Standing up for Hayatullah Khan

Guarantees of press freedom and freedom of expression are enshrined in the Constitution of Pakistan, but they are more ‘entombed’ than being practiced. Time and again it has been seen that the bold voices in Pakistan have been muted by sudden ‘disappearing’ acts or been laid to rest completely.

On December 5, 2005, unidentified gunmen kidnapped local journalist Hayatullah Khan in Mir Ali town in the lawless North Waziristan district near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Hayatullah was covering the politics of the troubled mountainous region for an Urdu-language daily Ausaf, English-language daily The Nation and was also working as a photographer for the European Press Photo Agency (EPA). He reported allegations that a suspected al Qaeda operative, Abu Hamza Rabia and four other people in the town of Asoray, including a seven-year-old boy, had been killed by a US missile attack, not an accidental explosion while making a bomb, as Pakistani officials had asserted.

Previously in his career, Hayatullah had reported for several years on the conduct of the “War on Terror” in the tribal areas of Pakistan. On July 3, 2002, he was arbitrarily arrested by US personnel after trying to interview guards at a US camp in Afghanistan. When he showed his ID and press card, he and his two guides and a driver were detained and accused of being informants for terrorist organisations. They were interrogated by US and UK personnel, and Hayatullah Khan’s address book containing telephone numbers of Afghan and Pakistani religious leaders – whom he had interviewed in the course of his journalistic work – was taken as evidence of his terrorist activities. During the interrogation, Hayatullah was repeatedly told by US soldiers to “prepare to die”. International organisations and Pakistani journalists lobbied against his arbitrary detention. On July 7, the detainees were released, but on his return to Pakistan, Hayatullah was detained for several hours by Pakistani paramilitary forces and accused of providing US troops with information on the movement of the Pakistani army. Undaunted by these incidents, Hayatullah persisted in doing his job and continued reporting from the tribal areas.

The suspects for his 2005 abduction were either the militants, the local security agencies or even the US. His brother Ihsanullah Khan said that the family did not believe the Taliban were holding Hayatullah, “Our family received a letter from the Taliban saying they have no enmity with our family and that they do not have Hayatullah. They said they did not kidnap him and I believe them.” On May 10, US Consul in Peshawar Mike Spangler denied any involvement of his country in the disappearance. The Pakistani government also claimed innocence. But in the cast of usual suspects, one always has to look at who benefits the most from the crime. A wide section of the press and many others believed that security personnel, to prevent anyone seeing evidence of US military involvement in the region, abducted Hayatullah. After constant pressure from local and international media, human rights organisations and other quarters to find out his whereabouts and produce him, he was finally found, albeit dead. His handcuffed body was discovered on June 16 outside the town of Mir Ali. He had been shot in the back of the head. Hayatullah is the fourth journalist to be killed in the tribal region in less than two years. Ihsanullah believes that an intelligence agency was involved in his murder and vowed to “avenge” his killing. He said that North Waziristan chief administrator Zaheerul Islam told him a week ago that Hayatullah’s family would get “good news” about him by June 20. “The chief administrator honoured his words by handing Hayatullah over to us, although dead,” he said.

There can be a semblance of truth to the agencies being involved in his death. The political wing of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) was set up during Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s time. It was allegedly involved in the killing of Asad Mengal (son of Ataullah Mengal) in broad daylight in the Mohammad Ali Society, Karachi in 1975. Since then it has evolved and is now fearless. If this trend continues, this Frankenstein’s monster would lead to more brutal murders.

The shock and outrage at Hayatullah’s cold-blooded murder cannot be expressed in mere words. The incident of this murder leads one to believe that he was abducted and killed by the local security agencies, most probably with the stamp of approval of the US. It is a glaring instance of how the powers that be want to silence the voice of bold journalists. Hayatullah did not compromise on his principles and sacrificed his life while performing his journalistic responsibilities. His brutal murder cannot be condemned enough. It has set a precedent that if a journalist files a report that contradicts the official version in any part of the country, he/she would be ‘dealt with’ accordingly. When such a risk is staring you right in the face, there is a definite dampening effect on journalists’ spirit – and that is what the enemies of press freedom want to achieve.

After much protestation and boycott of Assembly proceedings by the journalists, the Prime Minister announced that a judicial investigation headed by a high court judge had already been opened and the government would award financial compensation to Khan's family. The commission will consist of Justice Muhammad Raza Khan of the Peshawar High Court to ascertain the causes of murder of Hayatullah Khan and correctness of allegations regarding the aforesaid murder and to identify the person or persons responsible for the mischief. The question arises, does the Peshawar High Court have jurisdiction over FATA? Why was the case not forwarded to the Supreme Court? [Is it because the SC being the apex court would be able to summon the ISI officials in order to investigate the case and if they fail to appear in front of the SC, it would be one of the worst instances of the Constitution’s violations? ]Fortunately, the SC on Wednesday took suo motu notice of his killing. Chief Justice of Pakistan Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry has called for comments from NWFP chief secretary on this count at the earliest possible, but no later than June 30. It remains to be seen what comes of this. Hopefully, justice will be served.

Over the years, many journalists have been arbitrarily detained, harassed and threatened by intelligence agencies if they continued to investigate incidents in Balochistan or the tribal areas. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) report released in late January 2006 found scores of cases of arbitrary arrests and detention, torture, extra-judicial executions, “disappearances” and use of excessive force by security and intelligence forces committed since early 2005. It has also been proved time and again that the media in Pakistan is under constant threat. Only last month, MunirAhmed Sangi, a young photographer of local Sindhi-language daily Kawish and cameraman for the Sindhi-language Kawish Television Network (KTN) was shot dead while shooting scenes of a gun-battle between the Unar and Abro tribes in the Simahee Unar village on the outskirts of Larkana city. The alleged involvement of a Sindh Assembly Minister made all the more conspicuous the fact that not much has been done by the authorities to avenge his death.

Killing Hayatullah was a crime, but it is an even bigger crime if the public and the media do not stand up to this. The media is certainly not without power – if it decides to completely withdraw reportage of parliamentary proceedings and stop giving coverage to the government, it would definitely be unacceptable to them. The government would then seriously take notice and in future avoid intimidating the media. What good is the chanting of the “free press” mantra by the government when journalists and human rights defenders cannot pursue their legitimate roles unimpeded and without fear, so that human rights violations can be monitored and brought to public attention? Hayatullah’s death raises many a pertinent question on the issue of freedom, which is our right. But in the real world, no one brings such rights to you on a silver platter – you have to fight for them. Not only the media, but also the general public must fight for Hayatullah, otherwise who knows, anyone might be subjected to the same fate or worse.

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