Thirty seconds into a phone conversation, Hamid’s voice shifted from polite to brusque. “No, I cannot look into this,” he said to the person on the line, and hung up. I was visiting Hamid (not his real name), a senior member at the Tribal Union on Journalists (TUJ), in Peshawar in December 2011 to discuss the growing problem of intimidation and violence against journalists in Pakistan from Islamic militants and state intelligence agencies. Since 1992, 48 journalists have been killed in Pakistan, according the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists. In the last decade, the problem has gotten significantly worse. In 2011, CPJ named Pakistan the most deadly place in the world for reporters. Specifically, I wanted to learn how journalists work in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), a semiautonomous, conflict-ridden region made up of seven tribal “agencies” along the Afghan border known as the “war zone.” Twelve journalists have been killed there since the terrorist attacks in the US on 9/11. If Pakistan is the worst place to be a journalist, FATA is the worst of the worst.
After hanging up the phone, Hamid was silent for a moment; he stared at the steam rising from the doodh patti—brown Peshawari tea crowned with a layer of cream—that his tea-boy, Afridi, had brought.
“That wasn’t a friend, was it?” I asked.
Hamid smiled and raised his head to look at me. “It was a threat call,” he said, adding quickly that he could not tell me which militant group it came from; it could’ve been Al Qaeda, the Haqqani network, or the Taliban. He did say that the person on the phone had threatened to murder one of the union’s members, a respected reporter. Hamid said I had met this reporter, but would not tell me his name. The threat was conveyed in a polite and friendly tone—“brotherly,” as Hamid wryly put it. He tried to stay calm, since these calls had become routine.
The next month, on January 17, 2012, the Taliban shot and killed Voice of America reporter Mukarram Khan Atif during Friday prayers. Atif was a seasoned journalist, and I had in fact met him during my earlier visits to the tribal area where he worked. He was highly respected for his neutrality and journalistic integrity, and had surprised me with his grasp of reporting from a conflict zone. Generally speaking, tribal reporters are not well-trained, and most lack the skills that conflict reporting requires. There is no doubt that he worried the Taliban with his astuteness, and the fact that he didn’t mince words: This is right, this is wrong—that was his attitude.
Using an intermediary, I called the Taliban to find out why Atif was killed. “Atif was not killed for reporting against us, but was killed for not conveying our message to the media,” a spokesman told me. “We asked him several times, and then warned him several times, but he continued to portray us wickedly. He was also pro-US and reported to please the Americans, something we could not tolerate.”
This was the first time the Taliban had accepted responsibility for a journalist’s murder in Pakistan, and soon thereafter the militants sent a warning to all tribal journalists and their media organizations, telling them to “buckle up” and mentioning a ”hit list.”
The border between the Pakistan and Afghanistan is porous, and FATA is openly controlled by competing militant groups, including the Taliban and Al Qaeda, who first established a presence in Pakistan there. It can be hard to tell the difference between the local population and Taliban militants, as they share a common Pashtun background. This makes it easy for the Taliban to maneuver without drawing attention to itself—and also engenders support for it among the locals.
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.
Getting trustworthy, independent news out of the tribal region is crucial, as what happens there affects every aspect of Pakistan’s relationship with the US and the war in Afghanistan. Yet the inability, or unwillingness, of the country’s media organizations to give the reporters who work there the training, the tools, and the support they need to do their jobs is making such coverage increasingly unlikely. According to Azhar Zaman, an official at the FATA secretariat, the tribal region stretches over more than 10,000 square miles and is home to more than 5 million people, but has only 310 working journalists—and their ranks are falling even further due to the dangerous nature of the job. As Hamid told me, three reporters left the profession after Atif’s killing. “Some soldiers in warfare do not go with arrows and swords,” he said, “but cameras and ink.”