My first exposure to violence came in April 2007 when, barely a month after joining a newspaper, my supervisor asked me to visit a suicide-attack site. About 30 people had been killed and scores injured when an attacker detonated his explosive payload at a public meeting of then interior minister Aftab Sherpao, in a tiny village in Charsadda district. When I arrived at the scene, it was still a gut-wrenching mess. Towards the back of the blast site, women were thronging to a railway shed. Out of curiosity, I followed them. Inside, I saw a huge jute bag, full of human limbs that had been collected for burial. I was not able to sleep for over a week afterwards.
This nerve-racking experience proved to be the tip of the iceberg, as terrorist attacks became more frequent and deadly. I covered at least 30 of them in my work, besides personally surviving two.
In December 2009, a suicide bomber tried to get into the Peshawar Press Club building. A few minutes earlier, a friend and I had entered the gate and gone inside after exchanging greetings with those standing at the entrance. A huge bang jolted the building. Standing on the veranda, I witnessed the glass panels of a door shattering into thousands of pieces as fumes of smoke and dust engulfed the whole red-brick structure. A group of us took shelter behind trees near the boundary wall before scaling it to get to the front of the building. It looked liked a powerful wave had shaken it to its core. As well as the attacker, the police guard who had stopped him from getting inside the building was dead, as were two of those whom I had greeted moments before. Two others were critically wounded.
Last year, there were two blasts in my neighbourhood. On a hot June night, I heard a thud and rushed out of my flat. An injured waiter at the restaurant that was the site of the blast told me it was a gas-cylinder explosion. I had just got back home when another, more powerful, bang shook the whole neighbourhood. The area lights went out, and in the darkness I could see silhouettes of the injured, running to safety while crying hysterically. Over 40 died, including two journalists, and six others were injured.
When I reflect upon my five years in journalism in northwestern Pakistan, it seems to me a violent and lifethreatening profession. A journalist has to investigate killings as part of the job, but at the same time is put in harm’s way. And things are going from bad to worse. I vividly remember how militants once forced a newspaper I worked for to publish an apology for calling their leader a ‘thief’. But now I don’t think an apology would suffice. The rise of violence against journalists says it all – 42 were murdered between 1992 and 2011 (compared to 19 between 1965 and 1991). At least seven were killed in 2011, making Pakistan the deadliest country for journalists.
Most of these killings have gone unpunished. Whenever a comrade is murdered, journalists protest for a day or two and pass resolutions, and then forget – until someone else is targeted. The state’s ability to protect its citizens has diminished in the wake of economic problems and deterioration in law and order. The US-led ‘War on Terror’ has polarized society, with splinter groups, mafias and vested interests eager to kill those with a different worldview. This makes the job of a journalist, who has a duty to report on the issues their society faces, extremely difficult.
Five years into the bloodshed and killing, journalism for me is a dark tunnel, with no light at the end
The situation is grimmer in the northwest, and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas are a virtual black hole for journalists. Here, US drones hover in the sky above militants and security forces engaged in fighting. They don’t like information getting out, yet media bosses, sitting far away in their cosy offices, demand it. So the loser in this equation is the journalist, whose job is a balancing act between life and death. Inevitably, threats and safety concerns lead to self-censorship; after all, I hear my colleagues telling each other, ‘No story is worth your life.’
Yet for many reporters, their job is a fatal obsession. Many in the tribal areas, far from the luxury of being salaried employees, work on a voluntary basis. No-one is properly trained, no-one has safety gear. Covering a conflict is a difficult job; but it is next to impossible when one is not trained for it. Five years into the bloodshed and killing, journalism for me is a dark tunnel, with no light at the end.