Pakistani journalists working in the embattled tribal zone near the Afghan border arguably have the world’s most dangerous and stressful job. Both the extremist Islamic militants and the Pakistani military’s intelligence agencies have them under the gun all too frequently when one, or both, of those warring forces become unhappy with a radio or newspaper report. Even radical mullahs are known to rail against individual journalists as being un-Islamic or pro-American. Amid these tensions, death threats against the reporters are common, particularly against those working for what are seen as “official” American media outlets like the Voice of America and Radio Free Liberty.
On Tuesday, Mukarram Khan Atif, an intrepid reporter in his mid-40s for the Voice of America Pashto language service, was cruelly murdered as he said evening prayers in a mosque in the northwestern town of Shabqadar, some 20 miles north of Peshawar. As he knelt and prayed, one of two gunmen who had pulled up on a motorcycle outside the mosque calmly walked in and fired three shots, hitting Atif fatally in the head and chest. One bullet wounded the mosque’s imam. Both gunmen quickly escaped. Atif, a highly respected veteran reporter who, like most of the journalists working on those dangerous grounds, was an ethnic Pashtun, had received death threats from militants in the past. As a result, he had moved his family from the Mohmand tribal agency, which has been the scene of heavy fighting between the Pakistani Taliban and the military over the past two years, to Shabqadar.
The Pakistani Taliban quickly claimed responsibility for the murder. “We have been warning him to stop his propaganda against us in the foreign media,” says the Pakistani Taliban spokesperson, Ehsanullah Ehsan. “He did not include our version in his stories.” Ehsan did not mention what story or stories had made Atif a target. Ehsan then ominously added that the Taliban has “several more” journalists like Atif on its hit list.
Atif became the first journalist killed in Pakistan this year, and the 11th since the beginning of last year, making the country “the deadliest” in the world for reporters, according to Reporters Without Borders, which advocates for press freedom and the protection of journalists. “The Pakistani authorities must at all costs take action to protect journalists, especially those who are subjected to threats. Otherwise, there will be no improvement in conditions,” said a statement from the organization. The Pakistani government says it will investigate Atif’s murder. But the government has a poor track record in finding who is responsible for the killing of reporters and in protecting them.
Iqbal Khattak, a representative for RWB, told The Daily Beast that he had talked to Atif the morning before he was killed, inviting him to attend a journalist training session aimed at polishing tribal reporters’ skills. Atif had eagerly accepted the invitation. Khattak says that as a result of the murders, threats, and constant pressure, “80 percent of the journalists working the tribal area cannot report or work properly.” Not surprisingly, many have, like Atif, removed their families from the danger zone. “Most have migrated from the tribal area as a result of threats from the militants and the military,” Khattak says. “The Taliban is not the only enemy of journalists.” But the militants seem to be the worst. “The militants want to dictate to journalists. If we don’t obey, then they kill us … I don’t think any of the targeted journalists have done anything wrong. They know what to say and what not to say. The militants just don’t like journalists.”
No one knows that better than a journalist in his late 20s who reports for an American media outlet in the tribal agency of North Waziristan and who chooses to remain anonymous for security reasons. He feels constantly under threat. He says he believes a couple of militants have been shadowing him for the past two days. “I’m afraid,” he says, “but I have no options but to continue working. This is my home, where I have family, property, and a job.” As a reporter for American media, he fears he is one of the “several more” reporters on the militants’ hit list. He also fears the military. “We are sandwiched between two sides,” he told The Daily Beast. “We want to be objective and get comments from both sides. But neither has any tolerance for the media.” To make matters worse, he and other tribal journalists feel alone, with little or no support from their employers. “I work for the Western media that wants professional reports,” he says. “But the media doesn’t provide much training, and we don’t have any insurance.” He says half of the death threats he has received have come from the militants and half from the military’s intelligence agencies. “I’m going out to report another story today, but I’m more discouraged now after Atif’s death,” he says. “We are reading and weighing each word many times before we publish because we don’t want to get killed.”
The journalist who wishes to remain anonymous says he is still haunted by a video made by the Pakistani Taliban’s nominal leader, Hakimullah Mehsud, in February 2010. In it the 30-something Mehsud directly threatened journalists working for the VOA and RFL. He remembers Mehsud saying: “You are doing propaganda against us. We will not spare your lives.” According to wire-service reports, Pakistani intelligence officers in the tribal area, citing militants’ radio chatter, say there is a strong likelihood that Mehsud may have been killed in an American drone attack this past Jan. 12. The Pakistani Taliban denies the reports.
Mehsud is a big fish. He is on the U.S.’s list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists and has been charged in U.S. courts with conspiracy to murder and to use a weapon of mass destruction in the U.S. for his alleged role in the deaths of seven CIA agents just across the border in Afghanistan in December 2009 and his association with would-be bomber Faisal Shahzad, who tried to detonate a car bomb in Times Square in May 2010.
Even if Mehsud has been killed, his death is of little comfort to the gutsy Pakistani journalists living and working in the tribal area that is infested with Mehsud’s men, who will doubtless be looking for revenge.