The Perils of Reporting in Pakistan

December 16, 2014

The toll of Taliban attacks is measured in more than bodies.

Stay in the news business long enough, and you become hardened to brutality. But the reports from Pakistan overnight hit me hard on Tuesday morning. How to comprehend such evil? One hundred forty-five dead at the Taliban’s hands, more than a hundred of them children, executed while trying to learn. Coffins piled outside a Peshawar school. Hallways packed with small bodies, many still dressed in green school blazers. The news was horrifying, even for a country now all too used to horrific news. For me, it hit home because I am a mother, and also because it was unfolding in a place that I care about.

I’ve traveled to Peshawar, more than once, trying to understand people’s complicated relationships with the Taliban. But I’d think twice before going today. I suspect most reporters would. What follows is the story of one of them, a Pakistani journalist named Raza Rumi.

Rumi knows far better than I the dangers of covering Pakistan. Until a few months ago, he anchored a nightly news show for Pakistan’s second-biggest TV network. Maybe it’s a stretch to say that he was the Brian Williams of Pakistan, but he was something like that. Right up until the night, this past spring, when assassins came for him.

“There was this flash of light,” he says. “And that noise that submachine guns make, you know? I thought, ‘Oh, my God—they’re actually here for me.’”

Both on his show and in his newspaper column, Rumi was known for speaking his mind. He admits that on March 28, he was in rare form. On the air that evening, he condemned the Taliban and other jihadist groups, then switched gears to criticize the government and its strict blasphemy laws.

“Afterwards, when I stepped off the set, my producer was shaking his head and saying, ‘I think the time has come for you to seek asylum in Norway.’ But he was laughing. And I was laughing back.”

An hour later, on the road home, gunmen surrounded his car. “They shot my driver first, to slow down the car,” Rumi tells me. “He lost control, and we rammed into an electricity pole.” Rumi dove to the floor. “The bullets were coming and I kept telling myself, if they hit my leg, I have another leg. If they hit my arm, I have another arm. But if they hit my head. … So I was trying to jam my head under the front seat.” He lay still, covered in shattered glass and drenched in his driver’s blood, until he heard a crowd gathering and judged that his attackers must have fled.

Rumi survived. His driver did not. “Nobody was willing to help me pull him out of the car. Finally some guy brought a shawl, to cover him, while we waited for the ambulance to come.”

***

Raza Rumi tells me this story over lunch, on a chilly recent day in Washington, D.C. A mutual friend has introduced us, figuring we’ll hit it off because we’re both journalists and close in age (Rumi is 44), and because of my interest in Pakistan. We wedge ourselves into a back table at Rasika West End, an Indian place that’s perpetually packed with the power-lunch crowd from the nearby World Bank.

Rumi tells me he is staying, for the moment, in the northern Virginia suburbs. He asks me not to write exactly where. He says that for two weeks after the attack, he laid low in Pakistan and considered his options. The police warned him not to return to his house in Lahore. “They said, the killers will realize they missed their target, and they’ll come after you again. One option was to buy a bulletproof, bombproof car. And you know, get the house security-proofed, get cameras, get extra guards. But I don’t have that much money! And even if I hypothetically had half a million dollars to spare, why would I do that? They’ll still find a way to kill you. I saw that I was not going to get any justice or protection. So one night, I just packed up, and I grabbed my kids, and we came here.”

In person, despite his troubles, Rumi has warm eyes and an easy laugh. He responds politely to my questions. But he has relived the attack enough times that he can now do so without visible emotion. When our waitress delivers a fresh round of dishes, he interrupts his gruesome account to snap a photo of the cashew-crusted beetroot cakes, which he will share with his 159,000 followers on Twitter. (“Lunch today had these amazing appetizers,” I later see he has posted.)

Rumi winces only once during our long conversation. It is when I press him on whether he feels free to speak as freely as he once did. After an awkward silence, he shakes his head. “I still have family there [in Pakistan],” he says. “My parents. I do censor. I mind my words. If I were to go on television tomorrow, I would be very careful.”

What is lost, I ask him, when a journalist is muted? When he is no longer able to hold up a mirror to his country, or hold its government to account?

Another silence, and then, softly, Raza Rumi answers: “A lot.”

***

The loss of a voice like Rumi’s reverberates beyond Pakistan. The consequences can be felt here in Washington, too, as day by day we know less about a country that is at once both an ally and an antagonist to America.

Many billions of American dollars have flowed to Pakistan since Sept. 11, pulsing through official and covert channels. That money is supposed to have paid for schools and roads and disaster relief and—above all—for fighting terrorism. The U.S. forks over about $2 billion a year in security aid to Pakistan; U.S. taxpayers have treated Pakistan’s army to everything from attack helicopters to barbed wire fences. How, then, to make sense of this week’s massacre at a military-run school? Pakistan’s political leaders have cried outrage. But for many years the ISI, the intelligence service, has been known to play a double game: holding out one hand for American dollars, even as the other slips beneath the table to fund and arm the Taliban. This latest carnage is enough to make you weep, both for the lives lost and for the strikingly succinct way that it illuminates the rottenness of the Pakistani state.

