When I entered Tayyeb Afridi’s office at the Tribal News Network in Peshawar, Pakistan, I remembered a brainstorm we once had with a group in the JSK Fellowships about the future of news. We had used Post-it notes to configure a complicated matrix of ideas that were going to solve the digital problems we faced in our newsrooms.
It seemed a world away as I read the colorful Post-it notes stuck to Tayyeb’s wall. “First-Aid box,” one read. “Listener Survey,” read another. “How to tell breast cancer story.”
It struck me then, how his problems were much more fundamental than those I faced. After our fellowship ended in 2014, my days were spent working out how to get audiences to watch more documentaries online for a major broadcaster. Tayyeb’s were spent setting up a radio network in a highly conservative part of Pakistan.
He had grappled over how to bring news bulletins to villages with no electricity, where women are not allowed out of the home and where people can’t read. He worried about funding, about the safety of his reporters, about how to craft an important story on breast cancer so as not to insult ultra conservative listeners.
He navigated a precarious space where reporting the wrong thing about the military, the government, the Taliban or any number of other armed groups would be life threatening.
I finally understood how distant his work environment was from our experience in Silicon Valley. I felt admiration, but also a pang of guilt. Could I have been more help to him earlier on? Was I helping or hindering him by making a film on TNN, two years later?
People have asked me why I went to Pakistan’s tribal areas, four months pregnant. How could I justify risking my safety in a place where foreign journalists need special permission to visit and at least 15 armed groups threaten reporters? It took 8 months to get the paperwork and security team in place. Dozens of people said I should abandon the idea, it was too dangerous.
But I was determined to show solidarity to Tayyeb in the best way I knew how — by shining a light on the incredible work that he, his co-founder Said Nasir, and their team of reporters do. The risk that I took was nothing compared to what they face every day.
Beyond that, I also thought a lot about a conversation Tayyeb and I had on a balmy evening in June 2014, as we celebrated the end of our fellowship year at Dawn Garcia’s house.
“Don’t forget me,” he said. “Never,” I replied. “When TNN is a huge hit in Pakistan, I’m coming to make a film on you.”
It was a promise that I reiterated in the panicked days after the Peshawar school attacks in 2015, when Tayyeb feared for the safety of his children. “How will I be able to make a better future here for my daughter?” he despaired. “You are already making a better future for her,” I assured him. But I could hear in his voice that he wasn’t sure, that he didn’t feel like his fellowship project had become a “huge hit” at all.
For me, telling the story of TNN was essential because it proved to us both that the most satisfying achievements of our post fellowship careers lay in helping others to succeed. Women’s voices would not be heard throughout the tribal areas of Pakistan, if it were not for his tireless work. Few in the rest of the world would know anything about it if I had given up and stayed home.
It can be disorienting to embark on something that genuinely brings about change. Whether you are in Peshawar worrying about first aid kits, or in a major newsroom worrying about digital strategy. It often feels like you are wading through mud to take very small steps forward.
Tayyeb has shown me that those small steps, when you look back after two years, have actually carried you a very long way.
101 East — Good Morning Pakistan: Journalists Under Threat.
A film by Aela Callan for Al Jazeera English.