South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

By M Ilyas Khan

Two weeks after Pakistani journalist Saleem Shahzad was abducted and killed, the storm of fury around his death has barely diminished.

Indeed there is growing anger among political and media circles over the role of the military and its intelligence operatives, who are widely accused of the murder.

Last Wednesday, journalists in Islamabad staged a night-long sit-in protest outside parliament to put pressure on the government to launch an inquiry into the killing.

Meanwhile, several journalists have come out with accounts of the horror and humiliation they suffered at the hands of the intelligence officials for filing reports that did not suit the interests of Pakistan’s powerful security establishment.

Some were picked up and physically tortured. Others were forced out of their jobs through pressure exerted on their employers.

Shahzada Zulfiqar, a senior journalist, lost a lucrative television job for doing a story that should have earned him accolades.

He had interviewed an elusive anti-Iran militant leader, Abdul Malik Regi, in Pakistan’s south-western province of Balochistan.

The interview was aired in December 2008, at a time when Pakistani authorities were vehemently denying Iranian claims that Mr Regi was hiding in Pakistan.

“For two years, I suffered economic hardships and was ostracised by the media houses as giving me a job could create problems for them,” he says.

‘Sophisticated art’

The president of Pakistan’s Supreme Court Bar Association, Asma Jehangir, is a veteran human rights activist who has for years handled cases involving threats to journalists.

She says controlling the media is “a sophisticated art, which has been mastered by our intelligence community”.

Instead of resorting to the old-fashioned censorship and press advisories, they have learned to deal “strategically” with selected cases that can serve as an example for others, she says.

This policy worked successfully for a long time.

For a decade between 1979-88, the Pakistani media as a rule did not carry reports on the true role of the ISI in the Afghan war.

During the 1999 Kargil war with India, the Pakistani security establishment insisted that the intruders into Indian territory were “Kashmiri freedom fighters”, not the Pakistani army.

It took the Pakistani public several years to discover that actually soldiers of the Northern Light Infantry, a military formation in the Gilgit-Baltistan region, had been deployed in the Kargil sector, and then their supply lines cut off to give the impression that militants were fighting there.

A demonstration held in the town of Hunza in the Gilgit-Baltistan region by their angry relatives a week into the war never got reported anywhere in Pakistan.

More recently, while chasing information about a couple of incidents of murder and rape involving Pakistani soldiers in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, I ran into difficulties getting pictures of demonstrations held by the relatives of the victims.

Local journalists said they feared persecution if pictures were leaked to the mainstream media.

With this kind of control over the media, ISI officials often thought little of the presence of Pakistani journalists while operating in areas where they shouldn’t.

After the Taliban overran the Afghan capital, Kabul, in 1996, I met a top ISI official performing command-and-control functions at an office he had set up at Kabul’s Intercontinental hotel.

He was issuing battlefield orders on the one hand, and on the other he was proudly offering tea and snacks to a group of visiting journalists from the Pakistani city of Peshawar.

With a couple of exceptions, the Pakistani media tended to praise the Taliban rule in Afghanistan while it lasted.

‘Boiling point’

One of the exceptions was the Karachi-based Herald magazine, for which I covered Afghanistan.

In 1999, a Western diplomat in Islamabad told me that I must have some extraordinarily good contacts to get the kind of material I had been filing.

I told him – and it was true – that stories were lying all over Afghanistan like windfall – it was just that nobody wanted to pick them up.

I did get summoned to the ISI’s offices in Peshawar in 2002 where an official took down the details of my family and offered me a polite cup of tea.

Perhaps I got off the hook cheaply because the Herald was a limited-circulation, niche magazine, and it was published in English, a language which few in Pakistan can understand.

But now it seems the tables have been turned on the military establishment.

It started with the 2 May killing of Osama Bin Laden by a team of American commandos on Pakistani territory, which greatly embarrassed the Pakistani army and its sympathisers.

Saleem Shehzad’s death brought the pent-up anger to a “boiling point”, says Imtiaz Alam, journalist and an associate of South Asia Free Media Association (Safma).

“Journalists have chosen to speak out to avert a similar threat to themselves and to their fellow journalists,” he says.

Asma Jehangir says democracy also has a role in this.

“Even a rag-tag democracy creates its own atmosphere; people find more space to speak up when unified controls break down, and this is what is happening now,” she says.

The question that looms in most minds, though, is, will the power-savvy military establishment take this lying down?