Risks mount for reporters covering war on terrorism

The alleged abduction of a US journalist in Pakistan highlights daily dangers.

The alleged kidnapping last week of American journalist Daniel Pearl near the Pakistani city of Karachi underscores a point that most reporters would rather forget: the dangers of doing their job.

Mr. Pearl, the Bombay-based South Asia bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal, was last seen on Wednesday after a taxi dropped him off at a Karachi hotel for an interview with the head of the Islamist militant group Tanzeem-ul-Fuqra.

While the details are unclear, many journalists are taking a second look at the risks they take - and who they trust as they report on the US-led war on terrorism.

"I'm sure every journalist in the region is thinking about what kind of stories they do and the people they work with," says Kavita Menon, Asia program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York. But playing it safe does not make for good journalism, she adds. "If a journalist is forced to rely on official sources for their information, then what kind of information are we getting. After all, the Pakistani intelligence agencies are notorious for misinformation."

War correspondents may carry the baggage of a romantic job title, but in truth, most reporters head to the front lines reluctantly.

In most cases, they rely heavily on local translators or local journalists to guide them through unfamiliar and dangerous territory, whether on the front lines of Kabul or Srebrenica, or in the back alleys of Karachi or Jakarta.

It is there - where radical movements take form and alliances shift by the minute - that trust in one's companions is the most important commodity.

When Pearl disappeared, he had been scheduled to interview Mubarak Ali Shah Gilani, the head Tanzeem-ul-Fuqra.

Three days later, the New York Times and the Washington Post received an e-mail message from a hitherto unknown group called the National Movement for the Restoration of Pakistani Sovereignty, accusing Pearl of being an agent of the Central Intelligence Agency. The e-mail contained a list of demands and photos of Pearl in shackles, with a 9-mm pistol pointed at his head.

Pakistani police say they are making progress in tracking his last known movements and are now picking up leads as to his whereabouts. They are also looking for Mr. Gilani. Yesterday, police in Lahore reportedly detained his son, Shafat Ali Shah.

Some police officials believe Pearl is being held by the Harkat ul-Mujahideen, which fought alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan and is on the US list of banned terrorist organizations.

Harkat sprang to prominence with the 1999 hijacking of an Indian Airlines plane from Kathmandu, and has been involved in numerous terrorist attacks in the war-torn Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir.

Police are also investigating an e-mail the group reportedly sent to several Pakistani and US news organizations.

The message came from a Hotmail address called "kidnapperguy," and it accused Pearl of being an agent of the Central Intelligence Agency and listed several demands.

The demands include allowing Pakistani nationals being held by American troops at a military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to have access to lawyers and to their families. The group also called for the handover of Taliban ambassador Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef to Pakistani authorities, and for the delivery of F-16 fighter jets sold to Pakistan in the 1980s but held up by US sanctions.

The e-mail stated that Pearl was being held "in very inhuman circumstances quite similar to the way Pakistanis and nationals of other sovereign countries are being kept in Cuba by the American Army. If the Americans keep our countrymen in better conditions we will better the conditions of Mr. Pearl and all the other Americans that we capture."

The reaction of news organizations and government officials was swift. Even the CIA has taken the unusual step of publicly denying that Pearl was an employee.

The past six months have been dangerous ones for reporters here. In two harrowing weeks of November, eight foreign journalists were killed in Afghanistan, covering the fall of the Taliban - a number that exceeds the total number of American soldiers killed in hostile fire.

As dangerous as Afghanistan was in 2001, the worst single year for journalists was 1994, when 72 reporters and editors were killed. The most dangerous country in a single year was Algeria in 1995, when 24 journalists were killed - most of them local reporters killed in their home towns.

"Targeting reporters who are working independently to report the news will never advance anyone's political agenda," says Ann Cooper, executive director of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. "CPJ calls on Daniel Pearl's kidnappers to release him immediately."

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