From December 2011 through June 2012, I studied how journalists do their work in FATA and Peshawar, which is the federal capital of the tribal region. I learned that they are at risk of being abducted by intelligence agencies and militants, and how interrogations can include beatings and death threats. Traveling the rugged mountains, they can get caught up in random gunfire, cross-border shelling, militant attacks, and targeted killings. While I was there, 11 journalists got warnings or instructions about what to report from militant groups, and a number of others were forced to leave their homes in the areas they cover and report from Peshawar.
One of them, Mushtaram Khan, a photographer and reporter who had been freelancing for local and foreign media in Waziristan, was one day told that he could no longer report from there. “It was the hardest time of my life, to take my wife and children to Peshawar, to struggle to survive the fear these militants had ingrained in our heads,” he told me. “Peshawar was very expensive. I could not afford to send my children to school. I could not afford to shop for my family [during] festivals. The medicine was expensive.”
He also worried that he was compromising his work by not being on the ground to cover sensitive tribal stories. So, at great personal risk, he went back. Today, he is one of the few reporters bringing news to the world from Waziristan.
Militant threats are not the only challenge for tribal reporters. There also is a remarkable lack of institutional support from the media organizations that employ them. The reporters are poorly trained and equipped, lacking even the most essential things like flak jackets and mobile phones. They also are poorly paid. While some get half or one-fourth of the typical journalist salary, others don’t get paid at all. In Karachi, for example, a typical entry-level reporter’s salary is roughly equivalent to between $350 and $600 per month, while in FATA, the maximum a local tribal reporter gets is about $150 to $200 per month. (Foreign journalists cannot enter FATA without a permit from the military, which ensures they will be accompanied by an army minder as they go about their work.) “We do not get any vehicles, commuting expenses, or communication facilities where we can work,” Khan said. “We do not get any financial security, and no medical or life insurance.”
The TUJ has been pushing for insurance, and for financial compensation for the families of journalists who have been killed, but neither the government nor media companies in Pakistan have shown much interest in improving the lot of tribal reporters.
This neglect is taking a toll. Asad Shah (not his real name), a desk editor at the Peshawar bureau of a leading English-language daily, says he has lost many good journalists due to the stress that comes from covering this part of Pakistan. Peshawar absorbs the chaos of the broader region and distills it in the dense maze of its streets and cafés. The city is home to many religious parties and extremist groups, and is riven with bombings. All this unrest, of course, means that government security and intelligence agencies are very active in Peshawar. Kidnapping is a hobby of both state and non-state actors.
The resulting tension simmers in Shah’s newsroom. His reporters get threats from militant groups as well as from government operatives. Nervous breakdowns are not uncommon on his staff, Shah says. His biggest challenge, though, is to cover the FATA accurately. It’s something of a Catch-22. Intelligence agencies often try to influence his paper’s statistics, stories, and rhetoric, but if he publishes news they like, he gets threats from the Taliban, the Haqqani group, or some other militant outfit. If he publishes the news the militants want, he gets threats from the intelligence services. If he ignores either or both sides, his reporters get picked up and beaten.