It was in January four years ago that nearly 100 journalists from all over Pakistan got together to launch a new TV channel in Lahore, Dunya TV. That was where I first met Mukarram Khan Aatif, our reporter from Mohmand.
I had a very good relationship with the entire group, particularly with journalists from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). We used to have many great discussions about the war-like conditions in their regions. For the first time I realized how dangerous it was to work as a journalist there. But even in my worst fears, I didn’t imagine that one of these high-spirited colleagues would be killed in the line of duty.
Pakistan has been declared the most dangerous country for journalists for the past two years, and things are turning from bad to worse. Hue and cry about journalist security has risen along with the number of dead, but practically nothing has been done to protect this most vulnerable community.
Mukarram had been “watched” for some time. After receiving threats last year, he moved out of his ancestral village in Mohmand and shifted to Shabqadar, a town near Peshawar. The decision was very difficult for him, but he chose to speak the truth and he was ready to pay the price. The worst was yet to come.
Mukarram also worked for Radio Deewa, the Pashto service of the Voice of America. He had been getting warnings: He was blamed for doing “one-sided” stories, faulted for disclosing “wrong” information. But like many other brave journalists from KPK and FATA, he was not ready to give up his right of freedom of expression.
Consequently, the worst came. Gunmen attacked when Mukarram was offering Maghrib prayers in a mosque near his house. Shot three times, once to the head, Mukarram was silenced forever. His killing shocked the journalist community, particularly those in KPK and the tribal areas. Amid threats against many others, Mukarram’s killing is a clear message that you must either listen or be prepared to die.
According to foreign news agencies, the Taliban have claimed responsibility for his death, but one of my journalist friends from Peshawar was skeptical. She said the situation there is so chaotic, with so many groups and stake-holders, that it is very difficult to fix responsibility.
This morning when I was coming to the office, I saw a street vendor selling second-hand clothes outside my office in Lahore. It reminded me of Mukarram, who once did a marvelous piece on the subject during our training four years ago. My heart skipped a beat. Life is insecure and uncertain, but losing a friend is always painful.