New York City, October 17, 2001–Two weeks after the September 11 attacks, the number of foreign journalists in Pakistan swelled to an estimated 700. The country’s location alongside Afghanistan, the first target of Washington’s “new war,” made Pakistan a natural destination for journalists.
An initially lax visa policy–allowing citizens of most Western countries and other “friendly” nations to obtain 30-day tourist visas upon arrival–was tightened by September 24. “After the incidents of September 11, we felt the need for a more stringent visa policy,” foreign office spokesman Riaz Ahmed Khan said, as reported by Pakistan’s daily Dawn. The article said that the visa policy “was being tightened primarily because an army of journalists had landed in Pakistan and more were expected.”
Though initial reports suggested that all visas would have to be cleared by Islamabad, Western journalists have not experienced significant processing delays.
However, journalists from neighboring India have complained that their visa applications seem to be languishing indefinitely. The Pakistani daily The News reported that the government “is not issuing visas to Indian journalists saying that they have nothing to report…except anti-Pakistan stories.”
Local journalists told CPJ that despite heightened sensitivities about national security, the military government that rules Pakistan has so far made no overt attempts to control the media. Some pointed out that such interference would be unlikely because Pakistan’s military rulers are well aware that, with hundreds of foreign journalists around, the world will be watching their every move.
But journalists reporting along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan have complained of restrictions on access to Afghan refugee camps and requirements that armed government security officers accompany foreign journalists.
In Quetta–a Pakistani city close to a major border crossing en route to the Taliban headquarters in Kandahar, Afghanistan–authorities have so closely circumscribed the movements of foreign journalists that some reporters have said they feel like “prisoners” in their luxury hotel. Local officials argue that the restrictions are necessary to cope with the mounting threat of violence from groups angered by the U.S.-led attacks on Afghanistan.
Access to the border itself has been severely limited. These new restrictions may have been imposed partly in response to alleged threats from Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban militia that foreign journalists spotted on the Torkham border “would be gunned down.” The threat was reported on September 19 by The Frontier Post, an English-language daily that moved its base from Peshawar, a city on the Afghan border, to Lahore this year after coming under intense pressure from religious groups. The Frontier Post reported that the Taliban wanted the border sealed to foreign journalists in the belief that they may be working as U.S. spies. Several journalists have since been arrested on suspicion of spying (see section on Afghanistan).
On October 13, Pakistan warned foreign journalists that the government would hold news organizations accountable for any employee who enters Afghanistan illegally. “If someone goes inside Afghanistan without proper identification. . .we will also take action against the particular agency or network sponsoring that person,” said Pakistani foreign ministry spokesman Riaz Mohammad Khan, as reported by Agence France-Presse. “Advise your own colleagues not to be adventurous.”
At the time, Pakistani authorities were holding French reporter Aziz Zemouri, of the weekly Figaro Magazine, who was initially seized by Afghanistan’s Taliban militia. However, Pakistan did eventually release Zemouri on October 16.
Khan also warned during the briefing that “We have seen some of your colleagues going into areas where they are not allowed,” according to a report published in the Pakistani daily The News, adding that the government is “considering canceling visas of such journalists.”
Reporters present interpreted this to mean that journalists could be sanctioned for reporting without a permit in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, which stretch along the Afghan border and house many of the refugee camps.
Foreigners are generally required to secure permission before visiting the tribal areas, but Pakistani authorities are more stringently enforcing the rules since large numbers of journalists, eager to report along the Afghan frontier, have arrive. Officials also are more rigorously enforcing routine restrictions on filming and photography along the sensitive border and in places such as airports and military installations.
In the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks on the United States, Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban militia ordered all foreigners, including journalists, to leave the country. An unusually large number of foreign correspondents were working in Afghanistan in September covering the high-profile trial of eight foreign aid workers accused of attempting to convert Muslims to Christianity, but most left after Taliban officials warned that foreigners would not be safe in the event of a U.S. attack.
CNN reported that Nic Robertson and Alfredo DeLara, respectively a CNN correspondent and producer/cameraman, were the last foreign correspondents in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Robertson and DeLara appealed to authorities in Kabul and Kandahar for permission to stay but were forced to leave on September 19.
On October 13, the Taliban allowed a select group of foreign correspondents into the country to report on the damage caused by the U.S. bombing campaign. Officials took journalists on a guided tour and allowed them to report, under Taliban supervision, from the city of Jalalabad.
The Associated Press, Reuters, and Agence France-Presse–all of which have bureaus in Kabul staffed by Afghan nationals–and the Gulf-based, Arabic-language television station Al-Jazeera continue to operate in Taliban-controlled territory.
Most foreign journalists are now entering the country from Tajikistan with the help of the opposition Northern Alliance, which is fighting the Taliban for control of the country. The New York Times reported that as of September 28, “more than 200 journalists were on the Afghan rebels’ waiting list for a US$300 helicopter ride south from Tajikistan to join 60 or more reporters in rebel-held areas of northern Afghanistan.”
It had been feared that reporters would be viewed with suspicion and hostility by the Northern Alliance after their revered military commander, Ahmed Shah Massood, was killed in a suicide bomb attack on September 9 by two men posing as journalists. So far, CPJ sources have not reported anything to corroborate this fear.
Some reporters have managed to cross into Taliban-held territory from neighboring Pakistan, but this route is both more difficult and more dangerous. Pakistani journalists have generally been more successful than their Western counterparts in making this trip, although two British male journalists from the BBC managed to travel in and out of the country under cover of burqas–the all-encompassing gowns that the Taliban require women to wear.
On September 28, however, British journalist Yvonne Ridley, a reporter for London’s Sunday Express newspaper, was caught using the same disguise. Taliban soldiers arrested Ridley along with two guides in the village of Dour Baba, just 9 miles (15 kilometers) from the Pakistani border. Though the Taliban had accused Ridley of spying and warned that she would be forced to stand trial, they released her without charge on October 8. Little is known about the status of the two guides, who have been identified in some reports as Afghans. (Read a news alert about the Ridley case.)
On October 9, the Taliban arrested French journalist Michel Peyrard and his two Pakistani guides, Mukkaram Khan and Mohammad Irfan. All three have been accused of spying.
• Mitch Potter of the Toronto Star writes about “Kandahar, Inside and Out,”. One of the best accounts of the trials and tribulations of reporting from post-war Afghanistan. Feb. 10, 2002.
• Philadelphia Inquirer photographer Peter Tobia talks about his experience on assignment in Pakistan in an e-mail interview.
• New York Times photographer Vincent Laforet recounts being attacked by Pakistani police in Quetta.
• The Christian Science Monitor weighs in on the “mini-economic boom” that journalists covering the war have brought to Pakistan.
• NBC’s Jim Maceda reports that getting to Afghanistan is at least half the work.