Shan Dahar’s death underscores impunity in Pakistan

After more than a week since journalist Shan Dahar’s death, it remains unclear whether he was killed in an accident or targeted for murder–and if targeted, why. The confusion serves as yet another example of how weak investigations and a lack of accountability have become the hallmarks of journalist killings in Pakistan.

Dahar, who worked for Abb Takk Television, was standing at a pharmacy located near the Badah Press Club in Larkana district when a bullet pierced his back, according to initial media reports. The reports suggested Dahar was hit by a stray bullet as weapons were being fired into the air during new year celebrations, and that he died at a local hospital after what journalists called negligence on the part of the doctors.

But there were conflicting accounts. In the days following Dahar’s death, media reports emerged that his death may not have been an accident. The News International reported that Dahar was talking to watchmen when unidentified assailants opened fire on him, and that a suspect had been arrested.

Nasir Baig Chughtai, the director of news for Abb Takk, believes that Dahar was killed in relation to his work. The journalist had covered an array of stories on sensitive issues like drugs, politics, and poverty, Chughtai told CPJ by phone. “I can confirm that he was working at the time on a story about counterfeit drugs,” he said. He confirmed that a suspect had been taken into custody, but he believes that the main culprits are still at large.

However, another journalist who has been closely following the case but asked not to be identified told CPJ that while it was an intentional killing, it was not in connection with Dahar’s work as a journalist.

The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists issued a statement calling his death a murder and said that Dahar “was silenced because he was raising [his] voice against the wrongdoings of influential persons.”

While a post-mortem report has been released, police have been unable to provide a conclusive reason for his death, Abb Takk reported, and we are left with more questions than answers.

In the wake of Dahar’s death, many journalists expressed dismay at the way the investigation was being carried out. At a meeting convened at the Larkana Press Club, they argued that the officials leading the probe were incompetent, reports said. Politicians have tried to assure journalists that they will arrest the killers soon, but these words ring hollow given the pervasive culture of impunity that exists in Pakistan, where at least 29 journalists have been murdered in direct relation to their work since 1992, according to CPJ research. The lack of fruitful investigations into journalist murders reinforces this impunity again and again.

Inquiries into journalist murders have been flimsy or have lacked credibility, according to journalists. The murder of Hayatullah Khan in 2006 led to an investigation by High Court Justice Mohammed Reza Khan. But the results were not made public. Hayatullah Khan’s family said they were not interviewed by the judge or other investigators.

Similarly, the murder of Saleem Shahzad in May 2011 galvanized journalists to secure a high-level investigation. Pakistan’s official commission of inquiry concluded in January 2012 that the perpetrators of the killing were unknown, despite a New York Times report in July 2011 that said U.S. officials had reliable intelligence that showed that the country’s Inter-Services Intelligence was responsible.  The findings of the commission were widely criticized as lacking credibility.

This month also marks the third anniversary of the death of Wali Khan Babar, whose murder investigation has yielded no results beyond a protracted trial yet to be concluded. Key eyewitnesses have been murdered one by one, and two prosecutors in the case have been intimidated and forced to flee the country.

Until Pakistan does commit itself to credible and robust efforts to examine how and why these journalists were killed and to prosecute those responsible, we’ll see more Dahars, Khans, Shahzads, and Babars silenced by the harshest method of all.