One of Pakistan’s most prominent investigative journalists was shot dead in Kenya in what police described as “a case of mistaken identity,” police in the East African country and relatives confirmed Monday.
Arshad Sharif, 50, was shot in the head Sunday night after his driver allegedly breached a roadblock that had been set up by police to check on motor vehicles on the highway between Magadi town and the capital, Nairobi, a prominent Kenyan newspaper reported.
The slain journalist, with two million Twitter followers, fled Pakistan in August, citing death threats and multiple court cases launched against him and several other journalists on controversial sedition charges. Sharif hosted a popular political talk show “Power Play” for years on one of Pakistan’s leading television channels, the ARY news, before leaving the country.
The news of Sharif’s death spread fast in Pakistan where condolences and condemnations started pouring in from across the country.
Journalists, opposition politicians, lawyers, and rights groups described his death as “shocking and disturbing,” urging the Pakistani government to swiftly investigate circumstances surrounding the deadly incident in Kenya.
“I lost friend, husband and my favourite journalist [Arshad Sharif] today, as per police he was shot in Kenya,” Javeria Siddique, the wife of the slain journalist wrote on Twitter.
Prime Minister Sharif said on Twitter he was deeply saddened and offered condolences and prayers for the family of the deceased journalists.
A Foreign Ministry statement said that officers from the Pakistan diplomatic mission in Nairobi had reached the location and identified the body of Sharif.
“His family has been assured of all possible assistance by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs,” it said, promising to facilitate “expeditious repatriation of mortal remains” of the journalist in coordination with Kenyan authorities.
France-based Reporters Without Borders, known by its French acronym RSF, condemned Sharif’s murder as gruesome and utterly disturbing”, calling for an International investigation.
“The killing of Arshad Sharif… is all the more baffling since he had just left his home country to Kenya in order to escape harassment and arrest.” In May, he was charged with “spreading hate against the military,” the global watchdog said in a statement.
Journalist Sharif was believed to be very close to the Pakistani security and intelligence agencies. He would often broadcast exclusive information focusing on alleged corrupt practices of top government officials, particularly those part of the coalition government of incumbent Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif (not related to the deceased journalist). He also used to frequently embed Pakistani troops on counterterrorism missions.
But in recent months Sharif had become a harsh critic of the Pakistani military leadership and the government.
There were growing calls for Pakistani authorities to swiftly investigate the journalist’s killing and the circumstances that forced him to go into exile.
“A long, grim record of violent tactics to silence journalists explain why the reported murder of journalist Arshad Sharif in Kenya has sent shock waves through the journalist community,” the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan [HRCP] wrote on Twitter. “The government must pursue an immediate, transparent inquiry into the circumstances of his death.”
“Obviously, there should be a transparent investigation,” Steven Butler, the senior program consultant at the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists told VOA.
Pakistan’s populist former prime minister Imran Khan, who was ousted from power through a parliamentary no-confidence vote in April this year, called for a “proper judicial investigation” into the circumstances that led to the killing of Sharif.
“Shocked at the brutal murder of Arshad Sharif who paid the ultimate price for speaking the truth — his life. He had to leave the country & be in hiding abroad but he continued to speak the truth on social media, exposing the powerful. Today the entire nation mourns his death,” the deposed prime minister wrote on Twitter.
“We have descended into a state of brutality, unknown in civilised society, indulged in by the powerful against those who dare to criticise & expose wrongdoings,” Khan said but did not elaborate.
The former prime minister was ousted from power in April this year in a parliamentary no-confidence vote collectively moved by opposition parties.
Critics often dubbed the slain journalist sympathetic to Khan, who blames without evidence Prime Minister Sharif and the military for colluding with the United States to topple his government.
Washington and Islamabad deny the charges.
Hamid Mir, a top ranking Pakistani political talk show host, took to the Twitter to question the Kenyan police version about the late Sunday incident.
“Why they never fired on the tire of the vehicle? Why they never targeted the driver? Why they shot Arshad Sharif directly in the head?,” wrote Mir, who has 7.6 million followers on the social media platform.
Pakistan’s government and the military have been lately under increasing criticism for allegedly stifling media freedom and political dissent, charges officials reject as unfounded.