Pakistani Journalist Stood For Truth – and Died For It

Leading reporter Mukarram Khan Atif murdered by Taleban gunmen while at prayer.
  • Mukarram Khan Atif reporting from his home Mohmand Agency. Photo courtesy of Voice of America. (Copyright VOA)

The murder of Mukarram Khan Atif deprives northwestern Pakistan of a courageous journalist who stood for truthful, fair reporting in the face of death threats from Taleban militants.

Mukarram, 45, was shot by two gunmen while praying at a mosque in Shabqadar Tehsil, in the Charsadda district about 25 kilometres from Peshawar, northwestern Pakistan, on January 17, police said. He was taken to hospital but died of his injuries.

“He was a very honest, hard-working journalist who did his work with great valour, under the most testing of circumstances in the troubled zones of Pakistan,” said Babar Baig, project coordinator for the Open Minds Project run by the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, for which Mukarram worked as a media trainer.

Police have not identified a motive, but it is clear the reporter’s independent and courageous stance made him a target for militant groups operating in northwestern Pakistan. The Pakistani Taleban (Tehrik-e-Taleban Pakistan) have claimed responsibility for the murder, and warned there were more journalists on their hit-list.

"I was standing next to Mukarram,” his brother Muslim Khan said. “The moment we all stood up to offer the sunset prayers, two gunmen quickly entered the mosque and opened fire at Mukarram. The imam [mosque prayer-leader] got injured, too. Mukarram and the imam were both rushed in an ambulance to the hospital, where in a matter of minutes Mukarram died of his injuries… the imam survived and is recovering fast."

As for the killers, Muslim Khan said, "It was dark and no one was able to recognise them, as they quickly fled from the scene on a motorbike.”

Mukarram’s nephew Arshad Mohmand told IWPR, “Every single person here is in a state of shock, as his assassination has deprived the whole area of a very benign and fatherly figure. “Mukarram received two death threats in less than a week, yet he stood firm in raising his voice against extremist ideologies. He sacrificed his life for a noble cause”.

A reporter for Voice of America’s Pashto service and for local radio and TV stations in the Mohmand tribal agency of northwest Pakistan, Mukarram had a distinguished 19-year career in journalism behind him, and was president of the Mohmand Agency Press Club.

For the past two years, Mukarram was closely involved in IWPR’s Open Minds Project, which sets out to train young people in schools and madrassas in the basics of journalism and critical thinking, with the aim of turning them against violence. (For more information on the Open Minds Project, see the web pages on  IWPR’s site and the Pakistan-based website.)

“He seemed to me a very humble, calm and softly-spoken person when I first met him during a project meeting back in June 2010,” Babar Baig said. “All our sympathies go to his bereaved family. May Allah grant his soul rest in eternal peace.”

Mukarram was assigned pupils to train from the Sadaat Public High School in Shabqadar, the Eka Ghund and Prang Ghar Government High Schools, both in Mohmand Agency.

In the coming days, he was due to moderate a series of current affairs discussions at five schools to wrap up the transition phase of the project.

Sameena Imtiaz, executive director of the Peace Education and Development Foundation, described Mukarram as “a very vibrant journalist, always willing to share his knowledge and experience with whoever he met”.

“Mukarram was not only one of the favourite media trainers of the Open Minds students, he was also loved by managers for his contributions to the project. He always encouraged students to pursue a career in the field of journalism,” Imtiaz added.

It is a measure of Mukarram’s contribution to Pakistani journalism that his murder was swiftly condemned by President Asif Ali Zardari, Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, and Information and Broadcasting Minister Firdous Ashiq Awan.

Mukarram’s colleagues spoke of their profound sense of loss.

“He was a true loyalist to his profession and never compromised on speaking the truth,” said his close friend Tahir Shah, who was a field coordinator with Open Minds. “He was the only one in this troubled area, Mohmand Agency, who was fighting for the rights of the people in the agency.”

“All of us are profoundly saddened,” said IWPR Executive Director Anthony Borden. “Mukarram was a courageous journalist who stood up for principles of democracy and peace, and his shameless murder underlines the enormous risks facing all media professionals there. Moderate and constructive voices are under extreme pressure in Pakistan and the implications are truly frightening.

“We extend our condolences to Mukarram’s family and colleagues at this difficult time.”

IWPR will be making a contribution to Mukarram’s family from its Sahar Journalists’ Assistance Fund, which commemorates Sahar al-Haideri, an IWPR colleague assassinated in Iraq in 2007. For further information or to support the Sahar fund, contact Cynthia Sadler.
 

[Story updated on January 23.]