On a warm Sunday evening in May, Saleem Shahzad, a Pakistani investigative journalist for Asia Times online, set off to Islamabad to be interviewed about his latest investigative piece. Although the show aired on schedule at 6pm, Shahzad’s seat remained empty.
Very few Pakistani reporters have access to the sorts of people Shahzad was able to interview – men such as Sirajuddin Haqqani, a military leader of the pro-Taliban forces in Afghanistan, and Ilyas Kashmiri, a Pakistani al-Qaeda fighter.
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But it was this access, it seems, that cost him his life.
“I’ve never seen him upset at home. In fact, I didn’t even know he was receiving threats,” says his wife, Anita Saleem.
“We did not know he was going to lose his life for doing his job, [for] basically reporting the truth.”
Calm and loving at home, Shahzad was fighting a battle in his professional life that few knew about.
“I remember I used to get a little worried about the kind of reports he would publish and the places he would travel to, like Afghanistan,” Saleem recalls. “But whenever I would raise my concerns, he would ask me to not worry.
“He would always tell me ‘I know how to do my work, I know what I’m doing.’
“He was never afraid to get out of his comfort zone and report the truth,” reflects Hamza Ameer, Shahzad’s brother-in-law and a Pakistan-based foreign correspondent for Iran’s Press TV network.
“He made sure to protect his sources at all times,” he continues. “This is how he was very committed to his profession.”
But the threats began to arrive when he published a report in Asia Times online about the 17-hour siege by fighters who attacked a naval airbase in Karachi in 2011.
In the article, he wrote about how the attack came after security officials had refused to release a group of naval officials suspected of being linked to armed groups and soon after the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.
“Shahzad received several threats for his articles and he knew that his life was in danger,” says Ameer, who recalls a telephone conversation he overheard his brother-in-law having.
“I remember him saying, ‘I am not your servant and I don’t work for you, I will never reveal my sources’ to someone over the phone. It was clearly one of those calls threatening him to stop doing his job as a journalist.”
Such harassment isn’t uncommon for journalists in Pakistan. Those who pursue stories about armed groups, government officials, politicians or drug dealers can expect a backlash.
“Shahzad knew what his reporting would lead to, but he still continued to work with fairness and objectivity,” says Ameer.
A day after that TV show aired, Shahzad’s body was found in the Upper Jhelum Canal, in the north of Punjab province. His face and neck showed signs of torture. The post-mortem revealed that his death had been caused by “liver failure, ruptured lungs and broken ribs”.
“We went through hell after his death,” says Saleem, fighting back the tears. “I still cannot believe he was killed this way, without any mercy.”
Ameer recalls how Shahzad had warned him of the dangers of reporting in Pakistan, a country that, in 2014, was one of the 20 most dangerous for journalists – where, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), 75 journalists and six media workers were killed in 2014 alone.
“I received threats in the past over the phone a couple of times, which I ignored,” he says. “However, when I witnessed the death of my brother-in-law I came to the conclusion that I am not safe either.
“Pakistan is the worst place to be for journalists. We are not protected.”
The experiences of other Pakistani journalists seem to support his claim.
Early this year, Rasool Dawar, a senior correspondent for Pakistani news channel Geo News, reported that he had been kidnapped in the city of Peshawar by security forces on two separate occasions and tortured.
“I was on my way to my office in Hayatabad, Peshawar, when I was picked up by security forces. I was blindfolded, physically harassed and questioned for several hours about my work in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa region of Pakistan,” says the correspondent.
“My life is still in danger, which is why I am not comfortable at all to continue my profession. I try to keep off sensitive topics that involve the army, militants and government officials,” he explains.
“I have always been very passionate to report the truth and expose the wrongdoers, but here in Pakistan, if you do that, you will be killed.”
And the noose may be tightening further on the profession.
In August 2015, Pakistan’s Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) made its Electronic Media Code of Conduct public. It sets strict limitations on the live coverage of security operations, mandating that live coverage “shall air only such information as may be warranted by the security agency in charge of the operation”.
It also restricts broadcasters from airing political talk shows that denounce religious beliefs and engage in “hate speech”.
The CPJ has expressed concern about “the sweeping nature of guidelines from PEMRA for on-air news coverage and commentary on [the] nation’s television and radio channels”, and members of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) were reportedly not involved in drawing up the guidelines.
Hamza Ameer is not optimistic about the future of his profession in Pakistan. Asking for safety and security from the authorities should be a fundamental right of all journalists around the world, he says.
Then he adds: “[Shahzad] did not deserve to die this way. We went through a lot ever since.”
The whole family now fears the profession Shahzad loved.
Saleem refuses to allow her daughter, who is a keen writer, to pursue journalism.
“I would ask everyone to choose another profession in Pakistan,” she says. “Go for anything but journalism, because here if you muster up the nerve to expose the truth, you will be killed.”