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Top US military official says Pakistani government sanctioned journalist's murder

(IPI/IFEX) - 8 July 2011 - The United States' top military officer on Thursday accused the Pakistan government of "sanctioning" the killing of a journalist who focused on the country's shadowy security services, AP reported on Friday.

The body of Saleem Shahzad was found in late May, bearing signs of torture. Before disappearing, Shahzad told friends that he had been threatened by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency - which has been accused of involvement in attacks on journalists, in a country that according to the Death Watch count of the International Press Institute (IPI) was the most dangerous in the world for journalists in 2010. The ISI has denied involvement in the killing of Shahzad.

U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen said he believed the Pakistani government "sanctioned" the killing, but said he was not in possession of any evidence directly linking the ISI to the crime.

Mullen also addressed the abuse of journalists in Pakistan in general.

"It's a way to continue to, quite frankly, spiral in the wrong direction," said Mullen, according to AP.

Pakistan's state-run news agency subsequently quoted an anonymous government spokesman as saying that the allegation was "extremely irresponsible" and "will not help in investigating the issue".

The unnamed official was further quoted as noting that a commission had been tasked with investigating Shahzad's killing, and urged people with information on the matter, at the "national or international level", to share it with the commission.

The commission was set up after journalists conducted a sit-in in front of Parliament demanding an investigation into the killing of Shahzad.

Shahzad, 40, was a prominent reporter who wrote for the Asia Times Online and the Italian Adn Kronos media outlet. He was known for his expertise on alleged links between Islamic militants and state structures.

IPI Director Alison Bethel McKenzie said: "The Pakistani government has an obligation to address the series of unpunished murders of journalists in recent years. The grave allegations of government involvement in the killing of Shahzad make this all the more imperative. Pakistan has gained notoriety as the world's most dangerous country for journalists, and as a country in which the killers of journalists enjoy virtually-complete impunity. If Pakistan does not make serious efforts to address this issue, its failure to do so will be interpreted as a green light for further killings."

Umar Cheema, special investigative correspondent at News International, and himself a victim of a violent attack, said: "The situation has become worse than before. The media in Pakistan has become more vocal, but also more vulnerable. The rise of conflict and the rise of the media in Pakistan have grown together since 9/11. Pakistan was under military rule in the past. Journalists were flogged, beaten, harassed and sometimes lost their jobs. But there were never threats like they face today. A total of 34 journalists have been killed in Pakistan since 9/11. We never thought we could face a situation like this. It is not a good time to be a journalist in Pakistan."

Cheema, who received the Daniel Pearl Journalism Fellowship in 2008, was himself abducted by unidentified assailants in September 2010. According to the New York Times, Mr. Cheema's car was stopped by men in black commando garb who blindfolded him and drove him out of town, where he was beaten.

"I have suspicions and every journalist has suspicions that all fingers point to the ISI," he told the New York Times after the attack.

In 2010, Pakistan became the deadliest country in the world for journalists, with 16 killed, rising from fourth place in 2009. The slain reporters, editors and cameramen were either deliberately targeted for their reporting or were caught up in the violence that has engulfed parts of the country whilst trying to report for their media outlets.

According to IPI research, 50 journalists have been killed in Pakistan since January 2002 and a total of 57 media workers have been slain there since 1997.

Pakistan has witnessed a steady increase in deadly violence against journalists. Since 2006, it has consistently remained one of the five deadliest countries for journalists.

So far in 2011, four journalists have been killed in the country, according to the IPI Death Watch, ranking the country the fourth most dangerous after Iraq (8), Libya (5) and Mexico (5). In January, Wali Khan Babar was shot dead in a reportedly planned attack by a group of unidentified people. Reporter Asfandyar Abid Naveed and trainee journalist Shafiullah Kahn both died as a result of a series of blasts at a market in Peshawar, the capital of the Khyber Pankhtunkhwa region of Pakistan, in mid-June. And the body of Saleem Shahzad was found floating in a canal 150km from Islamabad on 31 May. He was abducted several days after he had written a two-part article about alleged links between the Pakistani military and Al-Qaeda.

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