The Siege of Pakistani Journalists: Where is Zeenat Shahzadi?

Pakistan has been ranked as one the most dangerous countries for journalists. Shahzadi is one among several thousand ‘enforced disappearances’ in the country.

Zeenat Shahzadi. Credit: DW/Twitter

Zeenat Shahzadi. Credit: DW/Twitter

Zeenat Shahzadi, a Pakistani journalist for Daily Nai Khaber and TV channel Metro News, was kidnapped on August 19, 2015 by a group of armed gunmen who snatched her from a rickshaw while she was on her way to work. She is believed to be the first female journalist who has ‘forcibly disappeared’ in Pakistan. Shahzadi’s disappearance underlines the danger faced by journalists who challenge the actions of Pakistan’s security and intelligence agencies, who have been accused of illegally detaining thousands of individuals under the pretense of anti-terrorism operations.

An investigation by Saba Eitizaz for the BBC found that Shahzadi’s family and various human rights organisations believed that such security agencies were responsible for her disappearance. At the time of her disappearance, Shahzadi had been working on the case of Hamid Ansari, an Indian citizen who had illegally entered Pakistan in November 2012 and went missing soon after. Through social media, Shahzadi contacted Ansari’s mother in Mumbai and on her behalf had approached the Supreme Court of Pakistan, the Peshawar high court and the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances (which had ordered the registration of an FIR on Ansari’s disappearance in 2014) to look into his disappearance.

Shahzadi was due to appear before the commission on August 24, 2015 – only six days after the day she disappeared – to give testimony on Ansari’s case.

Human rights lawyer Hina Jillani stated that Shahzadi’s disappearance did not come out of nowhere. “Zeenat’s family told us that Zeenat was forcefully picked up by security officials before her disappearance and detained for four hours,” she said.

In January 2016, a few months after Shahzadi’s disappearance – ostensibly in retaliation for forcing the hand of the Pakistani government – the deputy attorney general of Pakistan admitted that the defence ministry had detained Ansari, pending his trial for espionage in a military court. The court later sentenced him to three years in prison on charges of espionage and illegally entering Pakistan.

Earlier this year, Pakistan’s human rights commission sought a probe into Shahzadi’s disappearance. It has been reported that in March alone, 86 cases of missing people were registered with the commission. Jillani stated: “Disappearance of Shahzadi is shamelessness. Now a 24-year-old woman has been picked up without a warrant. Is this the new trend to pick up young women? We want to know what her crime was and why she is missing without a warrant?”

Since she went missing, Shahzadi’s family has faced an insurmountable amount of grief – her 17-year-old brother, Saddam Hussain, killed himself in March.

Protest against the 'forced disappearances' after Shahzadi went missing. Credit: Amnesty Action/Twitter

Protest against the ‘forced disappearances’ after Shahzadi went missing. Credit: Amnesty Action/Twitter

Unobstructed powers

Shahzadi’s disappearance has not received the attention afforded to higher profile incidents involving journalists and activists in Pakistan. While that may be ascribed to her lack of fame, the first ‘disappearance’ of a female journalist in Pakistan warrants international attention. Jillani has noted that the circumstances of Shahzadi’s disappearance – which took place in broad daylight in the popular city of Lahore – points to the involvement of Pakistani intelligence. “We are convinced that this is the work of the secret government agencies, because when someone is detained by them, the police can be quite helpless, and we have seen that in this case,” she said. “When you are making new laws that run parallel to the existing legal system, then you are allowing certain individuals and institutions to operate without accountability and with impunity.”

Pakistan’s military operated intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), has regularly been accused of targeting journalists. Dozens of journalists have reported instances of harassment, intimidation or attacks that they claimed they had experienced at the hands of the ISI to Amnesty International. However, many security and intelligence groups in Pakistan have committed such acts with impunity. The Pakistan Protection Act, 2014 extends unobstructed powers to law enforcement agencies in Pakistan. The Pakistan Protection Ordinance (PPO) offered greater power to these agencies, as well as impunity and judicial oversight to the police, intelligence, law enforcement authorities and military for acts such as forced kidnapping, torture and extrajudicial killings in certain circumstances.

The International Commission of Jurists, which in its report recommended that the senate of Pakistan reject the PPO, declared it to be “the most draconian anti-terrorism law”. Pursuant to the provisions of the PPO, the government can to withhold information on the location of detainees, as well as where and why they were detained, for any “reasonable cause”. New counter-terrorism legislation, allegedly enacted to deal with Pakistan’s volatile security situation, also gives security and intelligence agencies flexibility to arrest individuals without a warrant or explanation, which often leads to serious human rights violations.

Human rights organisations expressing concern about Shahzadi’s disappearance claim that it represents a dangerous trend. Governments across the world are constantly using enforced disappearances as a means to secure their own power and silence opposition, said Amnesty International, ahead of this year’s International Day of the Disappeared on August 30. The ISI has been suspected of targeting journalists and activists in the past. In 2014, Amnesty International reported that 34 journalists had been killed in Pakistan for their work since 2008. Journalists and activists who have reported significantly on the actions of Pakistani security and intelligence agencies or approached public figures for their opinions have been systematically targeted.

Hamid Mir, for instance, was shot six times in an assassination attempt in 2014 while reporting for for Geo TV, Pakistan’s largest news channel. A week after Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif expressed his desire to make Pakistan a more journalist-friendly country, there was an attack on journalist and anchorperson Raza Rumi, in which his driver died. Earlier that month, Mansehra based photographer and writer Abrar Tanoli was shot and later died in a hospital in Abbottabad. Killing journalists was never so widespread in Pakistan. Journalists and activists in fringe areas and conflict zones have been routinely eliminated in the past few years. With the disappearance of Shahzadi, this activity has extended to the metropolises this year.

For years, Pakistan has been one of the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists. TV stations are bombed, film crews are regularly targeted and a significant number of news establishments operate from behind concrete bunkers. Reporters Sans Frontières (Reporters Without Borders) ranks Pakistan 147 out of 180 in its Press Freedom Index, and according to the Human Rights Watch, between 2009 and 2015 authorities recovered the bodies of 4557 suspected victims of enforced disappearances.

Given the reach of Pakistani security and intelligence agencies and their complete circumvention of accountability, probing into Pakistan’s internal affairs without paying the ultimate price seems nigh impossible. This risk is amplified for those working as freelancers, without the support of a prominent agency. Given the present climate of suppression of free speech, is unlikely that Zeenat Shahzadi’s story will be the last of its kind in Pakistan.