On May 26, Syed Saleem Shahzad wrote in Asia Times Online that the attack on the Mehran Naval Base was in retaliation to an internal crackdown on al Qaeda cells within the Pakistan Navy. Shahzad was Asia Times’ South Asia bureau chief and an internationally renowned journalist. On May 29, he went missing in Islamabad. On May 31, he was found dead.
Shahzad’s killing underscores the need to understand the context of media freedom in Pakistan. General Pervez Musharraf made much hay out of the fact that he liberalised and freed Pakistani media. But fascinating research conducted by Huma Yusuf, an award-winning Pakistani journalist and Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Centre, shows that increased freedom for Pakistani broadcast media was an idea for which the strategic time had come.
At the turn of the century, Pakistani leaders realised the futility of restricting the flow of information over satellite signals and the internet. Keeping the Pakistani people cloistered from happenings in their own country and in the world was becoming increasingly untenable. The light of this realisation illuminated a newly rising strategic threat: The tide of Indian news and programming rushing over the border. The government of Pakistan scarcely possessed the resources and capacity to directly mount effective resistance. The only option left was to liberalise the media industry to provide an alternate narrative to Pakistanis and others at home and abroad. Thus the decision to free Pakistan’s media was not taken out of a sense of locking step with the march of history, it was made with an eye to strategic doctrine.
‘Media propaganda’, then, is a weapon to manage Pakistani opinion rather than inform it. Pakistani media is free only insofar as it largely adheres to this strategic vision as a mouthpiece for the establishment, or at least by being innocuous and subservient. An expanded wing within the Inter Services Public Relations (the official military PR agency) closely monitors news reports, particularly those impacting strategic issues. A number of tactics come into play when the media loses the script. The first is financial incentives. The scale can be gauged by recent revelations that in 2007 the ministry of information operated a Rs570 million slush fund for the purpose of buying journalists and placing fake news stories. The recent fake ‘Indian WikiLeaks’ story shows that this approach remains pervasive. Failing this, there is intimidation and coercion. Threats are called in and recalcitrant journalists can be subject to beatings and torture. In one case in 2007, a 14-year-old boy was beaten and had to be put into a hospital when his journalist father had spoken of intelligence agencies playing a role in the manhandling of the Chief Justice. More fatal methods are reserved for journalists whose transgressions directly threaten the establishment. In 2005, Hayatullah Khan broke the story about American drone strikes in Pakistan. Khan went missing shortly after; a few months later his body was found handcuffed with a bullet to the back of his head.
Similarly, Saleem Shahzad’s intrepid journalism seems to have threatened the establishment’s narrative. He overstepped the line in the sand drawn in the blood of those that have gone before him.
According to Reporters Without Borders, the media in Pakistan is becoming freer, but it is also the most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist. Perhaps this indicates a trend that the Pakistani media is becoming more willing to challenge the narratives of the establishment and those non-state actors equally ruthless in managing their public relations.
Shahzad’s life was not inherently more precious than the dozens of other journalists in Pakistan that are killed or tortured each year. But his courageous life and tragic death can become a symbol of resistance to an establishment that purports to hold a monopoly over truth and the ‘national interest’. For Syed Saleem Shahzad spoke truth to those in power. His death shows that power does not usually listen to truth, and often tries to silence it. But people do listen. Let us not mourn in silence.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 2nd, 2011.