The blame cuts both ways. Islamabad’s corruption has been enabled by Washington’s arrogance and lack of oversight. But a hard fact remains: Pakistan is one of the most dangerous places on earth, producing both violent extremists and nuclear weapons at alarming rates. U.S. leverage is inevitably limited, and our knowledge is riddled with holes as to how secure those nukes are, who’s really running things, and just how deeply infested the ISI and the rest of the security apparatus are with jihadist sympathizers. Take the nuclear example. Every Pakistani official I’ve interviewed insists the arsenal is safe; every American official will privately, once the microphone clicks off, confess to doubts.

What is lost, when journalists are no longer able to ply their trade, is the effort to investigate these competing claims, or to ask tough questions of government officials, or to witness a nation and its people firsthand. And Raza Rumi’s voice is not the only one that has been muzzled. Weeks after he was attacked, another prominent TV anchor, Hamid Mir, was shot and wounded. Dozens of Pakistani journalists have been killed in recent years. Many others have chosen, understandably, to switch professions.

For foreign correspondents, the risks have also multiplied. When I first traveled to Pakistan as a BBC producer in the 1990s, I was able to move freely. I hailed taxis on the street, ate alone in restaurants and showed up for interviews in Western clothes, without a head scarf. This remained possible even after Sept. 11, even after the horrific slaying of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. I do remember a moment in 2006, turning on to the Grand Trunk Road to make the two-hour drive from Islamabad to Peshawar. My translator, a young woman from Pakistan’s troubled tribal areas, pulled a head scarf from her bag, wound it tightly to cover every feature but her eyes, and advised me to do the same. “Always, outside Islamabad,” she whispered. Still, that afternoon, she took me to her family’s village. We passed army checkpoints to get there but met no resistance. Men wandered up from their work in the sugar cane and tobacco fields and crowded around us. We stood in a muddy paddock and interviewed them until twilight fell, without a guard, without a cellphone, without having told anyone where we were.

My former colleague, NPR Pakistan correspondent Philip Reeves, chuckles when I tell him this story, as if I am describing reporting tactics from Ye Olden Days of Yore. He explains the precautions he is now forced to take to pull off a single interview in Peshawar, the frontier city where Tuesday’s siege unfolded: “You don’t get out of your car on the street. You know the exact address, you go straight there, you make sure your driver is parked in a way that he can get out quickly. And you take an electronic tracker, so they can trace you if you disappear.”

What about reporting from outside Peshawar, from the tribal areas where I had traveled blithely just a few years before? The Pakistani Taliban says the school attack was to avenge recent military operations there; what do we know of the Army’s campaign? Reeves sighs. “There’s a war going on there. We don’t cover it because we can’t go there. There are roadblocks, and they’d stop you and say you violated your visa. And then you’d get kicked out.”

This threat is the trump card wielded against foreign media working in Pakistan. Jeffrey Goldberg, an American reporter not known for shirking dangerous assignments, writes in this month’s Atlantic about traveling to Islamabad to investigate the safety of the nuclear weapons arsenal. One day, he received a phone call that amounted to a death threat, or—as Goldberg interpreted it—“an invitation … to leave Pakistan right away.” He took a taxi straight to the airport.

“Today, even places that shouldn’t be dangerous for journalists are dangerous,” he writes. “Whole stretches of Muslim countries are becoming off-limits. This is a minor facet of a much larger calamity, but it has consequences: the problems of Afghanistan and Pakistan and Syria and Iraq are not going away; our ability to see these problems, however, is becoming progressively more circumscribed.”

In other words: What we in Washington know of such places is increasingly a view from the dark.

***

Dec. 28 will mark nine months since the assassins came for Raza Rumi.

How his story ends is not yet clear. Rumi’s visa to stay in the U.S. runs out in February. He hopes to extend it, or failing that, he’s weighing the “difficult decision” of whether to apply for asylum. “If the U.S. throws me out, I’ll go somewhere else,” he says. “I can’t go back home.” For now, he has a temporary office near the Lincoln Memorial, from which he writes and blogs. He confides, smiling, that he’s not a bad cook, and invites me to bring my family over for dinner sometime. Perhaps our sons can play together.

As for the story he left behind in Pakistan, it grows bleaker.

“The conditions are getting worse,” confirms my former colleague, Phil Reeves, on the line from Islamabad. “When I look at the number of journalists I’ve personally known here who’ve ended up being taken hostage, or in serious trouble, it’s very large.”

So why stay, I ask?

“Because it’s fascinating,” he replies. “This is a dysfunctional country, in a dangerous neighborhood, with nuclear weapons. How can that not be a story for a long time to come?”

He’s right. This week’s heartbreaking attack will fade from the front pages, but Pakistan never slips from the headlines for long. Its craggy, desolate mountains and stinking, vibrant cities will provide the backdrop for thousands of stories to come.

What’s been lost, though, is that Raza Rumi—and many other journalists like him—will not be there to tell them.

Mary Louise Kelly is NPR’s former Intelligence correspondent, and the author of Anonymous Sources, a novel about journalists, spies and Pakistan’s nuclear security.

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