A Journalist in Limbo

Rahman Bunairee
Rahman Bunairee (Courtesy Of The Broadcasting Board Of Governors - Courtesy Of The Broadcasting Board Of Governors)
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By D. Jeffrey Hirschberg
Tuesday, September 15, 2009

On the front lines of the battle against extremism, in places such as Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, fiercely dedicated journalists risk their lives every day to report accurate news to audiences besieged by terrorist violence and propaganda.

Rahman Bunairee, a 33-year-old reporter for the U.S.-government-funded Voice of America (VOA), is one of those journalists. His reporting from Pakistan on Taliban atrocities long ago made him a target. In July, the Taliban bombed his home, chased him across the country and terrorized his family. The VOA, a 67-year-old international broadcasting service, decided sensibly to bring him to Washington for a year to safely continue his reporting. Bunairee arrived at Dulles International Airport on Aug. 9 with a valid U.S. visa and ample documentation of his sponsorship by a U.S. government agency.

Rather than being welcomed to our country, Bunairee was interrogated at length by Customs and Border Protection officials, who ultimately rejected his visa, deemed him an "intending immigrant" and threatened to deport him. This courageous journalist wound up in jail in Hampton Roads, Va.

Outraged by how Bunairee had been treated, the VOA's oversight body, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, petitioned the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees immigration matters, to free him and reinstate his visa.

Only after 10 days of exhaustive legal efforts and intervention by the State Department was Bunairee released. But that wasn't the end of his ordeal: U.S. authorities freed Bunairee under terms that forbid him to work.

Rahman Bunairee remains in legal limbo, invited here by a U.S. government agency but still unable to broadcast for the VOA. He is living off of charitable contributions and cannot support his young family in Pakistan because the terms of his release also bar our agency from giving him money.

There are two distinct issues here. First, Bunairee's suffering has lasted too long. He should be granted immediate authorization to work.

Second, although the fates of this man and his family are important, the overall stakes are even higher: Bunairee's case underscores the U.S. government's ability to wage the most potent fight possible against extremism. Key to this effort is effective coordination across the U.S. government.

Consider: Rahman Bunairee works for Deewa Radio, the VOA's Pashto-language service targeted to the troubled Afghanistan-Pakistan border region. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said that "we are being out-communicated by the Taliban and al-Qaeda" in the area, a circumstance she called "absolutely unacceptable." The U.S. envoy for the region, Richard Holbrooke, has argued that Taliban propaganda "is key to the insurgency's terror campaign" and that it must be countered.

Deewa Radio does just that. Since 2006 it has broadcast balanced, comprehensive local and regional news and provides on-air forums for citizen discussion to large, appreciative audiences who seek alternatives to the insurgents' hateful disinformation and terror campaigns.

Recognizing the value of Deewa's contribution, Congress increased its funding early this summer to expand broadcasts. This means Deewa will need to attract more experienced journalists, including some from Pakistan, and quickly.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, federal agencies have greatly increased cooperation and coordination to confront extremist and terrorist threats and to keep our country safe. But the legal limbo in which Bunairee remains ensnared shows that the system needs to work better. The VOA and other news outlets must be able to recruit the talented and courageous journalists to report about Pakistan and other global hot spots.

Rahman Bunairee, and other allies like him, deserve our support.

D. Jeffrey Hirschberg is a member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the independent federal agency that supervises all U.S. government-supported, non-military international broadcasting.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company