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Pakistan journalists walk razor's edge

Reporters often put themselves in harm's way as they try to dig up the truth about Islamic militant groups, shadowy intelligence agencies and the possible links between the two. One reporter recently ended up dead; another has a harrowing tale.

June 06, 2011|By Alex Rodriguez, Los Angeles Times
  • Mourners comfort the son of Pakistani journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad during his funeral in Karachi this month. Shahzad had said he was being threatened by the country's intelligence services before he was tortured to death.
Mourners comfort the son of Pakistani journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad during… (Rizwan Tabassum, AFP/Getty…)

Reporting from Islamabad, Pakistan — The men in police commando uniforms sat silent, recalled investigative journalist Umar Cheema, as he nervously repeated that he was a reporter and he wanted to see their supervisor.

Blindfolded after being kidnapped last fall and thrown into a Toyota Land Cruiser, Cheema said, he was taken to a safe house outside Islamabad, stripped naked, forced to lie facedown on the floor, and beaten on his shoulders and hips, first with a leather strap, then with a long wooden rod. At one point, they threatened to sodomize him. "They said, 'When you cannot avoid rape, just enjoy it,'" Cheema recalled.

Cheema's captors didn't carry out the threat. Instead, the men, who Cheema and his colleagues believe belonged to the country's intelligence community, threw him back into the vehicle and dumped him on a deserted stretch of road 75 miles from the capital.

Later, Pakistani leaders vowed to hunt down those responsible for Cheema's abduction and torture. They never did. Cheema thinks the government's fervent promises to determine who kidnapped, tortured and killed journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad last week will prove just as hollow.

"If history is any guide, nothing will occur," Cheema said. "Today, we are mourning Shahzad. Maybe tomorrow we will mourn someone else."

In a world where journalists often face peril, Pakistan is one of the most dangerous beats. Terrorism courses through many stories here, which means Pakistani journalists often must walk a razor's edge as they report on the country's cauldron of Islamic militant groups, its shadowy government intelligence agencies and, at times, the link between the two.

Shahzad had written about Al Qaeda's infiltration of the Pakistani navy, asserting that the 17-hour siege carried out by militants on a naval base in Karachi last month was a retaliatory strike for the military's reluctance to release a group of naval officers suspected of having ties to the terrorist network.

The story, published on the Asia Times Online website, came out at a time when Pakistan's military and its intelligence agencies were under intense criticism over security after a U.S. commando team was able to reach the military city of Abbottabad undetected to kill Osama bin Laden. The attack on the naval base, in which 10 Pakistani security personnel were killed, only deepened the military's humiliation.

Shahzad was kidnapped while on his way to a television talk show appearance in Islamabad on May 29. His battered body was found two days later in a canal outside Islamabad. Pakistani media reported that he had several broken ribs and severe injuries to his lungs and liver. His colleagues have accused Pakistan's premier intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, of being behind the 40-year-old journalist's abduction and slaying, a charge that the agency has called "baseless."

Pakistani leaders and the ISI have promised a thorough investigation into Shahzad's death. Leading journalists, however, say they're deeply skeptical of those pledges, particularly because previous abductions and slayings of reporters have not resulted in prosecutions.

"We don't have any hope that we'll find out who killed Shahzad," said Amin Yousuf, secretary-general of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists. "But we will do what we can to get at the truth."

Pakistani journalism has evolved into an aggressive, free-wheeling business in which more than 100 television channels and a host of newspapers compete for ratings and readers. At times it can be reckless and agenda-driven; members of the media acknowledge that some journalists and outlets have in effect become mouthpieces for the security establishment, and some are even on the payroll of intelligence agencies.

Journalists like Cheema and Shahzad, however, developed reputations as hard-nosed diggers undeterred by threats.

In some cases, the kinds of intimidation that reporters face are a function of geography.

In Karachi, deadly turf battles between the city's ruling Urdu-speaking Muttahida Qaumi Movement and its Pashtun rival, the Awami National Party, have put Pashtun journalists at risk. In January, Pashtun television reporter Wali Khan Babar was gunned down in Karachi. Local authorities later arrested five men who they said were linked to MQM. In the volatile tribal areas along the Afghan border, journalists must cover militant groups that routinely carry out public executions of anyone they regard as spies for either the Pakistani government or the West.

Cheema believes several stories he had written last summer about the country's intelligence agencies probably led to his abduction. One story raised questions about whether the agencies' lack of cooperation with law enforcement authorities helped lead to the acquittal of militants accused in a suicide bomb attack that killed a lieutenant general.

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