“I have only six days. Please help me,” Nasir Wajahat wrote to three of SPJ’s national officers. There was little more to work from in the e-mail that SPJ Region 8 Director Todd Gillman forwarded from New York City, where the SPJ Executive Committee was meeting in July. Wajahat had fled Pakistan for London, and he was seeking political asylum. He wrote to SPJ because he thought we might help a fellow journalist. And he was right. I’ll tell you what we did for Wajahat, but first I must say that all of it was unremarkable compared with the needs of so many others. For he is just one of the hundreds of journalists displaced every year from their work, forced to live in hiding or leave home and country – or be silenced by death or discouragement. Death is what Wajahat feared when he left Karachi, where he had been a reporter for a small, Urdu-language daily called Sang-Meel. He had written about a religious group called Sipah Sahaba, ostensibly an ally of the Taliban that rules neighboring Afghanistan, when the trouble began. His car was stoned, and he was threatened. “You can’t hide from us,” they told him. When the threats extended to his family, Wajahat decided that their safety required that he disappear. I knew none of that, and not much about Pakistan, when Todd’s FYI landed in my Netscape inbox. But I did have e-mail addresses for two SPJ members in London, and a friend in Karachi, another journalist I had met through SPJ work and the Society’s membership in the International Freedom of Expression Exchange. So I wrote to Wajahat and my contacts, and, piece by piece, the picture took shape. The top editor at Sang-Meel confirmed the threats and said Wajahat had been the paper’s political writer. Wajahat’s father, a retired journalist, described the attacks and added that Wajahat’s brother had been beaten up – also, it seemed to the family, because of the Sipah Sahaba article. Wajahat had landed at Heathrow Airport last October to claim asylum. He was detained for 10 days, then granted temporary admission while his case was considered. The British turned him down, but extended his stay while he appealed. That extension was running out as he wrote to SPJ. The first of our London members to respond was Allen Steele, a broadcaster with Adventist radio. He had just moved to a teaching post at Avondale College in Australia, but he did know some people who had succeeded in a similar situation by pressing their case in person at the out-of-the-way Isle of Man. There wasn’t time, though, for Wajahat to travel before his deportation date, so with what information I had I faxed a one-page letter to the British Home Secretary, concluding, “No doubt I seem impertinent, as an American imploring you on a British immigration matter. I can only say that this seems to be a case where mercy is warranted, and that mercy knows no borders.” By this time Wajahat had found the National Union of Journalists, and within hours they also wrote to the Home Office. And our letters evidently worked. A day before Wajahat’s time would have expired, the Home Office granted another three weeks, time for legal counsel to gather evidence and carry the case forward. The other member I had written to was Rita Uotila, a Louisiana State University graduate who also had moved on from London but who had a friend in the British immigration service. His clarifying information significantly confirmed that we were on the right track by gathering as much evidence as we could. “We cross-examine every aspect of a case and critically scrutinize it,” he wrote. As I write this, Wajahat has strong London support from an immigration law firm and from the journalists’ union. Our Pakistani friend identified two Karachi contacts for the law firm, and I expect that SPJ won’t need to be further involved. I’m telling the story here because it shows one way the Society can mobilize its members and their experience on behalf of fellow journalists. That was the International Journalism Committee’s dream when we cranked up the Press Freedom Network a few years ago. If you haven’t heard about the network, it may be because our work so often requires a discreet letter instead of a public statement. There also is the matter of limited resources. Very few SPJ members have offered their foreign-language skills or international contacts for this work. Since our operating principle is to speak only where we have direct knowledge, thus protecting SPJ’s reputation for integrity, we bypass any case where we don’t have our own means to investigate. Here’s a challenge for you: If you work overseas, or have experience there, tell network chairman Dan Kubiske and get yourself into our files so we know who to turn to the next time one of our distant colleagues is in danger. I can tell you from personal experience that it is a great way to learn about the world and to help keep journalism alive and healthy everywhere. “Thank you very much,” Wajahat wrote to me. “And thank you, Wajahat,” I thought to myself.
John D. Hopkins is chairman of SPJ’s International Journalism Committee and a copy editor at The Miami Herald.