Journalist’s murder shatters peace negotiations in Swat

New York, February 18, 2009–The Pakistani government should immediately investigate today’s shooting murder of Geo TV and The News daily correspondent Musa Khankhel in the country’s northwest Swat valley, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

No group has claimed responsibility for the killing, the first violation of a truce called Monday between the government and local militant groups, according to local and international news reports. Khankhel had been covering a peace march led by Muslim cleric Sufi Muhammad, the father-in-law of local Taliban leader Maulana Fazlullah, the reports said. Muhammad sought to recruit his son-in-law to join a ceasefire agreement he had negotiated with local government officials.

Geo TV Managing Director Azhar Abbas told CPJ by telephone from Karachi that the journalist was found dead with gunshot wounds to the body and back of the head in a militant-controlled area near the town of Matta after he separated from the rest of his four-person reporting team. The motive for the killing is not clear, Abbas said.

“We mourn the tragic death of Musa Khankhel and send our condolences to his family and colleagues,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ Asia program coordinator. “But grief and condolences are not enough–the government must act swiftly to bring his killers to justice and protect journalists working in this volatile region.”

Khankhel was native to the region and had worked for Geo for five years, Abbas said, so his colleagues were not worried when he took his own camera to carry out some independent reporting. He also filed for Geo-affiliated newspaper The News. Abbas said Geo was concerned for the safety of the rest of its staff and was pulling all but a few employees from the region while the death was investigated.

Former Washington Post correspondent Imtiaz Ali, now studying at Yale University, told CPJ he had worked with Khankhel in Swat. “He was brave and courageous and always wanted to break the news,” he said. Journalists he knew were shaken by the slaying, Ali said. “If someone takes responsibility for the murder you can be careful next time. If you don’t know who killed them, then you are scared just because of your profession,” Ali told CPJ by telephone this morning.

Ali, who had spoken with Khankhel’s colleagues as they kept vigil over his body, described the mood among local journalists. “They are waiting to see whose turn is next,” he said.

The Swat valley is located in Pakistan’s tumultuous North West Frontier Province, where militant groups are fighting government forces for control. Journalists frequently face violence in the area. Armed men kidnapped Royal TV Peshawar bureau chief Noorul Hasan on February 8 when he was returning from Swat. After his release three days later, he said he had been questioned about a recent interview with a Taliban chief.

Azadi daily reporter Abdul Aziz Shaheen died when an army strike targeted the Taliban jail where he was being held in September last year. The daily Nation correspondent Siraj Uddin was killed in a suicide bombing in Swat in March 2008.