‘Please read my story’

‘Please read my story’

The thought that drives journalists in danger

Contrary to many of the stories that appeared about him after his brutal death in 2011, Pakistani journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad had always played it safe. A journalist at the Asia Times, Shahzad wrote about jihadi groups, and was among the few who had met Osama bin Laden, Mullah Omar, Ilyas Kashmiri and other elusive terrorist leaders. He stayed under the radar, seldom appearing on TV, living in a different city from his family, and keeping his travel plans close to his chest.

Yet there he was, a few days after bin Laden’s capture and killing, at a prominent restaurant in Islamabad, giving an Indian journalist a television interview. Shahzad’s theory was that al-Qaeda and affiliated pan-Islamic groups had managed to infiltrate a small part of the Pakistani Army. According to him, bin Laden’s killing would prove the trigger for those groups. Within a few weeks, the Pakistani Army’s naval base, PNS Mehran, in Karachi was attacked. Shahzad wrote a story, the “first article of a two-part report”, on how the al-Qaeda-linked “313 Brigade” had carried out the attack.

The second part of the report was to be on the recruitment and training of the militants. But it never appeared. Shahzad was abducted, tortured and killed. In an interview to me a few weeks before his death, Shahzad had said: “Even if I don’t remain, I have written a book. Please ensure that it is widely read.” The book, Inside Al-Qaeda and the Taliban: Beyond bin Laden and 9/11, was released after his death and never actually caught on. But his words remain the driving thought of every journalist I have met, regardless of the dangers they face.

Unfortunately, Shahzad was not the only journalist I met who faced threats. American journalist Marie Colvin did too — of a different kind. In 2011, Colvin was one of the few journalists who had been invited by Muammar Gaddafi to cover his stand-off with the U.S. and its European allies. Colvin was aware that the wily Libyan dictator had invited renowned international journalists to Tripoli only to ensure that NATO forces wouldn’t attack his capital. As I fixed a mike on her for an interview, I asked her why she had come. She shrugged. “What else would I do,” she asked. “If we don’t write the stories, how can we expect people to read them?” Colvin, who wore a black eyepatch after losing an eye in a mortar attack in Sri Lanka some years before, escaped alive from Libya. But less than a year later, she was killed while covering the Siege of Homs.

Last June, Shujaat Bukhari, Editor of Rising Kashmir and a former correspondent of The Hindu, was gunned down outside his office in Srinagar. That Bukhari supported the peace process and the short-lived ceasefire operations in Kashmir had become too dangerous for those who wanted the violence to continue. In May, at the start of the ceasefire, Bukhari had made an impassioned plea to journalists to come to Srinagar and write about the benefits of the small window of peace. “Don’t let Kashmir go off the news pages,” he had said to me. Those who had ordered his killing had clearly wanted more than just the end of one story; they wanted to erase a credible byline.

Many journalists face all kinds of threats. But they write anyway, with the hope that their stories will be read, even after they are no more.

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