CPJ appeals to Pakistan for return of abducted journalist

New York, January 23, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists appealed today to Pakistani authorities to answer inquiries about the fate of abducted reporter Hayatullah Khan and to stop harassing journalists in the tribal areas.

On the eve of a White House meeting between Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz and U.S. President George W. Bush, CPJ called on the Islamabad government to ensure the safe release of Khan who was seized by unidentified gunmen in North Waziristan tribal area bordering Afghanistan on December 5, 2005.

Some of Khan’s colleagues believe he was abducted by authorities after contradicting official accounts of an explosion in the town of Haisori in North Waziristan on December 1. Authorities said that senior al-Qaeda commander Abu Hamza Rabia died after munitions exploded inside a house. Khan, who worked for the Urdu-language daily Ausaf, quoted local tribesmen who said the house was hit by an air-launched missile. He photographed fragments of the missile for the European Pressphoto Agency. International media identified it as a Hellfire missile fired from a U.S. drone.

Inquiries from relatives, local journalist associations, CPJ, and other international groups—all seeking information about Khan’s whereabouts—have yielded nothing. In recent years, Khan received numerous threats from security forces, alleged Taliban members, and local tribesmen because of his reporting.

Security conditions for journalists working in Pakistan’s tribal regions have deteriorated since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 ousted the Taliban government and forced its supporters across the border. Few journalists remain in South Waziristan after attacks and threats from security forces and militants forced many to flee, local journalists told CPJ.

“Instead of restricting journalists’ access to tribal regions, authorities should be acting to safeguard the ability of the media to report in these troubled areas,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. “This begins by ensuring the safe return home of our colleague Hayatullah Khan.”

Recently, authorities have restricted journalists from entering Bajaur Agency after a January 13 U.S. missile strike targeting suspected al-Qaeda militants in Damadola village killed civilians. That attack sparked protests from tribal residents and the government in Islamabad, which complained that the United States had not notified it in advance.

On January 14, authorities in Bajaur briefly detained two journalists who were reporting on the incident. Daily Times Peshawar bureau chief Iqbal Khattak and BBC World Service correspondent Haroon Rashid were warned against reporting in the area and released after two hours, Khattak told CPJ.