At UMD, Pakistani Journalist Works to Expand Vision of Local News—and Survive Doing It
by Liam Farrell | Illustration by Jeanette J. Nelson M.B.A. ’14 and Megan Blair
Reporting the local news in America is rarely steeped in mortal danger. Politicians may obfuscate, police departments may withhold information and crime-ridden neighborhoods may be intimidating, but these are roadblocks of a subtler nature.
Not so in Pakistan, where journalist Said Nazir Afridi runs a radio news service in unstable tribal areas. In a country roiled by conflicts between the Taliban, military leaders and dozens of traditional tribes, reporting any kind of news can be dangerous.
When he mentioned that the militant group running a local cricket tournament had used American funds for the event, Afridi was promptly accused of being a CIA agent. “It means …” he says, running his hand across his throat.
When Afridi reported that a local doctor had been arrested, he dared to write that government security forces, not unidentified armed men, seized him. (It turned out that the doctor, Shakeel Afridi, had helped the CIA run a fake vaccination program aiming to collect DNA samples from people in the suspected Abbottabad compound of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.) If he hadn’t identified Shakeel’s captors, Afridi says, the doctor “would have been missing or killed.”
For the moment, Afridi, whose journalist cousin was killed by a car bomb in 2011, is far from the tensions of his home country. He is taking part in the Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship Program, an international exchange project at Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism.
Afridi’s journalistic challenge, however, is more than an academic one. His mission is to make sure his independent media service, and its employees, can survive.
Afridi’s father, a local tribal leader who mediated disputes, marked the birth of his infant son in January 1982 by buying an assault rifle to protect his family.
"We’re tough people,” he says. With a smile, he adds, “But I didn’t like guns. I believed in the power of the pen.”
The country of Pakistan is less than 70 years old, but its people have centuries of powerful religious, ethnic and tribal ties, and Afridi grew up in a place known for resistance to outsiders. His hometown of Bara, southwest of Peshawar and about 20 miles from the legendary Khyber Pass, has seen armies from Alexander the Great’s forces to American troops invading Afghanistan.
That region is part of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Never fully governed by either British or Pakistani authorities, FATA still operates under draconian, 113-year-old Frontier Crimes Regulations that allow an entire tribe to be punished for an offense committed by a single member.
Afridi’s father put him in a madrassa, a traditional Islamic school—telling him that people educated in secular institutions “are dirty”—but he wanted to learn about more than religion. If he had stayed, Afridi says, he likely would have ended up in the Taliban—like many childhood friends and some distant relatives.
“My father is still angry with me for not following his order because he wanted me to become a cleric in order to go to heaven,” he says.
With the support of an elder brother, he left for secular schooling and indulged his love of cricket. Afridi enrolled in the University of Peshawar wanting to help the people of his region, and an interest in politics eventually turned to journalism.
After working at a local news agency, Afridi helped establish FATA’s Khyber Radio in 2006. The government backed the radio station to counter militant influence among a radicalized population with low literacy rates.
COVERING A COMMUNITY
But within two years, Afridi says, it was clear the station needed to adjust its mix of programming, as hardline militants were constantly threatening staff for broadcasting music.
In 2008, Internews, a nonprofit American organization dedicated to empowering local media, trained Afridi and his co-workers, including four female reporters, to give regular news bulletins. The station then began regularly reporting on education, health care and everyday concerns of the people in FATA, not just violence.
Aurangzaib Khan, a freelancer journalist for Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper, helped train Afridi and says his efforts were “hugely significant” in providing an alternative to international sources, which don’t cover FATA substantively.
“For the local people, the radio stations were the only local sources of information,” he says.
But power is complicated in FATA, with no constitution or guaranteed rights. Pakistan ranks 158th out of 180 countries on Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index, and the Committee to Protect Journalists says 32 journalists have been murdered there since 1992.
“The challenges that we feel like we face (in the U.S.) are so trite to the life-and-death challenges Said faces in an area of Pakistan known to be lawless,” says Dana Priest, the Merrill College’s John S. and James L. Knight Chair in Public Affairs Journalism.
Ultimately, Afridi did run afoul of the government, which suspended him in 2010 after he reported on protests criticizing the army for an airstrike that killed civilians. That’s when he decided to start his own radio operation.
A NEW PATH
Afridi is co-founder and news director of the Tribal News Network, which produces twice-daily news bulletins, sends them to six radio stations and reaches about 7 million people. TNN has more than 35 reporters, including five women.
The operation is remarkable partially because of the unremarkable nature of its stories. It thrives on the type of daily reportage the West takes for granted: stories on employment policies, social service programs, infrastructure repairs and sports.
“There’s a good side of life, and we miss it,” he says. “We should cover it.”
Afridi, who has also written for The News International and The Express Tribune, attributes the survival of the operation to its willingness to cover all sides of an issue.
“If you want to get the confidence of the local people, you should be impartial,” he says. “I like independence.”
At Maryland, he is undertaking a 10-month, non-degree program of coursework, field trips and networking to develop his skills. Courses range from journalism to public policy and health, and fellows also do six-week, professional internships. Afridi spent part of each week in the fall at National Public Radio in Washington, D.C., studying its fundraising and partnerships and watching the coordination and editing between employees.
Afridi also came to the U.S. in 2012 as part of a program organized by the South Asia Center of the Atlantic Council, an international affairs think tank. He has been struck by how traditional American journalism is being displaced by citizen reporting, as well as the numerous avenues of support—from academia to private foundations—that help investigative work.
“U.S. journalists enjoy maximum freedom, but at the same time they show a great deal of responsibility,” he says.
Priest says Afridi has a methodical and patient approach that will serve him well as he seeks to build an audience and make sure TNN remains a viable business.
“He struck me as very wise about how he’s going to do it,” she says.
Afridi envisions a bright future. He is brainstorming ideas like a mobile phone agreement allowing listeners to access news bulletins by calling a number and paying a few rupees. (He hopes to eventually expand to 40 million listeners.) And though FATA has little electricity, let alone widespread smartphones or Internet access, Afridi is exploring online resources to serve the future’s more connected community.
“It’s coming,” he says. TERP
For another look at Afridi’s efforts, watch the 2006 video below on Khyber Radio.
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