases of murdered journalists. There is no justice for those journalists.

Paying a tribute to Saleem Shahzad in Washington D.C. on June 6th, 2011, the Pakistani Ambassador in the United States, Hussain Haqqani, said "there are journalists, colleagues, who are in the country contributing the unfavorable narrative, and making the idea of what is happening in Pakistan too simplistic. Pakistanis have to stop making excuses, labeling people vs. them or by political party, political group, organization, or cause."

Now is also time for the authorities to create a favorable climate for this change. Pakistani journalists have been voicing concern for their freedom and safety for too long.

In the Swat Valley for example, while most of the reporters welcome the end of the fighting with the Taliban, they are aware of their vulnerability since the Sharia (Islamic law) has been imposed in 2009. The president of the local press club told us "it will be hard for independent journalism to survive under Islamic laws," and the editor of the local newspaper Chand admitted they would need "to censor o[them]selves to survive". Both [the army and the Taliban] have already warned us to avoid sensationalism in order not to jeopardize the peace accord." However, both sides deny responsibility for attacks on the press. When we went to the Valley, people interviewed by Reporters Without Borders complained of the government's failure to jam the illegal Taliban radio stations. "It has let terror be imposed," a Swat resident said.

With Shahzad's murder, the reality of the threat against journalists in Pakistan reached 100 km from the country's capital, and attracted a worldwide attention because of its brutality. It is a tragic occasion, and Shahzad will be missed. His death, and the fact that Pakistan is now the deadliest nation for journalists, should prove that it is time for the Pakistani authorities to be efficient. They need to put an end to impunity for reporters in the country, as well as create a service that will prevent the future occurrence of such violent tragedies.