NEW YORK - The Committee to Protect Journalists, an independent watchdog body, has said it is “deeply troubled” by a report that the US National Security Agency carried out intensive surveillance of Al Jazeera’s Islamabad bureau chief, Ahmad Muaffaq Zaidan, based on suspicion that he was a member of Al-Qaeda.

The Intercept, an online magazine, reported Friday that the NSA’s information supporting its claim appears to reflect the normal behaviour of a journalist maintaining contact with sources.

“Colouring the legitimate newsgathering activities of a respected journalist as evidence of international terrorism risks chilling the vital work of the media, especially in Pakistan where journalists routinely interview Taliban and other militant groups as part of their coverage,” Bob Dietz, CPJ’s Asia programme coordinator, said in a statement. “The NSA has once again brought the dangers of mass surveillance into sharp relief,” CPJ Internet Advocacy Coordinator Geoffrey King from San Francisco. “Given a big enough pool of data, anyone can end up fitting a ‘suspicious’ pattern. Journalists who traverse many sectors of society to bring the public the news are particularly vulnerable.”

Zaidan and Al Jazeera strongly defended the journalist’s reporting and rejected the US suspicions, The Intercept reported.

AFP adds: US authorities placed an Al Jazeera journalist on a watch list of suspected terrorists, linking him to Al-Qaeda, a report said Friday, citing documents provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

The online news site The Intercept said Al Jazeera’s Islamabad bureau chief, Ahmad Muaffaq Zaidan, was on a terror watch list, and was described in the National Security Agency documents as “a member” of both Al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Zaidan told The Intercept he “absolutely” denied being part of the organisations, while noting that he had through his work conducted interviews with senior Al-Qaeda leaders including Osama bin Laden.

According to The Intercept, Zaidan was cited in the documents to highlight a programme called Skynet, which analyses location and communication data from bulk call records in order to detect suspicious patterns.

Skynet seeks to identify people such as couriers for organisations such as Al-Qaeda based on call “metadata” or information about the call without looking at the contents of a conversation.

In a statement to The Intercept, Zaidan said that “for us to be able to inform the world, we have to be able to freely contact relevant figures in the public discourse, speak with people on the ground, and gather critical information.

“Any hint of government surveillance that hinders this process is a violation of press freedom and harms the public’s right to know.”