Doubling down on playing the spy card

Another foreign journalist was “outed” in Pakistan on Friday. A front-page story in the November 20 edition of the daily newspaper The Nation ran the picture of an unidentified journalist at the scene of a bomb blast in Peshawar, identifying him as a CIA spy. He was actually Daniel Berehulak, who works for the international photography agency Getty Images. Hugh Pinney, Getty’s senior director of photography, wrote to the paper’s editor, Shireen Mazari on Saturday, setting the record straight. A PDF of the full letter is here, but here’s what is most likely the most salient part: “He is not an employee of the CIA and has never pursued any agenda other than, as a photographer, to capture important moments and events on camera for historic record.”

This is the second time recently that The Nation has accused a foreign journalist of being a spy, or at least speculated about it in such a way as to make it dangerous for them to work in Pakistan. On November 5, the paper did something similar to The Wall Street Journal’s Matt Rosenberg, accusing him of working for the CIA, Israeli intelligence, and the U.S. military contractor Blackwater (now known as Xe). A letter to Mazari was largely drafted by Islamabad’s foreign correspondent community, which rounded up 21 international news editors to send it to Minister for Information and Broadcasting Qamar Zaman Kaira. There’s a fuller blog entry of mine about that incident here

Mazari came under some flack from Pakistani journalists about the story, but she defended it, saying the headline—“Journalists as spies in FATA?”—ended in a question mark, meaning it wasn’t a statement of fact, just speculation. The Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA, is the site of the current army offensive against what it calls entrenched Taliban militants and where the U.S. has launched airstrikes from unmanned aircraft. 

Wall Street Journal Managing Editor Robert Thomson also wrote to Mazari soon after the Rosenberg article appeared. Thomson said he was disgusted with the story, calling it baseless and false. CPJ wrote about The Nation’s article, too. We called our blog entry “Playing the spy card” because we have seen this tactic used in other places. It poisons the atmosphere for all journalists, no matter who their employer is or where they come from. 

The Nation has long positioned itself editorially as the voice of strong Pakistani nationalism, angry about weak and corrupt governance, what it considers an overbearing foreign (largely American) presence in the country, and undue foreign influence in Pakistan’s internal affairs. It’s not an unpopular position in Pakistan—and it’s one that is most likely growing, and one The Nation uses as a guiding editorial principle.

Wantonly accusing foreign journalists of being spies is not new to Pakistan, CPJ has seen it done many times in many place. It’s a nasty trick, but it is usually used by governments, not journalists against other journalists. There’s nothing wrong with a newspaper having an editorial position, as The Nation does, but there is everything wrong when they direct their wrath against professional colleagues.