On October 25, a separatist group in Balochistan province threatened to attack Pakistani journalists, claiming their news coverage was biased in favor of the government. Fearing the worst, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) took measures to protect its reporters in the field.
This is the most recent example of the threatening environment in which journalists for RFE/RL’s Pashto-language service, Radio Mashaal, work. So far this year, no fewer than four of the service’s reporters have been subject to harassment, Senior Editor Daud Khattak tells RFE/RL Pressroom.
Harassment often takes the form of stalking and menacing phone calls that are meant to intimidate, but has also included forced detentions, interrogations and, in one case, threats using gunfire. Khattak believes that “awareness is increasing and so is media freedom” in Pakistan, but that ensuring the rights and safety of journalists “is a long road and a longer struggle.”
RFE/RL Pressroom: How free is the press in Pakistan?
Daud Khattak: While the media landscape may seem safe, militants, criminal gangs, mafias, politicians, and government intelligence agencies can react violently to media content that strikes at their interests, showing a different reality.
RFE/RL Pressroom: What are the challenges that Radio Mashaal must contend with in carrying out its mission?
Khattak: Our foremost challenge is the security of our reporters in our coverage region, which is the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA -- the tribal belt spreading from South to North like a crescent along the Afghan border. The Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders see the tribal areas as the most dangerous zone for journalists.
Three key players pose a threat: militant groups, state security agencies, and criminal gangs. The Taliban are not happy with our balanced reporting, and threaten our journalists when they want us to report something to suit their wishes, as do the state intelligence agencies when there is a clash. Criminal gangs do not want us to uncover their corruption. The powerful Khans and tribal elders may also attempt an attack if they feel a journalist can harm their individual or group interests. Military check posts in parts of FATA add to the no-go zones.
RFE/RL Pressroom: So the challenges are mainly political?
Khattak: There are other challenges. Over 5 million people live in the tribal areas, which remain under the control of the colonial-era Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR) laws, which restrict independent media.
These areas are a black hole in which the standard of living is far below the average of Pakistan. Our interactive programs encourage people to raise their voice for justice, educate their children – particularly girls -- and demand their constitutional rights as citizens.
Television channels have mushroomed over the past decade, which in a way has strengthened journalists’ position due to a more open and vibrant media. On the other hand, state security has also increased its scrutiny, and few journalists dare to condemn the military.
RFE/RL Pressroom: What are the threats experienced by journalists with Radio Mashaal?
Khattak: Threats to our reporters have increased in all parts of Pakistan over the past few years because of their reporting. Taliban groups call our offices threatening to attack if we refuse their demands. Intelligence agency officials follow our journalists and surveille our offices in Peshawar and Islamabad. We never succumb to any kind of pressure on our coverage, but it means we are always walking a tightrope to ensure our reporting is balanced and to ensure the physical safety of our field reporters.
In October, one of our reporters was taken from a press club by security agents and kept in custody in an unknown location for 36 hours. Before that, our reporter in Karachi was taken from his house and kept in custody for 72 hours. We were not informed about the reasons nor their whereabouts.
Earlier this year, someone opened fire at our reporter in Karachi.
RFE/RL Pressroom: How do you handle these risks? Why do your reporters take such risks?
Khattak: We give clear instructions to our reporters that no report, photo, or video is worth your life. Whenever we feel a threat for one of our journalists, we move them to a safer location. We do not air reports using their voices. We are careful about sources and disclaimers, and do not report half-cooked information, only confirmed reports.
This is the only available option to strengthen press freedom and expression. Silence is no solution, and neither is putting one’s life in harm’s way. We have to tread carefully and ensure both our physical and editorial security.
RFE/RL Pressroom: What else can be done? So far, you’ve discussed only the media’s burden.
Khattak: I suggest that not only Radio Mashaal, but all media reporting from the tribal regions must focus on the capacity building of their reporters. We organize trainings for our own. Otherwise, reports must be thoroughly screened before going public to ensure that nothing endangers the journalists’ safety and security.
RFE/RL Pressroom: How would you describe Radio Mashaal’s impact?
Khattak: Only a few years ago, the FATA people were not speaking up about their rights, but now they do. This is due to the media coverage of their issues, and Radio Mashaal has played an important role in building this awareness over the past eight years. Our reporting gives them the courage to speak for their rights.
20 years ago, people of FATA saw weapons as a symbol of grandeur. Today, they want schools and colleges. Before, they settled disputes with the barrel of a gun or through traditional jirgas (assemblies of tribal elders). Now, they want courts.
RFE/RL’s Radio Mashaal is a public service broadcaster providing an alternative to extremist propaganda in Pakistan's remote tribal regions. While Mashaal relies primarily on radio to reach its target audience, it has 1.6 million Facebook fans, and its videos were watched 39 million times on Facebook and almost 3 million times on YouTube last year.