Reporting the truth can be fatal

I just reported the truth, says 38-year-old Dilawar Wazir Khan wearily, explaining over telephone why he was kidnapped and tortured. The last journalist left reporting from South Waziristan, one of the troubled tribal regions bordering Afghanistan, Dilawar Khan works for the Urdu language service of the BBC and Pakistan’s English daily Dawn. “Many of my colleagues have given up their profession and others have left the area.” Having escaped two earlier attempts on his life, Dilawar Khan became the latest target of what journalists swear is Pakistan’s notorious Inter Services Intelligence (ISI).

Earlier this month, the Supreme Court had reprimanded the government for disregarding citizens’ rights after the families of 41 people who had gone missing moved habeas corpus petitions. After an attempt on Dilawar Khan’s life left two colleagues, Allah Noor Wazir and Amir Nawab, dead and his 15-year-old brother Taimur was kidnapped and murdered in 2005, Khan though it prudent to move out of his hometown of Wana, in South Waziristan, to Dera Ismail Khan in the North West frontier Province (NWFP). “Now I don’t know where to find refuge. No place seems safe enough.

This time I was lucky and came home almost unscathed but I am not sure if I’ll be this lucky the next time.” And yet he refuses to put his pen down.

Kept blindfolded and fettered, he was tortured for 30 hours before being released. He was probably saved by protests from journalists’ unions and a call to boycott of parliamentary proceedings.

In a statement after his release on November 21, Joel Simon, executive director of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said: “The public outcry that followed Dilawar Khan’s disappearance should not end now that he has been released. The disappearances and deaths of several Pakistani journalists have gone unexplained, uninvestigated, and unreported by the authorities.” Though free, Dilawar refuses to divulge any information about who kidnapped him. “I can’t tell you as I’ve been threatened with dire consequences. I’m not scared for myself but I’ve caused enough trauma and pain to my family because of my profession. I fear for their lives. It was because of me and my work that my brother was killed.”

“Dilawar was abducted because his story in Dawn about the peace deal in North Waziristan proved that it was signed by militants not by local tribal elders,” says Hamid Mir, an Urdu language columnist and anchor of a popular TV talk show on current affairs. “If some columnists are openly criticising the government or some opposition leaders are appearing on TV talk shows, this freedom is not given by Musharraf. This is an international wave. We are exercising this right to freedom by taking a lot of risks. Everyone is paying for that freedom. The government can ban any channel anytime.”

Journalism, commented Mir, has become a “dangerous profession not just in Wana but also in Islamabad.” With the experience of reporting from the war-torn areas of Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Jaffna, Bosnia, and Chechnya, he says that North and South Waziristan are tougher places to work in. “It’s easier to travel in Afghanistan with legal documents, but unsafe for Pakistani journalists to travel in their own tribal areas.” — IPS