The South Asia Channel

Angels of death

Nearly two days after he went missing from Islamabad and less than a week after filing the first of a two-part story about negotiations between Pakistan's navy and al-Qaeda, Syed Saleem Shahzad's tortured body has been discovered near Jehlum, Punjab. Many actors, including journalists and Human Rights Watch, have blamed his kidnapping and subsequent execution on Pakistan's powerful Inter Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI).

While we may never know the full story behind Shahzad's disappearance and murder, his death fits into what has become a disturbing pattern. Journalists are picked up when they are driving down the streets, whether in the capital Islamabad or a village, and eventually  are dropped off -- tortured in the case of Umar Cheema, who was abducted by security agencies after he filed a series of reports on the Pakistani military -- or killed, as in the case of Hayatullah Khan, whose body appeared after he tried to cover a reported U.S. missile strike in Pakistan's tribal areas. Khan's assassins have never been found.

Reporting on the security services for Pakistan's electronic media is a tricky, deadly game. In most cases, journalists end up censoring themselves, fearful of the either verbal or physical repercussions. In some cases, when journalists do file reports, channels refuse to air them -- again, fearful of upsetting the men in Rawalpindi.

Last week, the Chicago trial of Tahawwur Hussain Rana, a Pakistan-Canadian charged with providing material support to David Headley in preparation for the 2008 Mumbai attacks and a plot to attack the Jyllands-Posten newspaper office in Denmark received next to no coverage on Pakistani TV. Headley claims he was trained by the ISI and had handlers from the spy agency that helped him through the reconnaissance and planning of the Mumbai attacks. I reported on the trial for a Pakistani print publication, but it was deemed too "sensitive" to be aired or talked about on TV (though it did appear in the press). However, Headley's statement today that the top leaders of the ISI were not involved in the plotting of the attacks has suddenly made it to the headlines on various news channels.

This silence and then sudden explosion of coverage was startling, and an uncomfortable but not wholly unexpected reminder that thousands of miles away in Chicago, where the ISI does not have any authority, their shadow still extends over our work as journalists.

In the 1990s, journalists in Pakistan used to refer to members of the ISI as farishtas, which in English means "angels." "The angels are at work," they used to remark, when election results were delayed, a reference to the ISI rigging the polls to achieve a desired result. For journalists, reporting on these angels increasingly means exposing yourself to great danger, and the ever-present threat of disappearing in the middle of the night, perhaps never to be seen again.

Huma Imtiaz works as a journalist in Washington DC.