On May 29, Sayed Saleem Shahzad, the Pakistan bureau chief for the Asia Times, headed to a television studio to be interviewed. He had just written a story linking the Pakistani military with terrorists believed to have orchestrated a recent raid on a Navy base.
He never arrived.
Two days later, his battered body was discovered about 150 miles south of Islamabad.
Of the growing list of Pakistani journalists killed for doing their job, Shahzad’s death has focused international attention on the country’s horrific reputation as one of the most dangerous places on the planet to be an independent, inquisitive reporter.
Pakistan’s enraged journalist community directly blames the nation’s secret service, the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, for killing one of the country’s most respected investigative journalists. On Wednesday, the ISI denied any connection to it.
Shazad’s death is a cold reminder for me of the danger that underscores my own work.
In August, I moved from Pakistan’s insurgency-stricken province of Balochistan to the United States to start my Hubert Humphrey Fellowship at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. In Balochistan, according to veteran U.S. journalist Selig Harrison, the central government is engaged in a “slow-motion genocide” of the native Baloch people. In the midst of a conflict between the government and native people on the issue of natural resources and succession, truth and press freedom have become the biggest casualty.
About a dozen journalists have been killed, kidnapped or tortured by the government secret services and insurgent groups since 2009. A few broadcast journalists have met their deaths in crossfire or bomb blasts. The Committee to Protect Journalists recently ranked Pakistan the most dangerous country in the world for reporters, ahead of Iraq, Mexico and Honduras.
During the past nine months, I have lost six colleagues in the conflict. I spent time with all these journalists, working on stories, participating in training programs or developing source networks in the country’s largest province bordering Iran and Afghanistan. Family members and professional colleagues back home in Pakistan attribute the reporters’ targeted murders to state secret services and death squads. The authorities have not investigated or punished those responsible for these killings. Worse still, official pressure on media outlets has led to a complete blackout of the news concerning their deaths.
Jacqueline Park, the Asia-Pacific Director of the International Federation of Journalists, has described Balochistan as a “notoriously dangerous location to work as a journalist.”
A team from the Committee to Protect Journalists called on President Asif Ali Zardari in Islamabad last month demanding an official inquiry into the murders. While the CPJ shared a list of fifteen reporters whose deaths it wanted probed, it did not mention most of the correspondents who were killed last year in Balochistan.
From 2005 to 2010, I covered the fight against secular nationalists for Pakistan’s leading English language newspaper, Daily Times. Mohammad Khan Sasoli, president of a local press club complained to me that an underground anti-nationalist group, the Baloch Musla Defai Tanzeem was constantly threatening him and other members. The group, nationalists allege, is sponsored by the Pakistani secret services and paramilitary forces.
“The threats are consequential,” he whispered in my ear over tea at a teashop in Quetta, Balochistan’s capital. “The government-backed groups will kill me if I cover the Baloch nationalist parties, something that I am committed to do as a journalist.”
As my 36-year-old friend feared for his life, we wrote letters to the editor at some of Pakistan’s top English language newspapers urging the government to provide security for him. To no avail. Sasoli was shot dead in December while returning home from the press club.
I worked with Siddiq Eido, another journalist friend, to develop a network of reporters in the coastal area of Mekran where China has constructed a multimillion-dollar deep-sea project. Eido focused on human rights reporting. The government was annoyed with his coverage of the disappearances and extra-judicial killings of political workers from the Baloch ethnic minority at the hands of the secret services. His friends later disclosed Eido had received threatening phone calls from “private numbers, which are often used by the secret services, and was warned to stop reporting on “sensitive issues.” Eido continued to fearlessly report from Balochistan, and was kidnapped by suspected government officials on Dec. 21,in front of several eyewitnesses.
In an editorial in The Baloch Hal, the first online English newspaper of Balochistan, I urged the government of Pakistan to respect and protect journalists and human rights activists who are covering the conflict. The government snubbed our appeals for Eido’s safe release. Four months later, his bullet-riddled body was discovered in a mountainous area in his native Mekran. His corpse also showed signs of severe torture.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, the most respected human rights watchdog in the country, directly held government authorities responsible for Eido’s murder.
In a statement issued soon after his body was discovered, the HRCP said, “The uniforms of his abductors and the vehicles they had used gave credence to the belief that state agents were involved [in the murder]. Siddique [Eido] had been abducted in the presence of several policemen, but despite such clear evidence no action was taken to publicly identify or prosecute his abductors and secure his release.”
Another murder was that of twenty-five year old Lala Hameed Hayatan, a correspondent of the Urdu language newspaper Daily Tawar. On Oct. 25, he was kidnapped by security forces and kept in illegal detention without criminal charges or access to the courts. After a month-long disappearance, Hayatan’s body was recovered from a local river on the eve of the Muslim festival of Eid. His killers left a message in his pocket describing the murder as a “gift of Eid” to further agonize his friends and family members.
According to the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, Hayatan had been shot in the head and chest. “Marks on his body clearly indicated that he was tortured before being killed,” said the group in a statement. “Hayatan was probably murdered by members of the security forces (who are fighting Baloch armed separatists)… Balochistan is by far the most dangerous region in Pakistan for the media.”
The government has not investigated any of these deaths or the many other killings of reporters in Balochistan and elsewhere in Pakistan. Over the last decade, the only journalist murder case brought to justice was Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Pakistani authorities were forced to act only because of mounting U.S. and international pressure to punish his killers.
Beside murders, torture and arbitrary arrests, Internet censorship is another increasing problem faced by Pakistani journalists. Online newspapers with an independent editorial policy have seen their web sites blocked for not following the official line. Last November, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, which is responsible for Internet regulation in the country, officially blocked the Baloch Hal reportedly on the order of the Pakistan army. The government did not provide a clear explanation for denying access to our readers inside Pakistan. It simply accused us of publishing “anti-state” material, a charge that was never substantiated.
In February 2009, the editor-in-chief of a popular Urdu language newspaper, Daily Asaap, narrowly escaped an attempt on his life in Quetta city. His newspaper was forced to shut down after paramilitary forces took over its office for several days. The offices of two more newspapers, Daily Balochistan Express and Daily Azadi, were also occupied by the paramilitary forces for criticizing government policies.
As Pakistan descends into chaos and further political turmoil, journalists and the free media continue to suffer at the hands of an increasingly intolerant military that overshadows a powerless political government in Pakistan. Protests by journalist advocates, such as the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists are oftentimes selective and restricted to urban parts of the country while reporters working in rural Pakistan have to face the threats alone.
Malik Siraj Akbar, a visiting journalist with ICIJ, is the Humbert H. Humphrey fellow at Arizona State University. He is the editor of The Baloch Hal, Balochistan's first online English language newspaper.