Saleem Shahzad: When journalists bite the dust

If the culprits are not caught soon, suspicions will lie towards those against whom Shahzad was writing.

Zoha Waseem June 01, 2011
I hope we live to see the day when journalists in Pakistan boast about a prosperous economy, medical breakthroughs, and life security. I hope most of us never see the day when things are actually worse than how newspapers make them out to be.

Syed Saleem Shahzad, the Pakistan Bureau Chief of Asia Times Online (a Hong Kong-based news website), disappeared from Islamabad on May 29, 2011, just days after publishing an article for the Asia Times which implicated that officials in the Pakistani Navy had links with al Qaeda (The second part of Saleem Shahzad’s report, ‘Recruitment and training of militants’, is yet to be published on Asia Times Online).

For those not familiar with Shahzad, he was an investigative reporter who wrote extensively on issues pertaining to global security, especially Pakistani armed forces and religious movements in the Muslim world. He had contributed to Dawn, Daily Times, The Nation, as well as several Urdu newspapers in Pakistan. Internationally, he had written for the Boston Review,le Monde Diplomatique (a French publication), and la Stampa (an Italian publication). In the course of his career covering al Qaeda and the Taliban, Shahzad interacted closely with al Qaeda figures such as Sheikh Essa and remains the only journalist to have interviewed Ilyas Kashmiri (that too just days after Kashmiri was appointed chief of al Qaeda’s military committee).

In 2006, Syed Saleem Shahzad was apprehended by the Taliban in Afghanistan for nine days and after which he wrote detailed accounts of his visit into the so-called ‘kingdom of heaven’ that is the land of the Taliban, for Asia Times Online. This month, ‘Inside al Qaeda and the Taliban: Beyond Bin Laden and 9/11,’ was published by Pluto Press UK. Through this book, Shahzad has apparently displayed first-hand accounts and knowledge of the aims and motivations of the leaders and fighters in radical Islamic movements.

Details of his disappearance and death are limited but according to news reports, Shahzad went missing on May 29, from the F-6/2 area of Islamabad. He was on his way to the studios of Dunya News channel to discuss his latest report on the attacks on PNS Mehran. He never made it to Dunya News. Two days after his abduction, Shahzad’s body was discovered in Sarai Alamgir, near Pindi.

Fact or fiction?

The Asia Times article, ‘Al-Qaeda had warned of Pakistan Strike,’ states that al Qaeda carried out the attacks on PNS Mehran in Karachi after ‘talks’ had failed between the navy and al Qaeda regarding the release of naval officials held by navy intelligence due to their alleged affiliation with the terrorist organisation. According to Shahzad, the three attacks on navy buses in April were warning shots taken by al Qaeda for navy officials to accept al Qaeda’s demands.

Shahzad wrote that al Qaeda cells were operating inside several navy bases in Karachi, and lower cadre officials were arrested following a crackdown based on suspicion of their links with the organisation. Apparently, ‘insiders’ at PNS Mehran provided information, maps, and images of the naval facility for the attack to take place. All this pursued after al Qaeda gave repeated warnings of a violent retaliation.

According to American journalist, Hunter S Thompson:
“Absolute truth is a very rare and dangerous commodity in the context of professional journalism.”

Access of information is one of the biggest troubles in Pakistan and seems as if no one, not even our own intelligence officials, have complete information. Shahzad’s reports will thus remain a matter of much debate and speculation. According to a journalist friend, some of Shahzad’s peers in Pakistan did not hold a high opinion of him, and consider his reports grossly exaggerated. Nevertheless, even if Shahzad’s investigation is partly correct, it defames and discredits the already much-criticised Pakistani intelligence, and its failure to prevent the over fourteen-hour operation at PNS Mehran.

Is the Pakistani intelligence involved? Before Shahzad’s body was discovered, Human Rights Watch declared that Saleem Shahzad was believed to be in the custody of ISI, and could be subject to mistreatment and even torture. According to a recent article written for the Time magazine, on October 17, 2010, Shahzad had been summoned to the ISI headquarters to discuss an article he had published earlier. In this report, Shahzad had disclosed that Pakistan had released Mullah Baradar, an Afghan Taliban commander and Mullah Omar’s deputy. Reportedly, an intelligence official had indirectly threatened Shahzad and asked him to “write a denial of the story,” to which Shahzad refused.

If the people behind his abduction and assassination do not get caught in a timely fashion, suspicions will understandably lie towards those against whom he was writing.

A dangerous place for journalists

Saleem Shahzad is not the first example of a journalist being abducted and/or tortured for writing against the government and intelligence. On September 4, 2010, Pakistani journalist Umar Cheema was kidnapped on his way home from dinner with friends near Islamabad. He was held and tortured for over six hours by masked individuals who stripped Cheema, shaved his head, eyebrows and moustache, and hung him upside down. Cheema was told to stop criticising the government in the articles he wrote for The News.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Pakistan was the world’s deadliest country for the press in 2010 with at least 15 journalists killed in target assassinations since 2002. Regardless of how credible Shahzad’s investigations and sources were, fact is Pakistan continues to be a particularly dangerous place for journalists.

Food for thought
“It was a fatal day when the public discovered that the pen is mightier than the paving-stone, and can be made as offensive as the brickbat. They at once sought for the journalist, found him, developed him, and made him their industrious and well-paid servant. It is greatly to be regretted, for both their sakes” – Oscar Wilde

This post was originally published here.
Zoha Waseem A masters graduate from King’s College London who blogs for
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.

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