The callous murder of Hayatullah Khan in the village of Mirali in the restive North Waziristan tribal region on June 16, under suspicious circumstances heralded that the press in Pakistan can never flourish under the umbrella of government institutions, as we are the most obedient slaves of the superpower.
Hayatullah Khan Dawar, aged 30, a tribal journalist and a father of four was shot dead and his body was found lying in the mountains near Khesor Village, seven kilometres south of Mirali. He looked pale, had lost a lot of weight and grown a beard while in captivity. He was clad in the same brown clothes he had on the day he went missing. He was handcuffed and had received five gunshots. It appeared as if he was shot from behind while attempting to escape. However, the body of the deceased bore no torture marks.
Hayatullah, who worked for the Urdu national daily Ausaaf, English daily The Nation and as a photographer for the European Press Photo Agency (EPA), was abducted from the main Mirali-Bannu road on December 5, last year. There were five abductors, all masked and bearded, armed with AK-47 assault rifles. The courageous journalist was on his way to cover a student’s demonstration against the US missile attack in Esorhi village on December 1, 2005.
It was the detention of his father by the political authorities in 1992 that prompted the young man to become a journalist and expose excesses and injustices. He kicked off his career as a journalist soon after doing his first term in MSc. Economics from the Government Degree College of Bannu in 1998.I
In 2001, Hayatullah had a brush with the US forces when he was arrested in southeastern Paktika area of Afghanistan by the US forces, mistaking him for a secretary to the Taliban supreme leader Mullah Muhammad Omer. He was detained at the Bagram air base for two months and questioned about the whereabouts of Taliban’s elusive one-eyed leader.
Hayatullah’s address book contained many telephone numbers of religious leaders from Afghanistan and Pakistan, whom he had interviewed in the course of his journalistic career. This was later on taken as evidence of his contacts with terrorists and involvement in terrorist activities. These contacts ultimately resulted in giving him the death penalty.
Hayatullah is not the first media person who was executed under mysterious circumstances in the volatile tribal region, in a period less than two years. Two journalists, Aamir Nawab Wazir and Allah Noor Wazir were gunned down and Anwar Shakir was critically injured in February 2005 in the neighbouring South Waziristan Agency.
According to Hayatullah’s brother, Ehsanullah, his brother was first threatened on November 17, 2005, prompting him to rush to Islamabad to inform one of his intimate friends Hamid Mir. Hayatullah meanwhile was offered three choices, i.e. either leave the agency or stop reporting at this place; or accept the position of a naib muharrar (head clerk) in the political administrative wing.
Hayatullah’s brother also said that he and his family members had been assured time and again that Hayatullah was alive and well, and had been detained on matters relating to national security. Everyone knew all along which agency had held him. There is not even an iota of doubt in our minds, claimed the 21 year old Ehsanullah. He blamed an intelligence agency for this murder and vowed to avenge his brother’s death.
The family of the martyr suspected that he had been kidnapped by an intelligence agency after he first released the pictures of parts of the US missiles that had killed the senior al Qaeda operative Hamza Rabia in North Waziristan on December 1. It also came through some sources that Hayatullah had been relocated to the US as a reward for pinpointing Rabia’s hideout. On May 10, the US consulate in Peshawar circulated a statement denying any knowledge regarding Hayatullah’s whereabouts.
Hayatullah’s disappearance and his assassination later on had been a subject of discussion and speculation for a long time. It sparked protests and demonstrations by journalists in Peshawar and prompted international organizations, including Reporters Sans Frontieres and Committee for the Protection of Journalists, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, to issue statements urging Islamabad to secure his release. However, strong speculations haunted many that Hayatullah might have been detained by the Pakistani intelligence agencies operating in the same region.
“This is not the Taliban style of execution because they dispose of cases of suspected informers and pro government agents in a few days,” Ehsanullah revealed.The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists and the All Pakistan Newspapers Employees Confederation also condemned this brazen murder. Both organizations in a joint statement appealed to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court to take suo motu notice of the kidnapping and murder of Hayatullah Khan and appoint a judicial inquiry commission.
Locals say it is a mystery who had kidnapped and killed Hayatullah. Both the militants and the authorities denied knowledge of his whereabouts during the six months period that he was missing. However, the local tribal journalists’ organizations blamed the government for Hayatullah’s death because it failed to rescue him.
Hayatullah Khan was abducted just after he reported the killing of a five-year-old child and an 18-year-old college student in the US missile strike. Hayatullah took photographs of what appeared to be pieces of the US missiles at the scene. The photographs were printed in an Islamabad based Urdu paper he was working for.
Many days earlier, the Pakistani authorities had announced the death of Abu Hamza Rabia with four others in a blast at an alleged militant hideout in North Waziristan. The official version was that bomb-making materials had accidentally exploded but the locals said that it happened due to a US military assault. Hayatullah’s reports and photographs had exposed the official version.
The opposition members raised their voices in the Assembly after Hayatullah was kidnapped, but the government did not take any notice of this issue. Hafiz Hussain Ahmed of the Islamic alliance MMA claimed in a rally that the government has shown criminal silence over the kidnapping of the journalist.
Mehrun Nisa, the widow of Hayatullah, also alleged that the government is behind the murder of her spouse. The Interior Minister Aftab Sherpao denied the government’s involvement in the whole brutal affair.
Hayatullah, the lanky fellow, was dedicated to his profession. He was a hardworking journalist, especially with regards to activities in the Pak-Afghan border areas and taking chances in gleaning exact information was his distinction. A gallant journalist lost his life in the line of duty. Hayatullah was a determined man with unflinching attitude. He had been in nasty situations before as well and used to shrug off torture and threats. This courageous attitude made him popular in journalist circles.
Hayatullah will always be remembered for his valorous contributions. He is a martyr and hero in the estimation of the people, and especially for the younger generation of the same profession. His death raises a pertinent question: is the media of this country autonomous?The cold-blooded murder of Hayatullah Khan was indeed a brazen act, which needs to be thoroughly investigated, independent of the government. Otherwise its claims of freedom of press will remain nothing more than a rattling sound. It was not only the murder of Hayatullah, it is the murder of media freedom.
Published in The Post on 22nd July, 2006 & in The Frontier Post on 18 july, 2006