Pakistani authorities should immediately investigate the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the military’s premier spy agency, over its alleged involvement in journalist attacks, said Amnesty International on the third anniversary of the abduction and killing of journalist Saleem Shahzad.
“Failure to investigate such incidents thoroughly, impartially and transparently and to hold perpetrators accountable fosters a culture of impunity for attacks against independent media in Pakistan,” said David Griffiths, Asia-Pacific Deputy Director at Amnesty International.
In an open letter, Amnesty International and nine other human rights organizations called on the Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to fulfil his promise to end the impunity enjoyed by individuals and groups who attack journalists.
“Saleem Shahzad’s killing was one of the worst manifestations of the threats journalists face across Pakistan every day. The authorities’ inability to investigate officers of the ISI properly and bring to justice those responsible for Shahzad’s death is unacceptable – he was abducted in broad daylight in the heart of Islamabad, the national capital,” said David Griffiths.
“Pakistan must immediately restart the criminal investigation into Shahzad’s death, as has been promised by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on multiple occasions. Events of the past few weeks have again highlighted how precarious the situation for Pakistani media is. Continued impunity will only fuel the violence.”
Last month the journalist Hamid Mir narrowly escaped an assassination attempt in Karachi. He has accused the ISI of being responsible for the attack.
“According to Amnesty International’s research, the ISI is the state organ most regularly accused by journalists of carrying out harassment, intimidation or abuse against them or their colleagues. This does not necessarily mean that the ISI is always to blame. But if ISI officials are innocent of the accusations they have nothing to fear from thorough investigations and due process,” said David Griffiths.
“We cannot determine who exactly is responsible for these high-profile attacks against journalists until there is proper investigation. All suspects must be presumed innocent until proven guilty and afforded a fair trial in line with international standards.”
To demonstrate their expressed commitment to the rule of law and respect for human rights, Amnesty International calls on the ISI and all other state institutions to cooperate fully with the criminal investigations into the Shahzad, Mir and other attacks.
Saleem Shahzad, an Asia Times Online correspondent, was abducted on 29 May 2011 in Islamabad, and his body was found dumped two days later bearing marks of torture. Shahzad had written articles on a range of sensitive national security issues, including alleged al-Qa’ida infiltration of the Pakistani military and the state’s relationship with the Taleban.
Less than a year before his death, Shahzad had told colleagues of an alleged death threat from the ISI. The Pakistani government in 2011 set up a high-level investigation into his death but key evidence mysteriously disappeared and no one has yet been brought to justice.
At least 34 journalists have been killed in relation to their work in Pakistan since the restoration of democracy in 2008, but in only one case during this period have the perpetrators been brought to justice.
In a report released last month, Amnesty International documented how media workers in Pakistan live under the constant threat of harassment, violence and killings from a range of state and non-state actors.
Since the release of the report, a standoff between the country’s largest private broadcaster Geo TV (part of the Jang Media Group) and the authorities has intensified after the network accused the ISI of being behind the assassination attempt on journalist Hamid Mir.
Several Jang Media Group journalists have told Amnesty International that they have received daily threats and harassment by unknown individuals by phone and in person. Many dare not enter their offices or identify themselves as belonging to Geo TV or other Jang Media Group outlets for fear of being attacked.
“There is absolutely no justification for the vicious, organized campaign of harassment against Jang Media Group staff across Pakistan,” said David Griffiths.
“It is particularly disappointing that rival media channels and some political parties have joined the chorus to attack Jang Media Group, rather than demand a full and impartial investigation of the circumstances surrounding the attack on Hamid Mir.”
Some government officials have also tried to pull Geo TV off the air over allegedly “anti-state” and “blasphemous” content, and up to 80 per cent of Jang Media Group’s distribution in print and on the airwaves has been disrupted by media industry bodies, apparently under the orders of the Pakistani military.
“Attempts to take Geo TV off the air are clearly politically motivated, and constitute a serious attack on freedom of expression in Pakistan,” said David Griffiths.
“The last thing Pakistan needs now is a mudslinging campaign against Geo TV, the ISI or anyone else. Pakistan’s long-suffering journalists deserve protection from attacks and justice when they fall victim to abuse. It is the responsibility of Prime Minister Sharif’s government to deliver both. They should start by immediately resuming the investigation into Shahzad’s death.”