Reporting From Pakistani Tribal Areas Highly Risky

KARACHI – Reporting from Peshawar – hub of Pakistan’s tribal areas, currently the focus of a pincer movement between the Pakistan army and the United States-led forces in neighboring Afghanistan – has become a highly risky affair.

“I still can’t believe that I’m alive and talking to you,” said 34-year old Sami Yusufzai, reporter for the US-based Newsweek magazine, who survived a kidnap attempt by unknown gunmen in Peshawar’s upscale Hayatabad area on Nov 14.

Yusufzai and Motoki Yotsukura, the Pakistan bureau chief of the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun were returning from interviewing insurgents when they were intercepted by the gunmen. When they drove by, their attackers opened fire, injuring Yotsukura in the leg while Yusufzai was hit several times at close range.

“They aimed at my chest but the bullet hit my arm instead. It remains nestled there as it’s too deep to be disturbed,” said Yusufzai, speaking with IPS over telephone from his hospital bed in Peshawar.

After the US began launching cross-border missile strikes from Afghanistan against Taliban and al-Qaeda militants holed up into Pakistan’s tribal areas about two months ago, backed by a Pakistan army offensive into the areas, journalists in Peshawar have become targets.

Yusfazai said his life is still in danger. “I’m scared they [the attackers] will come after me, now that they know I am alive.” He is also losing sleep because “I’m worried for the safety of my family.”

This was not the first time Yusufzai had been attacked by militants or threatened. “Only three days prior to this, I got a call telling me to prepare my kaffan (unstitched white cloth used as a shroud).”

Challenging the news reports that say that he and his Japanese colleague ventured into the tribal belt without first obtaining permission from the interior ministry, Yusufzai said: “These are a pack of lies, concocted by the police. We never ventured out of the Hayatabad area.”

However, Rahimullah Yusufzai, resident editor of daily The News and an expert on the Taliban insists the two were there illegally thereby violating the law barring foreigners from visiting the tribal area without proper authorization.

Yusufzai is an Afghan national who has been in Pakistan since he was six.

“We have two different versions here but all our reporters are saying the two were returning from the tribal area of Shahkas in Khyber Agency, adjacent to Hayatabad when they were fired at. Obviously, Sami would not own up to that as entering tribal areas is illegal for foreigners. This could land him in trouble and prompt the Pakistan government to expel him,” Rahimullah said.

Ron Moreau, who is Newsweek‘s Southeast Asia correspondent said: “They did not venture into the tribal area. But if they had official permission and had entered the area it would have been a worthless reporting exercise as it would have prevented any interesting interviews,” said Moreau referring to the practice of law enforcers accompanying reporters as escorts.

Moreau who has reported from the tribal areas and done extensive conflict reporting confessed to being “frightened at times,” but said he was willing to take risks which “come with the job.”

“Journalists in the region have long warned about the lack of security and the threats they face from all sides – Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters, drug lords, gun runners, criminal gangs, and even the Pakistani government. For journalists, as for all others in Peshawar, this is a situation going from bad to worse,” stated Bob Dietz of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

On Nov. 8, Qari Mohammad Shoaib, a reporter for the Azadi and Khabar Kar newspapers, was shot dead by security forces in Mingora in the northwestern Swat valley.

And on Nov. 11 Khadija Abdul Qahar, a Canadian formerly known as Beverly Giesbrecht, who publishes a web-based magazine, Jihad Unspun was reportedly abducted along with her translator and guide, both Pakistani nationals. The group was said to be traveling to the town of Miramshah in the North Waziristan area when they were stopped and abducted by a group of armed men.

Jihad Unspun has the stated objective of presenting uncensored reporting of the United States’ “war on terrorism” and its articles are often highly critical of US foreign policy and military interventions. However, it is also suspected to be a front for the US Central Intelligence Agency set up to monitor traffic from Internet users who support the al-Qaeda.

“Every attack that takes place against journalists anywhere, is likely to hamper others to venture into these areas for fear of their lives,” said Massoud Ansari, political correspondent for the popular Pakistani monthly, Herald, responding to the attack on Yusufzai and Yotsukura.

“Foreign journalists indeed would now be coming to Peshawar in fewer numbers. The writ of the government is quite weak all over the area. Most journalists feel insecure even in Peshawar,” said Rahimullah.

“It [attack on Yusufzai and Yotsukura] will make local stringers and fixers feel nervous,” admitted Moreau. “It does show that no one is safe, even those reporters who have a professional relationship with militants.”

Moreau also said that for many correspondents of foreign publications, Peshawar is, for the time being, off limits. “My hunch is that the attack was largely aimed at kidnapping the Japanese journalist for ransom. To get to him they tried to kill Sami,” said Moreau.

“Militants are a varied lot. Some join for Islam, religious ideology, for a job, for power, for revenge in order to avenge a friend’s or relative’s death, or out of criminal intent,” Moreau said.

But covering war and conflict also means you take sides, said Ansari, who is also the Pakistan correspondent for the Britain-based Sunday Telegraph. “You always join one party in the conflict and get the information across by joining them or going along with them.”

“Most of these groups accuse the western media of being biased with the result that they are not willing to give you access,” said Ansari. “The state actors such as the sitting government as well as the army also hold a grudge against the media and do not allow them “free access.”

All these problems, said Ansari, make it difficult and perilous to cover the region in a transparent manner. Ansari also pointed out that there has emerged a “whole lot of criminal groups who are involved in kidnappings, further complicating the situation.”