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Journalist, No Thanks

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By Farooq Sulehria

The murder of Daniel Pearl back in 2002 should have served as proper warning to journalists interested in travelling to Pakistan. But journalists are a strange breed. They keep risking their lives in the search of truth.

The New York Times' Nicholas Kristof, who had earlier come to Pakistan and written about Mukhtaran Mai, wanted to, but couldn't, come back when Dr Shazia Khalid was subjected to violence. Lucky him because had he come he might have landed in a dark cell like some Swedish filmmakers and their Afghan colleagues did recently.

Leon Flamholc, his son David Flamholc (Swedes living in London) and Tahir Shah, a British writer of Afghan origin were arrested by military police in July last year in Peshawar. Accused of filming a military base they were blindfolded and taken to a military detention centre. After several initial rounds of interrogation, first by the military police and then by military intelligence, they were placed in solitary confinement in dark and dingy cells. During the next 15 days, they were regularly interrogated in rooms later described by David Flamholc as "living museums of medieval torture instruments".

Leon and David Flamholc were questioned about their personal history and their Jewish origin. As a British Muslim, Tahir Shah, who has written extensively about Afghan culture, was questioned about possible links to the London bombings. They were researching on behalf of their production company, Caravan Films, with a view to making a documentary about the treasures of the Mughal empire.

The Pakistani authorities said they broke the law by filming while in the country on tourist visas. These journalists were indeed travelling on tourist visas and were not supposed to engage in any journalistic activity. But this is a catch-22 situation. If one seeks a visa as a journalist, like Nicholas Kristof did, the request is denied. If journalists take a risk and travel on a tourist visa, they land in jail like Leon and David. If nothing else, the visa is delayed unless either the story becomes old or the journalist loses interest. This at least is the case with Swedish journalists Agneta Persson and Petra Jonson. Both these journalists travelled to Pakistan a year ago and fell in love with the fascinating people of this country. They decided to go back to write on how women organise their work at NGOs and trade unions. Among other organisations they mentioned AGHS and Dastak as their point of focus. Also, in their visa application they mentioned, among others, Asma Jahangir as their contact person.

But they did not know that Pakistani embassies have lost the power to issue visas to journalists, as they later discovered through a newspaper report. According to the report, Pakistan's missions abroad can no longer issue visas to foreign journalists. Every case has to be referred to Islamabad. Under the present procedure, journalists' visa requests are referred to the interior ministry, which brings into the loop the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Intelligence Bureau (IB), the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) Directorate.

Agneta Persson and Petra Jonson applied for visas on September 6, 2006. Their applications were dispatched to Islamabad on September 9, 2006. Reluctantly, they also signed papers agreeing to let information ministry personnel accompany them during the course of their stay. After a prolonged delay, they requested the Swedish embassy in Islamabad to intervene. Twice they cancelled their plane bookings. The Swedish embassy tried to intervene but in vain. Finally, after a delay of almost ten months, these two journalists were told that their visa requests had been turned down. Moral of the story: foreign journalists better stay away.

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