Reporters Without Borders is appalled to learn that the body of Syed Saleem Shahzad, an Islamabad-based investigative journalist who had been missing for the past two days, was found today in his abandoned car 100 km north of Islamabad.
The International Federation of Journalists and Reporters Without Borders had just sent a joint letter to President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani calling for immediate action to locate Shahzad, who wrote about Islamic militants and Al-Qaeda for the online newspaper Asia Today.
“We are stunned by this news and we would like to express our full support for his family and colleagues,” Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Jean-François Julliard said. “Shahzad was an experienced journalist who covered very sensitive subjects and it is highly likely that his reporting upset people within the government or armed forces.
“We urge the Pakistani president and prime minister to firmly condemn this murder and to do everything possible to ensure that those responsible are identified and brought to justice without delay.”
Colleagues told Reporters Without Borders that Shahzad was last seen at around 6 p.m. on 29 May when he left his F-8 Sector residence in Islamabad to go the Dunya TV studios for the recording of a current affairs programme. People who tried to call him found that his mobile phone had been switched off. His brother-in-law went to the Markaz district police station to report him missing at 2 a.m. on 30 May.
Police today discovered his car parked next to a canal in Jhelum Sarai Alamgir, more than 100 km north of Islamabad. His body was found inside together his Asia Times press card and the press card of a journalist called Hamza Mudassar Ameer of the Al Quds media centre.
Shahzad’s latest article for Asia Times was about a Taliban-led attack on Mehran naval base in Karachi on 22 May in which 11 soldiers and four attackers were killed. He said in his report that Al-Qaeda had established a “good network” within the Pakistani navy and that “there were negotiations between an Al-Qaeda operative in North Waziristan and naval officers.”
Experienced journalists in Islamabad said they suspected that Shahzad was kidnapped and executed by the military intelligence agency known as the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Human Rights Watch also said it had learned from “credible sources” that Shahzad had been in ISI custody.
Sources close to Shahzad said he had reported getting several warnings from the security agencies in the past in connection with his reporting. This would tend to support the theory that he was kidnapped and killed in connection with his coverage of the attack on the naval base.
Shahzad’s murder brings to 16 the number of journalist killed since the start of 2010 in Pakistan, which is ranked 151st out of 178 countries in the 2010 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.
When Prime Minister Gilani passed through Paris on 5 May, Reporters Without Borders handed him a report on press freedom violations in Pakistan and told him that the safety of journalists should be a priority for his government.
Mr Asif Ali Zardari
Islamic Republic of Pakistan
Mr Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani
Islamic Republic of Pakistan
31 May 2011
Dear Mr President and Mr Prime Minister,
As leading international organisations representing journalists and press freedom defenders from around the world, we are writing to you with utmost urgency to impress upon you our alarm at the possible enforced disappearance of investigative journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad in Islamabad on May 29.
We are extremely worried for the safety of Mr Shahzad. We appeal to you both to exert your authority as President and as Prime Minister to direct Pakistan’s security services and police to conduct an immediate and transparent investigation to ascertain Mr Shahzad’s whereabouts and to bring those responsible for his disappearance to account.
Mr Shahzad is the Pakistan bureau chief for Asia Times Online, and is reported to have disappeared in the early evening of May 29, as he was leaving his F-8 Sector residence to participate in a talk show at Dunya TV.
It is believed that he was abducted by intelligence agents from the F-6/2 area of Islamabad around 5.45 p.m, which is 4km away from his house. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), family members claimed that an unknown person contacted them by phone and said that Mr Shahzad would be released soon.
We have strong reason to suspect that Mr Shahzad may have been arbitrarily arrested and disappeared by state agents in connection to his recent articles on the links between Al-Qaeda and Pakistan Navy officials. Mr Shahzad published the first of a two-part investigative series into alleged links between Al-Qaeda and Pakistani naval officials on Asia Times Online on May 27.
We note that Human Rights Watch (HRW) reports being informed by credible sources that Mr Shahzad is being held by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
Mr Shahzad was reportedly summoned to ISI headquarters on 17 October 2010 to discuss the sources and the content of an article published in Asia Times Online the day before that alleged Pakistan had quietly released Afghan Taliban commander Mullah Baradar, Mullah Omar's deputy, to take part in talks through the Pakistan army.
Mr Shahzad has previously raised concerns in an email to the HRW that he might be disappeared by the ISI.
We urgently call on you to ensure the Government of Pakistan does its utmost to bring an end to a very worrying and critical trend of arbitrary arrests and enforced disappearances that could turn into a broader crisis, especially if ISI is involved.
We therefore urge the Government of Pakistan to deploy all necessary resources to find Mr Shahzad quickly, and to bring promptly to justice all individuals involved in his disappearance. .
By acting quickly and firmly, you have an opportunity now to reverse Pakistan’s appalling track record in investigating abuses against journalists, including murder, abduction and assault. But action must be taken before the trail goes cold.
The investigation should be transparent and the public should be kept informed, including in regard to any link between Mr Shahzad’s disappearance and the content of his May 27 article.
We have seen too many cases in the past several years when action was not taken quickly while evidence remained intact, as in the murder of Musa Khan Kel in Swat in February 2009.
Only with an immediate, transparent and well-resourced investigation into Mr Shahzad’s disappearance can we regard the State of Pakistan as committed to the rule of law and to ending once and for all the culture of impunity that has prevailed for too long when it comes to the use of violence against journalists working in the best interests of Pakistan’s people.
International Federation of Journalists (IFJ)
Reporters Without Borders