Reporters Without Borders is extremely worried by threats and physical attacks against Pakistani journalists in the northwestern Tribal Area of Bajaur, where fighting is continuing between the Taliban and the security forces. A fatwa has been issued against two journalists and a rocket-propelled grenade was fired at a press club.
"The Tribal Areas are being steadily emptied of their journalists because of the threats and violence against them," Reporters Without Borders said. "The Taliban groups and security forces are entirely to blame for this exodus as they display a disgraceful disregard for media freedom and safety."
The press freedom organisation added: "The Tribal Areas, especially Bajaur, are at the centre of a major international conflict but the press is in the process of disappearing there. We appeal to all parties to stop targeting journalists, who are neither the West’s agents nor Taliban supporters but just media professionals and nothing else."
With a total of seven journalists killed in connection with their work, Pakistan was second only to Iraq in media fatalities in 2008, according to the annual Reporters Without Borders press freedom roundup.
A fatwa sentencing Bajaur-based journalists Anwarullah Khan and Irfanullah Jan to death was issued earlier this month by a Taliban group and was broadcast by one of the clandestine radio stations operated by a fundamentalist group. "They deserve to be killed," one of the station’s presenters said. Khan and Jan also received threatening letters accusing them of being "agents of the West." Since then, they have not left their homes in Khar, the capital of Bajaur.
One of them told Reporters Without Borders: "I cannot leave my home for fear of being kidnapped or killed. I am cut off from the world."
The Khar Press Club building, which had been unoccupied since the start of an army operation in the area in August, was damaged by a rocket on 13 December. The attack was condemned by the Tribal Union of Journalists (TUJ).
"We do our work in an extremely difficult environment and we receive threats from all sides," a Khar-based journalist said, speaking on condition of anonymity. Only a handful of journalists are still active in Bajaur, compared with more than 20 in August. "All the others stopped working as journalists or relocated elsewhere," the source said. "The difficulties of working as a journalist are unimaginable." Two journalists from Bajaur, Noor Hakim and Muhammad Ibrahim, have been killed since June 2007. No arrests were made in either case.
Gunmen raided the Khar Press Club last summer and roughed up the journalists who were there, accusing them of being hostile in their reporting. The Taliban often accuse journalists of being "agents of America" or the Pakistani government. It is nonetheless relatively easy to get information from them about their military operations.
Nearly 500,000 Bajaur inhabitants have been forced to leave their homes since August as a result of the intense fighting between the army and the Taliban.
Tribal Areas - threats, low pay and self-censorship
Journalists based in the Tribal Areas told Reporters Without Borders they were forced to censor themselves because of growing threats from the Taliban or their local allies. "I report less than half of what happens in my area," a Pakistani journalist said. "We have to censor ourselves if we want to stay alive."
A Bajaur journalist said it had become very difficult to independently confirm the number of civilian victims. "If we say civilians were killed by the army or the militants, we put our lives in danger," he said.
Speaking at a recent conference organised by the NGO Intermedia, TUJ president Nasir Mohmand condemned not only the violence but also the lack of financial security that the union’s members have to endure. "Some Pakistani media do not pay us for our work," he said. "This makes the situation of journalists in the Tribal Areas even more precarious."
As well as the risks of covering the "war on terror," journalists also encounter problems covering sectarian violence. "A Sunni journalist is pressured by the leaders of his community if he fails to emphasize Shiite atrocities," said a journalist based in Kurram. "The situation is the same for Shiite journalists. We know that hundreds of innocent people are murdered by both sides, but we cannot talk about it calmly."