The killing of Syed Saleem Shahzad is brutal confirmation that Pakistan is the world’s most hazardous place for journalists. According to the United States-based Committee to Protect Journalists, in the nine years since the abduction and murder of the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, 32 media professionals have met a violent end, 17 of them in targeted attacks for clear work-related motives. International pressure on Pakistan forced the pace in the investigation of the Pearl case in 2002. But in none of the other murders has anyone been brought to book. It was in this atmosphere of impunity that Shahzad went missing from a well-secured neighbourhood of Islamabad. Two days later, his body, bearing torture marks, surfaced 150 km away. In any conflict, the main threat to journalists is from armed actors, state and non-state. The situation in Pakistan is all the more dangerous given the blurred lines, and linkages, between the two. If the Inter-Services Intelligence is being seen as Suspect No. 1 in this case, it is not without reason. Eight months ago, the journalist who wrote about al-Qaeda and Taliban was summoned to the ISI headquarters for an interview – after he reported that Pakistan had released the Afghan Taliban commander Mullah Baradar, arrested earlier in 2010, to take part in talks. Shahzad notified friends about that meeting, detailing it in an email that he wanted publicised if anything untoward happened to him; he also confided that he had received death threats from ISI officials thrice in the last five years. It is significant that he went missing days after he reported that the Mehran Base attack was carried out in retaliation for a Pakistan Navy crackdown on al-Qaeda sympathisers in its ranks. There have been suggestions that Shahzad, the author of a new book on al-Qaeda, knew details of the Pakistani network that supported Osama bin Laden while he was sheltered in Abbottabad.
Pakistan’s news media naturally see the Shahzad killing as an unambiguous attempt to intimidate them and silence dissent. The May 1 stealth attack by the U.S. to eliminate bin Laden, and the Mehran attack in which the Navy was savaged by home-grown terrorists, have seen the media shed their usual reluctance to challenge the military and the ISI. It should be natural for an investigation into Shahzad’s killing to start with the ISI officials who interviewed him in October 2010. The Pakistani media community must insist on this in order to fix accountability for the journalist’s killing. Else the enquiry ordered by Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani will go the way of other such investigations, and the impunity will continue unchecked.