Roots of Impunity

Sidebar: For VOA Reporters, a Difficult Balance

The Taliban’s claim that they murdered Voice of America reporter Mukarram Khan Aatif because he failed to present their perspective in his stories was deeply troubling—if not terrifying—to the local reporters of the U.S. government-funded news agency.

Ibrahim Shinwari, a reporter with Deewa Radio, the VOA’s Pashto-language service, said he has been perplexed by the broadcast agency’s policies, a sentiment expressed by other local journalists. After the Aatif murder, he said, “we emailed the entire hierarchy at VOA explaining the weak position we are in. … But they say it’s against the policy of VOA to take voices that are on the wanted list or declared terrorists.”

VOA managers say the policy is not so clear-cut. In response to local concerns, they followed up with a memo that outlined a more nuanced approach than the one commonly understood in the field. “We were instructed in a collective email to include Taliban or any other militant group’s version if they take responsibility for a certain incident,” Shinwari said.

In a statement, VOA spokesman Kyle King said, “Deewa Radio and Television, which broadcasts to Pakistan’s tribal areas, has consistently asked reporters in the region to include claims of responsibility or other relevant statements from the Taliban or other groups, if they are important to the story. We do not air speeches and comments from extremist groups that are not germane to individual stories.”

What the Taliban view as germane and what VOA views as germane is precisely where the problem lies for local journalists. After Aatif’s death, VOA said it held discussions about the Taliban complaints. “These complaints were unfounded,” King said. “In an effort to restate our policy, the chief of our Deewa service and the division director sent emails and spoke by telephone with our local reporters to reiterate VOA’s longstanding policy on balance, and the requirement that all sides of an issue are reported, including the Taliban’s. There was no softening or change in VOA policy following Mukarram’s death.”

The Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees VOA, posthumously awarded Aatif the David Burke Distinguished Journalism Award, which recognizes the courage, integrity, and professionalism of individuals reporting for U.S. government-sponsored entities. For those in the field, though, there is no getting around the risky business of working for a U.S. government outlet.  

(Photo by AP)

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