(New York) – Pakistani authorities should conduct a prompt and impartial investigation into the November 4, 2015 killing of journalist and rights monitor Zaman Mehsud, Human Rights Watch said today. Those responsible should be promptly and fairly prosecuted.

The Taliban’s claim of responsibility for this latest killing of a journalist shows a cruel disregard for human life and free speech. Pakistan’s government needs to move to bring the perpetrators of attacks on journalists to justice if these crimes are to stop.

Brad Adams

Asia director

Gunmen fatally shot Mehsud while he was riding his motorbike in the district of Tank in Pakistan’s northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtun­khwa. Taliban commander Qari Saifullah Saif claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement to Reuters: “We killed him because he was writing against us.... [W]e have some other journalists on our hit list in the region, soon we will target them.”

“The Taliban’s claim of responsibility for this latest killing of a journalist shows a cruel disregard for human life and free speech,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Pakistan’s government needs to move to bring the perpetrators of attacks on journalists to justice if these crimes are to stop.”

Mehsud was a monitor for the nongovernmental Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) in South Waziristan. Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, the Pakistani Taliban, may have killed Mesud for his reporting on the armed conflict and human rights situation in South Waziristan. The attack occurred a day after the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists.

Pakistan remains one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists. More than 35 journalists and media workers have been killed in Pakistan because of their work since 2010. On the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Global Impunity Index, Pakistan was ninth on the list of countries in which the most journalists were murdered without the attackers being prosecuted.

Pakistani journalists routinely face harassment, intimidation, assault, kidnapping, and arbitrary arrest and detention. While militant groups have a long and well-documented history of killings of critics and independent voices, Pakistan security forces have also been implicated in attacks on journalists in the past, including abduction, torture, and killings.

On September 9, 2015, unidentified assailants gunned down Aftab Alam, a senior journalist, near his home in the city of Karachi, in southern Sindh province. In April 2014 unidentified gunmen attacked Hamid Mir, one of Pakistan’s most famous television presenters, in Karachi. Mir survived the attack and Jang/Geo – his employer and the country’s largest media conglomerate – accused the director-general of the military’s powerful Inter Service Intelligence (ISI) of involvement in the incident. The proceedings of the judicial commission formed by the government to investigate the shooting remain opaque and no findings have been made public. In January 2011 Wali Khan Babar, a 28-year-old reporter, was shot dead in Karachi. While the trial court convicted those accused of killing Babar, at least five people associated with the investigation, including a witness, police informers, police officers, and a prosecutor, have been murdered.

In 2011, Saleem Shahzad, a reporter for the Hong Kong-based Asia Times Online and for Adnkronos International, the Italian news agency, disappeared from central Islamabad, the capital. His body, bearing visible signs of torture, was discovered two days later. The circumstances of the abduction raised concerns that the ISI was responsible. The commission of inquiry constituted to investigate the killing failed to identify those responsible.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, in a statement on Mehsud’s killing, said: “HRCP would also like to invite the attention of civil society and the government to the possibility that Zaman Mehsud and other activists might have been rendered more vulnerable by the environment of suspicion that the state agencies have been creating with respect to civil society organizations and by attributing to them various anti-state activities.”

The Pakistani government has recently adopted measures that further constrict the space for free expression. On October 1, the government announced a restrictive policy on international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs), mandating that they register and obtain prior permission from the Ministry of Interior to work in the country in specified fields and geographical areas. The INGO policy has provisions that facilitate arbitrary restrictions on the rights to freedom of association, expression, and assembly, rights protected under the Pakistani constitution and international law.

Basic liberties in Pakistan are further constrained by vague and overbroad counterterror legislation such as the Protection of Pakistan Act (PPA) and the Fair Trial Act that give the security agencies expansive powers to conduct surveillance and silence dissent. The proposed cybercrimes bill includes provisions that allow the government to censor online content and criminalize Internet user activity under extremely broad criteria that could be susceptible to abusive application. The bill also permits government authorities access to the data of Internet users without any form of judicial review to justify that access.

“The Pakistani government, by clamping down on free expression and fundamental rights, is creating an environment that makes journalists and human rights defenders even more vulnerable,” Adams said. “The first step toward protection of journalists and rights defenders is to enable an environment of free expression. The Pakistan government needs to start by providing protection for at-risk journalists, while revising and repealing its restrictive laws and policies.”