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53: Reporters with borders

Alex Macbeth
An editor in the AT team reflects on the challenges faced by journalists participating in the second Afghanistan Today Af-Pak cross-border series.
7.11.2013  |  Berlin
Pakistani geologist Sadiq Malkani demystifies local discoveries of dinosaurs at the AT October workshop in Islamabad. Main photo: A unanimous thumbs-up at the end of the three-day event. (Photos: Alex Macbeth) 
Pakistani geologist Sadiq Malkani demystifies local discoveries of dinosaurs at the AT October workshop in Islamabad. Main photo: A unanimous thumbs-up at the end of the three-day event. (Photos: Alex Macbeth) 

Few qualities have humbled me more in my time working in journalism than the strength, deftness and humility that Afghan and Pakistani journalists display everyday just in choosing to work in the media.

While young western journalists like myself struggle with the effects of recession - lack of jobs, more expensive education and an increasingly competitive work environment - few must worry for their lives, or the lives of others, every time they leave their homes to cover a beat.

Meeting neighbours across the border

Nearly two dozen journalists living and working in the mountainous regions either side of the Afghan-Pakistan border, known informally as the Durand Line, recently took part in a MICT cross-border journalism project in Pakistan for the second year in a row.

The outcome of these meetings between men and women who share a language and culture but remain divided by a frontier will be a second series of joint 'Af-Pak' features, due to be published this year.

The Afghan participants may be more familiar to readers who have followed the Afghanistan Today training project since its inception in 2010. For those who missed AT’s inaugural Af-Pak package of 12 articles last year, this year’s series, which will be published simultaneously in Germany and south Asia in the next two months, will offer old and new readers the chance to be introduced to 11 up-and-coming and established writers from western Pakistan.

Taliban on twitter and a hunt for ancient remains

Together with their cross-border colleagues, old AT faces from Afghanistan, the Pakistani writers will take on home-brewed alcohol, dry-fruit smuggling, non-violent resistance and NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. Other stories will cover the Taliban’s evolving PR drive, the struggles of Pashtun singers and the hunt for dinosaur fossils.

Just like their Afghan colleagues across the border, AT’s team of Pakistani writers are regularly exposed to violence; the ‘war on terror’ is fought in their living rooms, schools, markets and buses. Teenage Nobel Prize-nominee Malala Yousafzai can tell of the dangers of standing up for something fundamentalist Islamic insurgents and preachers oppose. Many have not been so fortunate to survive.

Our project has learned this first-hand: Arif Shafi, a Pakistani writer and editor who helped establish the AT Af-Pak series, was tragically killed in a suicide attack in Peshawar in April 2013. 

Each and every one of the journalists participating in the AT project must cut a fine balance to survive. I recall a private conversation with a Pakistani journalist at AT’s three-day workshop this year in Pakistan. “They are out to kill us,” said the reporter in his 20s from the region – Swat, FATA, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Baluchistan – referring to regular threats from Taliban-affiliated groups.

Safdar Dawar is president of The Tribal Union of Journalists (TUJ), a key civil society institution in FATA for negotiating the safety of journalists in the region. Talking as a special guest at the Af-Pak workshop last year, Dawar said 13 journalists have been killed just in the historically isolated yet evermore extremist Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), an area smaller than Belgium, since 2006.

Sword still mightier than pen

The greatest weapon of those who report on politics and the armed struggle between government, insurgent and international forces both sides of the loosely defined border is their objectivity.  But at the same time in a region where the Taliban is the main censor, mildly ‘critical’ reports can be punished with death. Dawar recalled the case of the widow of an assassinated journalist who gave an interview to the BBC and was killed the next day.

Threats of drones, suicide bombers, and easily offended rogue Taliban leaders are accentuated by the absence of rules of engagement. The war on terror has no handbook for those who hear and watch it blast through their towns and villages.

Journalists working amid the South Asian conflicts tread on eggshells while delivering hard-hitting reports for the millions of Pashto speakers who need accurate and incisive information.  

Sitting on an electric fence

When I asked one writer of the relative risks for journalists of talking to smaller or larger insurgent groups in Pakistan, he reminded me that there are dozens of Tehrik-i-Taliban (TTP)-affiliated groups, some more forgiving than others. Then there are rogue groups who operate outside of the Pakistani Taliban alliance, but with similar conservative and orthodox interpretations of Islam and jihad.

“Smaller groups are equally as dangerous because of their unpredictability and willingness to make a statement,” said another journalist reporting from the heart of the Taliban’s battles for territory, hearts and minds.

All the writers AT works with were born either side of the deadly border. Many have lost relatives, friends or colleagues. Others have had their houses bombed, or have arrived at a scene to find carnage in the street.

Despite the pain, these writers continue to work, shining a torch not only on the stories of fatalities, but also the positive ones. Stay tuned to read both in this year’s Af-Pak 2013 series.