Reporters on the Job

Tale of the Tape: Western journalists working in Pakistan rely heavily on locals to facilitate their reporting in volatile tribal areas, where foreigners are not allowed to travel, says correspondent Gretchen Peters. This is especially true when it comes to obtaining videotapes purportedly made by Al Qaeda and other militant groups.

"The militants can't pick up the phone and call us or they'd be picked up by authorities listening for them," says Gretchen. "And we are hardly going to go and meet them after what happened to Danny Pearl," the Wall Street Journal reporter who was killed in Pakistan in 2002.

Gretchen, also a producer for ABC News, worked with local journalists to obtain a tape from an English-speaking militant threatening attacks on the US (this page). She says that this kind of work often means paying people to transport material from these remote locations. "We did pay a courier $500 for bringing us the video," Gretchen says. "He wanted much more, but we bargained him way down. Normally I pay about $200 when people bring videotapes from tribal areas like Waziristan. These guys incur expenses; it takes several days to make the trip." She says that other news organizations also pay for delivery of material.

Still, Gretchen is confident that this didn't compromise the integrity of the information on the tape. While she hadn't worked with this particular courier before, most of the people she uses are local Pakistani journalists who work for reputable daily newspapers and radio stations. "Some people speculate that the tape is a hoax made by people who wanted the cash, but $500 would be a paltry sum to get for the amount of work that went into making that video," Gretchen says. "The speaker is fluent in English, is extremely articulate, the subtitling is in perfect Arabic, and he makes all the Al Qaeda arguments."

Gretchen agrees that ABC, which had not aired the tape by the time the Monitor went to press, must proceed with caution, especially in the wake of CBS News mistakenly using forged documents in a story critical of President Bush. The ABC tape features an anonymous speaker that the CIA can't identify. "We need to be 100 percent sure, but there are a lot of markings that indicate it is an Al Qaeda video," she says. "I feel it is the real deal. And I'm still hoping we can prove it."

David S. Hauck
Staff editor

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