Tuesday, 15 July 2008

NYT/IHT reporters deserve better headlines

And while we're on the subject, NYT/IHT journalists operating in situations of enormous peril, deserve better headlines.

As illustrated by this article:

Reporting in a danger zone: Held first by the Taliban, and then by Pakistan
PESHAWAR, Pakistan: The first sign of trouble came when a bearded young man shouted at us and pointed angrily at the small camera bag we had with us.
He and three other men were the first Taliban we had encountered during our stay in the tribal area of Mohmand. It was Thursday, July 3. We were just about to leave a marble quarry in a taxi with a local tribesman who had shown us how the quarry had been reopened by the Taliban and was generating new income for them.
The quarry is in an area where the Taliban exert significant control.
The men let us go, but our relief did not last long. About 10 minutes later, we were stopped again, by another group of Taliban. The group forced us to drive with them deeper into Mohmand, away from the road that would have taken us back to safety in Peshawar.
One Taliban member rode a motorbike, another rode in our car with a rifle, and two rode in a Taliban vehicle behind us.
We arrived in midafternoon at a mud house with several rooms that served as a makeshift prison. A member of the Taliban came to question us, but kept it brief. Mainly he wanted to know why one of the phones contained the telephone numbers of paramilitary men from the Frontier Corps, the local government militia.
The Taliban have a tense relationship with the government, which intermittently tries to exert control over the tribal areas through force.
A few hours later, senior members of the Taliban came to ask more questions.
We explained that we were journalists, a reporter and a photographer, which was why the phone would have Frontier Corps numbers. (The phone also contained the number for Maulvi Omar, the spokesman for the Tehrik-e-Taliban, the umbrella group of Pakistani Taliban.) One of us, Pir Zubair, stressed his family ties in South Waziristan to show that he was part of the tribal society that lives in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.
We were assured that if it could be proved that we were telling the truth, we would be released. We were treated well, and given food and water. Unlike the inmates, we were not manacled, but our money, phones and cameras were confiscated.
On Saturday morning, a visitor who had come to meet with the Taliban saw us and said that news had quickly spread that we had been captured and that the BBC radio service, which broadcasts in the local Pashtun language, had said we were being held on suspicion of spying.
Later that day, however, one of the men told us: "You work with The New York Times."
Within several hours, the head of the Taliban in Mohmand, Abdul Wali, came to see us, along with Yousaf Shah, an uncle of Pir Zubair's who had driven from South Waziristan to secure our release.
Wali told us there had been a misunderstanding, and that now that the Taliban knew we were journalists, we were free to leave. Our equipment and money were returned to us.
As we left, the spokesman for the Taliban in Mohmand, a man known as Assad, said he had received so many phone calls from Pakistani and international journalists asking for our release that he had worn out two cellphone batteries.
Soon after we left, we were greeted by tribal elders whom the government had brought together to help negotiate our release.
We drove toward Ghalani, the regional capital, where we stopped at the compound of the political agent of Mohmand, the most powerful government official in the area. There, a second interrogation began, lasting from midnight to 3 a.m. It was conducted by representatives of several branches of the government.
They asked nothing about the Taliban but were interested in our movements over the past three days. They asked us biographical questions, particularly of Akhtar because he came from Karachi, a different part of the country. We were treated well during our stay.
Even though the interrogation was completed by Sunday morning, we were kept at the compound for another 36 hours for reasons that were never explained. Appeals were made to the senior official in the Pakistani Interior Ministry, Rehman Malik, and other government officials for our release.
An appeal to the United States Embassy in Islamabad to ask the Pakistani authorities to release us was rebuffed. Kay Mayfield, the senior spokeswoman, said that it did not appear that we were in physical danger and that there was nothing constructive the embassy could do since we are Pakistani citizens.
We were released, finally, on Monday afternoon.



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