Defending the indefensible

Journalists from all over Pakistan staged a dharna (sit-in) at the call of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) outside the National Assembly on Wednesday to protest against the murder of Syed Saleem Shahzad. The unprecedented solidarity by the media community might have forced the government to finally form a five-member commission to probe the gruesome murder of a journalist but in reality this so-called commission was announced in order to sabotage the dharna. In the wee hours of the morning, Information Minister Dr Firdous Ashiq Awan announced that Justice Mian Saqib Nisar, a judge of the Supreme Court, would head an independent judicial commission to investigate Mr Shahzad’s murder. What Ms Awan forgot to mention was that neither Justice Nisar nor Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry were consulted in this regard. As happened with the Abbottabad Commission, Justice Nisar refused to lead the commission because of these reasons. It is unbelievable that the government chose to repeat the same mistake knowing full well its consequences. This is clearly a case of ill-intent on the part of the government, which might be trying to ‘save’ our premier intelligence agency, the ISI, alleged to have been behind Mr Shahzad’s murder.

The Supreme Court (SC) has issued notices to the federal secretaries of the ministries of information, interior and law on PFUJ’s petition for a probe into Mr Shahzad’s murder. The Attorney General, Advocate General Punjab and chief of the Islamabad police have also been summoned. A three-member bench, headed by CJ Iftikhar Chaudhry, heard the case on Friday. Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) President Asma Jahangir and senior lawyer Munir A Malik appeared on behalf of the PFUJ. Ms Jahangir said that the investigation had reached a dead end because Mr Shahzad’s recent cell phone records had been erased. She said that these records could not have been wiped out without some powerful agency’s orders. While the government is trying its best to protect the ISI, or so it would appear, the ISPR issued a press release stating that the Pakistan Army “strongly supported formation of a commission to investigate the murder of journalist Saleem Shahzad. The case must be investigated thoroughly and facts made known to the people.” The army’s ‘support’ was not without a hint of irritation. “A spokesperson of ISPR voiced concern on unfounded and baseless insinuations being voiced in a section of print and electronic media against ISI in regard to murder of journalist Saleem Shahzad,” stated the press release. The military’s recent statements all sound the same as they are full of strong denials.

The media here is relatively free but even this freedom has come with a price. Journalists in Pakistan work in a difficult environment. It is not without reason that Pakistan is one of the most dangerous places for journalists. And it does not help when a democratically elected government tries to put hurdles in the way of independent investigations of slain journalists. This is not to say that the government is doing this deliberately; most likely the security establishment is pulling its strings in this case as well like it does in other matters. But both the military and the government should realise that in this age of the media revolution, truth cannot remain hidden for long. One way or the other, it will come out. If the army really wants the facts of Mr Shahzad’s murder investigation to be unearthed, it should stop giving veiled threats in its press statements. The government, too, should fully cooperate with the journalist community and also ensure the safety of all media persons.

(my editorial in Daily Times)


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