Lesson from ISI’s killing of a Journalist in Pakistan

It seems the conscience of humanity doesn’t stir until someone pays the price for resisting oppression and our right to know and tell the truth. On June 16, 2006, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) silenced another journalist, Hayatullah Khan, forever. He was handcuffed and shot from behind after experiencing unknown torment at the hands of his abductors for six months. That is why you are reading this column, which I am writing with utter shame for not having said a word in Mr. Khan’s favor when he was alive. The question, however, is: What type of words would have saved his life? Appeals, protests, or exposing the real faces of his persecutors?

This column will not do any favors to the deceased journalist or his young daughters and sons–”Naila Hayat (8), Farishta Hayat (6); Kamran Hayat (5); and Faisal Hayat (3). Nevertheless, it could serve as a crucial lesson to other journalists that the initiative and courage displayed by Mr. Khan should always be their responsibility, too. Mr. Khan died because he contradicted the Pakistan military’s version of events in the U.S. war on terrorism. If everyone, or at least, most journalists were not relying on government press releases; if they were doing honest reporting after fieldwork, a few of them would not have been singled out like this.

The military dictatorship and its repressive arm, the ISI, did not turn against Mr. Khan overnight. The government authorities harassed him and his family for over four years before the ISI finally abducted him in December 2005 and killed him in June 2006.

The harassment of Hayatullah Khan started on August 5, 2001. On that day, reporter Sans Frontiers wrote that Mr. Khan had received new threats and was obliged to stay in hiding. Local authorities had been harassing the journalist since June. Threatened with arrest, Khan left Mir Ali. He had to flee the town of Bannu to find refuge in Peshawar.[1]

Hayatullah Khan told Sans Frontiers: "I have been so harassed and intimidated that I have left my native town and am taking shelter in one place or another to escape the administration’s strong-arm tactics." Local authorities ransacked the journalist’s house several times, and arrested one of his relatives to force Khan to surrender. It was the responsibility of other journalists to follow Mr. Khan’s leads, and verify the authenticity of his reports. When a journalist is left alone like this, there is no doubt that not only his victimization will continue but that the government authorities will remain engaged in dirty tricks it does not want to see exposed.

Military officials in the tribal area of North Waziristan continued harassing Hayatullah Khan. His persecution intensified in April 2004, when Mr. Khan reported the “misuse” of military vehicles in the area. His brothers and daughter were expelled from an army-administered school. The press reported the incident, but it was soon forgotten.[2] Again, not one journalist followed the lead, which would have reduced, if not eliminated, the authorities’ persecution of Mr. Khan altogether.

Finally, on December 5, 2005, five armed men abducted Khan. His abduction came days after he contradicted Pakistani Army claims that Hamza Rabia, a leading Arab militant in al-Qaeda, and four others, died on December 1 as a result of an accidental munitions explosion. On the basis of photographs he took at the scene, Khan said a US missile killed Rabia. Villagers said a missile fired from a plane or a drone caused the explosion.

Right from the beginning, the ISI was considered responsible for Mr. Khan’s kidnapping. The Daily Times reported that his eldest daughter, Naila, was not optimistic that her father would come home safely. She told a Daily Times reporter: “Personally, I do not hope my father will come back safe and sound.” When asked why she thought so, she replied: “He [Hayatullah Khan] was taken away by the ISI (Inter-Service Intelligence).”[3]

Since the line between local and U.S. agencies acting against the truth-tellers in Pakistan is too thin when it comes to the so-called “war on terrorism,” people started accusing U.S. agencies of keeping Mr. Khan after his abduction in 2005. In response, the U.S. Consul in Peshawar, Mike Spangler, said on May 10, 2006 that the United States had "read the reports on the disappearance of Hayatullah Khan (…), but is not in possession of any information about him."[4] This left no one else but the ISI suspect.

It is out of the question that the Taliban or “Islamic extremists” abducted Khan because the government authorities had accused him “of writing articles about the weakness of the North Waziristan administration and the growing influence of the Taliban.”[5] On March 28, 2006 The Guardian reported that a local journalist mysteriously disappeared “in a case that highlights the murky underbelly of the US ‘war on terror’.” This shows who Mr. Khan’s killers are.

Khan was found dead on Friday, June 16, 2006, three kilometers south of Mir Ali near the Afghan border. He had been handcuffed and appeared to have been shot from behind while trying to escape, his brother, Ehsanullah, told the BBC. Reporters Without Borders have reported that he had been shot several times in the head. During his abduction, Mr. Khan had lost a lot of weight and had grown a long beard. His brother told the BBC the handcuffs were of a type usually used by the security forces. Khan’s brothers said in a joint statement that he was kidnapped and killed by official security apparatus – meaning the ISI.[6] Mr. Khan’s journalist colleagues had been blaming the ISI for his abduction for a long time.[7]

The ISI will never learn a lesson. It has to serve military and civilian governments alike. However, the lesson other journalists must learn following the death of their Pakistani colleague by torture, starvation, and, finally, murder by the ISI, is very clear: Protests, appeals and campaigns with the help of local and international organizations for the protection of journalists are futile. If journalists really want to protect fellow journalists and look after their own future, they must never allow any of their peers to seek out the truth in isolation. They must commit themselves, in the interests of their honor and their craft, to join the search for truth and, in the process, leave no stone unturned.

Pakistani journalists, in particular, have to unlearn the old lesson of journalism. The lesson is: Don’t make an enemy of your kids – follow what the rest are doing. This is exactly the same message the ISI directly gives to the journalists it targets.[8] If all journalists and columnists start worrying about their own kids, we may never save the nation. The very few who do dare to tell it as it is, will either have to face certain torture and death, like Hayatullah Khan, or will have no option but to leave their ailing parents, unmarried sisters, and their roots behind to seek protection in other lands, where they live like unwelcome visitors from the grave.


[1]. Reporters Sans Frontiers, Pakistan annual report 2002, released April 24, 2002. See URL: http://www.rsf.org/print.php3?id_article=1447

[2] Waqar Gillani, “Pakistan –” a vibrant press under constraint since 2003: Three journalists and an author killed, says SAFMA’s ‘Media Monitor2003’ report,” Daily Times, May 10, 2005. URL: http://www.dailytimes.com.pk/default.asp?page=story_10-5-2004_pg7_24

[3]. “Small ages, big challenges: In search of kidnapped father,” Daily Times, December 21, 2005. URL: http://www.dailytimes.com.pk/default.asp?page=2005%5C12%5C21%5Cstory_21-12-2005_pg7_40

[4]. Reporters Sans Frontiers, “Hayatullah Khan found dead six months after he went missing,” June 16, 2006. URL: http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=18050

[5]. Reporters Sans Frontiers, Pakistan annual report 2002, released April 24, 2002. See URL: http://www.rsf.org/print.php3?id_article=1447

[6]. BBC Report, “Pakistani journalist found killed,” June 16, 2006, 15:41 GMT URL: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/5088052.stm

[7]. Guardian report, “Smoke and mirrors,” March 28, 2006. URL: http://www.guardian.co.uk/elsewhere/journalist/story/0,,1741551,00.html

[8]. See a 2003 article: “Unlearn old lessons of journalism,” by the author, March 5, 2003. URL: http://www.pakistan-facts.com/article.php?story=2003031019583051 ; http://www.zmag.org/interactive/content/display_item.cfm?itemID=4562 and http://icssa.org/Unlearn_old_lessons.htm – Also see:
Journalism in Pakistan: http://www.icssa.org/Journalism%20in%20Pakistan.htm
Unlearn old lessons of journalism: http://www.icssa.org/unlearn_old_lessons.htm