ISLAMABAD – The militants wore masks, carried weapons and came by the dozens. Still, they exhibited a strange sense of courtesy: They let the reporter's relatives leave the house before they bombed it.
Rehman Buneri, who works for Khyber TV in Karachi and contributes to Voice of America's Deewa Radio, was not home when the 50 or so gunmen showed up. Buneri told The Associated Press the gunmen said they'd been instructed by a "high command" to destroy the house because he had spoken negatively of the Taliban in a radio report.
As Pakistan tries to stave off a Taliban insurgency, journalists have been threatened, attacked and killed, and even their relatives have faced harm. The pressure hobbles a media that has flourished over the past decade and given Pakistanis a greater window into their often-inept government at a time when the world is watching.
Journalists say the culprits are both militants and government operatives, and that they appear determined to influence coverage. The picture is alarming enough that Pakistan is rivaling Iraq, Somalia and other conflict zones when it comes to danger to media, watchdog groups say.
Buneri, the journalist whose house was blown up, has since received threats telling him to keep quiet, "or otherwise they will silence me," he said. He has brought his relatives from Buner district to Karachi.
Throughout Pakistan's nearly 62-year history — much of it marked by military rule — the media have faced numerous attempts at censorship. Ironically, it was under one of the military rulers, Pervez Musharraf, that private television channels were allowed to take off. Dozens of channels have appeared since over the past decade, giving people an option other than state-run Pakistan TV.
Figures on journalists killed vary depending on which organization is doing the tallying, who they define as a journalist and in what context the victims were killed.
Mazhar Abbas, until recently secretary general of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, said his group found that roughly 45 journalists have been killed since 2001, the year Pakistan joined the U.S. in its fight against the Taliban and al-Qaida. Before that, journalist killings were rare in Pakistan, he said.
The Committee to Protect Journalists said five journalists were killed in Pakistan last year, compared to 11 in Iraq. The New York-based group said two more journalists have been killed in Pakistan so far this year, including TV reporter Musa Khan Khel, who was shot while covering attempts to bring peace to the northwest's Swat Valley.
Killings are just a small part of the threat. Reporters have been kidnapped by militants, detained by intelligence agencies, and seen their press club facilities come under fire, those in the field said.
Most common are threats, often vague, that seem aimed at getting journalists to avoid reporting a particular side of a story — and to report the other side in a particular way. The militants often issue the warnings through fliers distributed in various towns. Security agencies sometimes call reporters up under the guise of offering "friendly advice," Abbas said.
Government officials could not immediately be reached for comment for this story, but the federal administration, now run by civilians, has repeatedly stressed its commitment to a free press.
Intermedia, a Pakistani media research group, said in a report that from May 2008 through May 2009, there were at least 103 cases of "intimidation or threats" against journalists. According to its tally, at least 15 journalists were killed during that period.
Around 18,000 to 20,000 journalists, including opinion writers, work in Pakistan, said Muhammad Wajih Akhtar, media research manager for Intermedia. About six years ago, the figure was closer to 2,000, he said. The leap is largely due to growth in TV and radio.
Journalists in the northwest regions bordering Afghanistan and in Baluchistan province in the country's southwest endure exceptional peril because insurgencies are strongest in those regions, and security agencies most sensitive.
Perhaps nowhere is the pressure greatest now than Pakistan's tribal belt, a remote, rugged and lawless region where the Taliban are strongest and where al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden is rumored to be hiding.
In Bajur, one of the tribal regions where the military has waged an offensive, the Taliban issued an edict demanding journalists get clearance with them on reporting insurgent deaths, and that the slain be referred to as "martyrs." The number of working journalists in Bajur has dwindled from more than 20 to less than 10 over the past year.
Journalists' organizations have pressured media companies to provide life insurance, security training and even special safety gear to their reporters working in hostile environments.
It would also help if the government solved some of the killings and brought perpetrators to justice, said Vincent Brossel, who runs the Asia Desk for Paris-based Reporters Without Borders. The group's statistics show Pakistan is rivaling Iraq in the number of journalists killed so far this year.
"There's no proper investigation," Brossel said. "The government sometimes gives money to the families, but it's not enough."
Individually, journalists say they can only do so much to protect themselves. Some vary the routes they take to work, while others suspend their bylines or reduce their airtime after getting threats.
Hasan Khan, a journalist with Khyber TV who has been threatened multiple times, said he's drawn the line at getting a bodyguard or carrying a weapon. Those efforts could increase a journalist's profile, making him a bigger target, he said.
"For us, it is a complete war zone," Khan said. "You never know where the bullet is coming from.