The murky interface between journalism and intelligence
The sensational assassination of Syed Saleem Shahzad, web-based Asia Times Online’s reporter in Pakistan, in May this year sent shockwaves through the media community and public. The discovery of his body, fully clothed and with even his tie and shoes on, in the Upper Jehlum Canal on May 30, and the subsequent discovery of his car 20 miles upstream, indicated foul play. The autopsy revealed Shahzad had been brutally beaten and tortured, leading to his death. But what came out after these revelations was even more sensational and alarming.
Shahzad was ‘kidnapped’ on his way to a television interview in Islamabad on May 29. He never arrived. Daily Times broke the story of his disappearance. That scoop owed a great deal to its editor having been ‘leaned on’ by the ISI’s media cell just days before his disappearance to discontinue reproducing Shahzad’s stories. The request was not acceded to.
The gory end of Saleem Shahzad raised a storm in the media. Fingers of accusation were pointed at the ISI, which issued a denial for the first time in Pakistan’s history. The denial, far from assuaging the rage in the media and public, strengthened suspicions. The government was forced to respond by announcing an inquiry commission headed by Supreme Court Justice Mian Saqib Nisar. After an initial flurry of hearings with prominent media practitioners and others, the commission appears to have fallen into the limbo especially reserved for all such commissions.
The real story of Saleem Shahzad’s life, work and brutal death revolves around the perils of getting too close to the ISI, extremist militants, and foreign intelligence agencies in the cauldron that is Pakistan. Perfectly valid journalistic practices of cultivating contacts will all the players in and around a story do not, in Pakistan’s peculiar circumstances, guarantee the safety of journalists. Pakistan has become arguably the most dangerous country in the world to be a journalist in. Hundreds of journalists have been killed, particularly since the war on terror began ten years ago. Seldom has there been an adequate inquiry or investigation into these deaths on duty, let alone closure and justice served.
In Shahzad’s case too, his contacts with the militants, ISI, and approaches with offers from foreign intelligence agencies (which he is said to have declined) may have opened up his bold reporting on the links and relationship between Pakistan’s intelligence agencies and a wide array of jihadi extremists, from Osama bin Laden downwards, to the unwanted and brutal attentions of our ‘deep state’. His stories on bin Laden being on the move in Pakistan, meeting with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, expose of the first reported death (false) of Ilyas Kashmiri, and last but not least, links between and infiltration of the armed forces by terrorists probably sealed his fate. The context in which his status changed in the authorities’ eyes from ‘troublesome reporter’ to ‘enemy agent’ had a lot to do with the acute embarrassment faced by the Pakistani military, which has always portrayed itself as invincible, by the Abbottabad raid in which US Navy Seals killed Osama bin Laden, and the attack on the Mehran naval base in Karachi. Feeling cornered, the military intelligence agencies may have changed their view of Shahzad, leading to his abduction and murder.
Before his assassination, Saleem Shahzad had shared the details of the perceived threat to him in emails to Ali Dayan Hasan of Human Rights Watch and Hameed Haroon, executive head of Dawn. In these mails he documented his interface over a period of almost one year with the ISI’s media cell, including the pressure exerted on him to reveal sources, retract or rebut stories, etc, all of which he refused. There is also the documentation in these messages of the (not so) veiled threat to him by the ISI that he may well be on the hit list of a recently captured militant, and if that was so, the ISI would ‘duly’ inform him of the fact.
Unfortunately, despite the circumstantial evidence of murky doings by the intelligence agencies in this case, the commission is highly unlikely to uncover the truth and provide justice to Shahzad’s widow and family. To that extent, they seem fated to join the growing tribe of victims of the deep state’s excesses against journalists, political activists and even human rights defenders, all of whom have been targeted, ‘disappeared’ and, in the case of Balochistan at least, tortured brutally, killed, and their bodies dumped all over the province. Pakistan’s democracy, weak and flawed and lacking vision or leadership, has been unable to challenge, let alone redress, these long standing violations of the law, constitution and human and civil rights through the length and breadth of the country. Hopes for justice therefore struggle to keep their head above the dark waters rushing to sweep all that is decent and civilised about our society into oblivion.
The writer is Editor, Daily Times