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So What Do Pakistan's Reporters Think?

Shahzad's burial in Karachi, June 1
Shahzad's burial in Karachi, June 1
2010 was not a good year for journalists in Pakistan. It was rated the deadliest country in the world for journalists by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Eight journalists and one media worker were killed.

2011 is shaping up to be just as bad. Two more journalists have been killed in the six weeks since the murder of Saleem Shahzad, whose body was found on May 30.

Shahzad’s killing has sent a wave of anxiety through the civilian population and the journalist community. On July 4 The New York Times published an article alleging the involvement of Pakistan’s main intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), in the murder. The article cites Obama administration officials who claim to have classified intelligence information proving that the ISI was involved in Shahzad’s murder. More recently, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, asserted that the Pakistani government "sanctioned” the killing of Shahzad. He is the first top U.S. leader to publicly allege a link between the killing of Shahzad and the Pakistani government. “It’s a way to continue to, quite frankly, spiral in the wrong direction,” Mullen said.

The American accusations touched off a heated response from Islamabad. The Pakistani army responded to theTimes article through its chief spokesman, Major General Athar Abbas, who said, “This is a direct attack on our security organization and intelligence agencies.” The Pakistani Information Minister, Firdous Ashiq Awan, took issue with Mullen’s remarks: “The statement by Mike Mullen about Pakistan is extremely irresponsible and unfortunate. This statement will create problems and difficulties for the bilateral relations between Pakistan and America.”

You can be sure that these mutual recriminations came up during ISI chief Lt. Gen. Ahmad Shuja Pasha's visit to Washington this week.

But what do Pakistan’s journalists think?

Time magazine linked the ISI to Shahzad’s disappearance shortly after he went missing – but the case remains a mystery. Mehmal Sarfraz, an editor at Daily Times, said in an email, “Many are asking the US government to make these intelligence reports public so that the evidence can be presented in a court law against the ISI.”

Journalists in Pakistan are skeptical about the evidence and wonder whether this case, like so many others before it, will simply fade away. “We will never know who killed Saleem Shahzad and exactly why they did so,” says reporter Asad Hashim, “and the government doesn’t help its case by engaging in what appears to be only a cursory investigation. There’s a reason Pakistan is ranked 10 on CPJ’s impunity index.”

Some journalists hope this will be a moment of change in the right direction. “The one positive outcome of Saleem Shahzad’s murder is that Pakistani’s are waking up to the ISI’s barbarism. There has been an unprecedented onslaught of criticism by civil society, media, and government officials following the murder and this is the first step to reeling them in and reducing their power,” said Shehrbano Taseer, a journalist for Newsweek Pakistan. It was her father, Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer, who was assassinated by his extremist bodyguard earlier this year.

Journalists in Pakistan are increasingly worried not only for themselves but for their families and livelihood as well. “Local journalists are under severe pressures, pressures [involving] their life security and some pressures of losing jobs,” says Azaz Syed of Dawn News. The fear may even be greater for women. Shumaila Jaffery, a senior correspondent for Dunya TV, says, “Being a female journalist I am even more vulnerable. I don’t want to get threatened by any agency or militant group or anybody. We are scared not only to work on big stories but even to comment on them.”

Pakistan’s media have grown drastically over the past few years but media freedom is limited. Henna Saeed of Dawn News writes in an email, “For me uncovering the hidden truth is my foremost duty. It’s a passion that every journalist should have but in this situation few will dare to uncover the truth that involves the ISI.”

“Freedom in a box, of course, is no freedom at all,” says Hashim.

The killing of Shahzad, and the directness of the Americans’ accusations, have given new force to the fears that have plagued Pakistani journalists for years. “For a long time I have felt and often I have been told that ISI keeps an eye on all journalists,” says Saeed. “Yet this story has really shocked me and made me realize to what extent ISI can go ahead to keep journalists silent.” As for relations between the United States and Pakistan, the U.S. announced an $800 million cut in military aid to Pakistan a few days after the remarks by Admiral Mike Mullen on the death of Saleem Shahzad.

- Aisha Chowdhry