Syed Saleem Shahzad, right, with Pakistani journalist Qamar Yousafzai at the Afghan border in 2006 after being released by the Taliban. (AP)
Syed Saleem Shahzad, right, with Pakistani journalist Qamar Yousafzai at the Afghan border in 2006 after being released by the Taliban. (AP)

How can Pakistani journalists protect themselves?

The memorial service in Washington for journalist Saleem Shahzad–who was killed around May 29–was held at the National Press Club this past Monday. Anwar Iqbal, dean of the Pakistani press corps in Washington, led the ceremony. Ambassador to the U.S. Hussain Haqqani spoke eloquently about the degree of loss brought by Shahzad’s brutal killing. While many of the speakers called for an investigation into Shahzad’s death, I had a different train of thought. I focused on an idea that had come up while I was in Karachi this April and May. After all, I thought, too many special investigations have been commissioned and have never seen the light of day, and the same thing seems likely to happen in Shahzad’s case. But what if we could have prevented his death in the first place?

There’s almost total impunity now when journalists are killed in Pakistan. That’s partly why people are starting to think the media industry must attempt to address this problem itself. And that’s why, at a CPJ round table hosted on May 5 in Karachi, Hameed Haroon, Chief Executive Officer of Dawn Media Group and President of the All Pakistan Newspaper Society called for the creation of a press organization to monitor and compile data on the attacks on journalists in Pakistan. The goal would be to create a hub of experts and gather knowledge about the assaults, kidnappings, and murders of journalists over the years. Haroon’s call was really a challenge to media organizations like the newspaper society, the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), and the Pakistan Press Foundation and other human rights groups to make the idea a reality.

As I made the rounds in Karachi, I canvassed my contacts and they shared their fears. Zaffar Abbas, the editor of Dawn, suggested a model for the proposed organization, the Citizen Police Liaison Committee. The committee was a private organization, run by the local business community, with a 24-hour hotline to police and the Interior Ministry that came up in the 1990s in response to the abductions of wealthy businessmen in Karachi. It did a fairly good job of staunching the kidnappings. Abbas’ feeling was that something similar could be set up for journalists who are threatened or are in immediate danger. Amin Yousuf, PFUJ’s secretary-general at the Karachi Press Club, said that PFUJ would be tentatively interested in working with such a group.

With its vibrant and financially successful media culture, this should be a Pakistani initiative. Media houses should lend manpower and financial support. Of course, NGOs have helped in other countries and, though working with international groups on this initiative might seem cumbersome, an alert system to protect journalists that reaches across borders can be helpful, too.

Needless to say, a new watchdog group for journalists cannot help Saleem Shahzad. Indeed, his family still has urgent needs that aren’t being addressed. This is typical, in fact: The suffering of families of murdered or detained journalist is yet another affliction that needs remedying. The journalist Mazhar Abbas, a former secretary-general of PFUJ and a CPJ International Press Freedom Award winner in 2007, wrote to me about the families of slain journalists. I’ll post his thoughts separately.