AJR  Features
From AJR,   August/September 2009

Risky Business   

Pakistani journalists are trapped in the crosshairs of powerful factions in their homeland.

By Sherry Ricchiardi
Sherry Ricchiardi (sricchia@iupui.edu) is an AJR senior contributing writer.     

The Taliban and other militant groups target reporters for reporting unfavorably on them or for supporting those who are deemed "anti-Islam." The Pakistani security forces long have been nemeses for journalists who don't toe the government line. Criminal groups don't hesitate to kidnap or kill reporters who get in the way of drug trafficking or other illicit activities.

In February, Pakistan's journalists fought back when one of their own was assassinated. Hundreds took to the streets across the country to condemn the murder of Musa Khan Khel, 28, a reporter for privately owned Geo TV and the English-language newspaper the News. According to reports, Khel's body was riddled with 32 bullets by attackers while he was on assignment in the hotly contested Swat Valley.

More than 500 media professionals, lawyers and human rights activists marched to the Governor's House in Peshawar, declaring that journalists had become victims in the war on terror, the Pakistan Observer reported.

There was no way to know which faction targeted Khel. According to colleagues, he was headed to a Taliban stronghold for an interview when he disappeared, but he'd also received threats from Pakistani security services, his brother Issa told the media. According to news accounts, Khel feared for his life after being beaten months earlier by men in uniform, who told him the government was unhappy with his reporting on the military.

In Pakistan, danger to journalists comes from many directions. Sometimes, the perpetrators proudly take credit. Amir Nawab Khan, a cameraman with the international TV news agency APTN, and Allah Noor Wazir, a reporter with Khyber TV, were in a van with colleagues on February 7, 2005, when gunmen opened fire with assault rifles, striking Wazir in the head and Khan in the neck. They were reporting out of Wana, a town in the wild South Waziristan region near the Afghan border.

A few days later, an obscure group called Sipah-e-Islam Soldiers of Islam claimed responsibility for shooting journalists who "are used as tools in the negative propaganda of the Christians against the Muslim mujahedeen." Over the years, local journalists often have been targeted for being "infidels."

On March 26 of this year, veteran reporter Raja Assad Hameed answered a doorbell late at night and died in a hail of bullets in his Rawalpindi home. Hameed worked for a local TV station and the English-language paper the Nation. So far, no one has taken responsibility.

According to the Paris-based watchdog group Reporters Without Borders, eight Pakistani journalists were killed in 2008. Four already were dead by May of this year.

During an e-mail interview in June, National Public Radio's Julie McCarthy talked about the helping hand local journalists offer to those like her who are new on the scene. "When we can find local eyes and ears, we use them," she says. "There are local reporters in places like Buner and Swat who have helped us a great deal... They assist in finding the right people, guide us to the right places and help keep us out of trouble."

Sherry Ricchiardi