AFTER having exhausted all other avenues to trace investigative journalist Saleem Shahzad, his brother-in-law reported him missing to the local police station in the small hours of May 30, 2011, exactly 10 years ago this day. He was found the following day. Dead.
On the evening of May 29, Saleem Shahzad left his Islamabad home for a TV station to participate in a programme but he did not reach his destination and inquiries made later showed his phone was switched off some 12 minutes into his journey.
On May 31, 2011, his mortal remains were found by an irrigation worker entangled in the gates of the Upper Jhelum Canal works, a couple of hours drive southeast of Islamabad, and the same day his car was discovered abandoned a short distance away.
Saleem Shahzad’s body showed marks of brutal torture, including boot imprints where his ribs had been broken. The torture seemed to have continued till life was squeezed out of the tall and burly journalist.
The torture seemed to have continued till life was out of Saleem Shahzad’s body.
Then, he was dumped in the canal, it appears, so he could be found and serve as a warning to others of his ilk not to disregard official words of caution. An investigative journalist, he was seen as an authority on Al Qaeda and wrote of the terror group’s infiltration into the defence establishment.
His abductors/killers are still at large and unlikely to ever face justice, just like journalist Hayatullah Khan’s killers who kidnapped him from North Waziristan in December 2005 and some six months later, murdered him.
Hayatullah Khan’s reporting on a US Hellfire missile strike on a building in North Waziristan that killed five people, and photos of the shrapnel with identifiable markings from the rubble, contradicted the official version. That version claimed that the people were killed in an explosion while assembling an IED.
The next day, Hayatullah was kidnapped after his car had been run off the road. His brother, who was travelling with him, witnessed in helpless horror as armed men took Hayatullah away. Some six months later, his body was dumped in a bazar — emaciated and handcuffed with multiple bullet wounds.
Fast forward to April 2014. Journalist Hamid Mir lands in Karachi from Islamabad on an official visit to his media organisation, Geo TV, and leaves the airport in a car sent to pick him up. The driver and guard are sitting in the front.
As the car heads under the bridge and slows down to take a turn right onto Sharea Faisal, a man standing on the pavement points an automatic pistol at him and fires six shots into him. It is a miracle that the driver has the presence of mind to speed away and take the gravely injured Mir to hospital.
Hamid Mir had taken an extraordinary interest in the plight of the missing Baloch, particularly focusing on the insurgency triggered by the killing of Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti in a military operation to capture the ageing politician from his mountain cave refuge near Dera Bugti.
Hamid Mir survived but his would-be assassin(s) was never brought to book. The ‘geo-fencing’ data which is critical in such cases as it could pinpoint mobile phone users in the area was never found. After all, someone would have watched Mr Mir getting into the car at the terminal on arrival and relayed the information to the gunman.
This, by no means, is an exhaustive list of journalists targeted for their work. I mention the three as they readily come to mind. But intimidation of different sorts continues to this day. Threats, assaults, kidnapping, beatings and much worse. Daily phone calls to newsrooms; reminder of the red lines.
And the tactics don’t stop at that. Worst of all, pressure is applied to choke off the finances of whatever little (in strictly relative terms) independent media exists today. As a result, journalists are facing crippling paycuts, job losses. If you don’t play ball, even private advertisers mysteriously shun you.
Of course, this is the view of a journalist and you could say, therefore, could well be biased. Where is the other side’s view? This is a legitimate question. So, I sat down and watched the whole BBC HARDtalk interview with Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry.
The interview followed the assault on journalist Asad Toor at his own Islamabad home when three armed men forced their way inside, tied him up and gave him a serious beating. Asad Toor has been naughtily naming names on his daily current affairs VLOG.
The minister told BBC’s Stephen Sackur that the incident was unfortunate and he had ordered an inquiry into it. When questioned on allegations of the security forces’ involvement in such attacks, the minister informed the HARDtalk host in these exact words:
“Let it be very clear. Pakistan’s ISI, Pakistan’s Army respects the human rights just as any other civilian governments will do. They are one of the most civilised armies of the world.” He went on to list the army’s achievements in the war on terror.
He also said that the role of intelligence and the military is invoked by those who wish to seek asylum abroad. His remarks were reminiscent of former military ruler Gen Pervez Musharraf’s words that Pakistani women use rape allegations as a means of getting foreign visas.
Mr Chaudhry also said the economy was doing great and Pakistan has handled the Covid crisis the best in the world with the prime minister’s policies; that he did not consider senior journalist Talat Hussain a journalist; and that Imran Khan was the most popular leader in Pakistan who got “nearly 200 million votes” to get elected to office.
A quick fact check tells us the total number of registered voters in 2018 was just under 106m of which the PTI claimed 16.9m votes. One wonders what else the information minister got wrong. All this columnist can do is to salute each media worker who is standing tall and still prepared to fight for a democratic and pluralistic Pakistan, regardless of their personal travails.