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Keeping on with the work of a slain journalist in Pakistan

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Credit: RIZWAN TABASSUM/AFP/Getty Images/Newscom

(Read caption) Mourners comfort Fahad Saleem (R), son of Pakistani journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad, during the reporter's funeral ceremony in Karachi on June 1. Hundreds of mourners turned out Wednesday for the burial of a Pakistan journalist who had said he was being threatened by the country's intelligence services before he was killed.

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At today's funeral for a slain Pakistani reporter, journalists vowed to keep on with the hard-nosed coverage that the reporter, Syed Saleem Shahzad, was known for. "We will not shut our voices down," said Azhar Abbas, a high-profile Pakistani journalist. "The journalist community is united on this. We will not stop."

That is a courageous declaration, a potentially self-sacrificial one in a country such as Pakistan. In 2010, Pakistan had the highest number of journalist deaths in the world – eight, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York. The committee calculates a global "impunity index" of unsolved murders of journalists. In its updated index, published today, the report finds that "deadly, unpunished violence against journalists often leads to vast self-censorship" in the press corps.

It's not known, and may well never be known, who was behind the apparent torture and killing of Mr. Shahzad, who was the Pakistani bureau chief of the Asia Times Online website. He covered terrorism, and in 2006 was held for several days by the Taliban in Afghanistan. But the Associated Press reports that Shahzad had told Human Rights Watch he feared that Pakistani intelligence agents were after him.

In October, Pakistani security agencies pressured him to reveal his sources after he alleged in a story that Pakistan had released a captured Taliban commander. Last week Shahzad wrote about Al Qaeda allegedly infiltrating Pakistan's navy – this on the heels of insurgents seizing a navy base in the south of the country.

A delegation from the Committee to Protect Journalists met last month with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and other government officials about the abysmal record of impunity related to the killing of journalists in Pakistan. Promises were made to address the problem. But as the committee reports, even well-intentioned officials and prosecutions can fail in the face of entrenched corruption and dysfunction in law enforcement.

Still, that does not make progress impossible. Condemnation of unpunished murders of journalists can make a difference. The committee's 2011 index reports improvement in Russia, for instance, where murders of journalists have declined and prosecutors succeeded in two high-profile convictions. On Tuesday, Russian security forces arrested the suspected gunman in the case of renowned journalist Anna Politkovskaya. The investigative reporter, a critic of the Kremlin and human rights abuses in Chechnya, was fatally shot in her Moscow apartment building in 2006.

Of course, in a legal system as corrupt as Russia's, one has to wonder whether there will ever be an attempt to get to the mastermind behind the crime. The arrest may be merely an attempt to silence the critics. That's what those who target journalists want – critics silenced. Which is why the pledge of Pakistani journalists to keep up with vigorous reporting is so remarkable, and necessary.

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