Militant propaganda, death threats, and violent military action are among the daily realities some journalists face in Pakistan, which ranks among the world’s most dangerous countries for working reporters.
A delegation of eight Pakistani journalists, who asked to remain anonymous as many have faced threats for their work, discussed these challenges and more at the Columbia Journalism School on Monday afternoon. Over sandwiches, cookies, and soda, the journalists spoke to a small group of students and faculty in an informal discussion moderated by Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, and Steve Coll, dean of the j-school.
Coll, who has worked extensively in Pakistan, began the discussion by asking the group about constraints of working in an area where journalists are pressured and threatened from all sides—by both the government and militants.
They spoke at length about the threat of the Tehreek-e-Taliban, the militant group that serves as an umbrella organization for several Islamist extremist groups in the country. The delegation said the TTP works to spread its beliefs and influence through means like spokespeople and propagandistic films, but that members also contact journalists directly, pressuring them to cover some stories and keep others quiet.
“The militant groups want us and other journalists to become their mouthpieces,” said one journalist, a senior reporter at a large English-language newspaper. “When you defy them, when you challenge their statements, you are in trouble. And when you have access to information, you become a security risk.”
The situation is particularly dire for journalists living and working in the Swat Valley, a region near Afghanistan that has seen excessive violence since 2007. A television journalist from Swat, aided by a translator, described the region “heaven-like” before militants took hold. He said that in past years, the Taliban has controlled nearly 30 radio stations. Citizens of the region would listen to the radio each night, waiting for the Taliban to announce who they planned to kill the next day. He himself has been the target of several threats, gunfire, and lawsuits.
He added that, while journalists in Swat have suffered, psychological trauma has affected children the most. He remarked that Swat’s children, including his five-year-old son, have learned to distinguish between the sounds of a gunship helicopter and an aid helicopter. “It’s going to be really hard for kids of the valley to recover from what they’ve seen,” he said.
A female journalist who works for a major Pakistani newspaper said that gender discrimination is a problem for the country’s journalists too. Shortly after she arrived in a conflict zone for work in 2008, a Taliban spokesperson contacted her bureau and demanded she wear a full covering, rather than the jeans and veil she had been wearing. Even after covering herself, she was ordered to leave the region after a few days. “Female journalists working in the field are not given a proper chance to cover these issues,” she said.
The group also spoke about how best to train young reporters. One journalist felt that schools often do not adequately prepare students to work in conflict zones. “The situation and the ground realities are so different,” she said. “The curriculum [students] are studying here—there will be a time when you can’t apply that teaching in Pakistan or any other conflict zone.”
She added that American coverage of issues in Pakistan is lacking, too. She said that foreign correspondents working in Pakistan often have limited access to sources and conflict zones, and must rely on fellow journalists and government sources, who only give them one side of a story.
Despite the dangers of their work, the reporters’ devotion to finding and communicating the truth pushes them forward, they said. The television journalist from Swat said his family has begged him to leave his job, but he continues to cover conflict zones. “Self respect kept [me] going,” he said.