While working as an expat journalist, a Pakistani newspaper stole my passport

Dear International Herald Tribune/ Global New York Times:

I know that your association with The Express Tribune is a business deal that essentially gets your papers printed and distributed on someone else’s tab, but do you really want to lend your name to this?

While on a journalistic fellowship sponsored by Express, I willingly handed over my passport to an Express editor who was to obtain a visa extension for me. But once the visa was settled, the company refused to return my passport. For at least five weeks after the extension was granted, Express withheld my documents and lied about their whereabouts, despite my requesting their return on the phone, in person and via email every single day.

It wasn’t until I contacted the US Consulate and threatened a police report that my documents were returned. And who got them back? Luckily, the web co-editor called security to have me removed for yelling in the newsroom, and security guy told the editor he wasn’t going to lie to me any longer, to hand over my passport.

The company had also been lying  about the validity of my visa to restrict my movement/plans for movement throughout Pakistan. Both an editor and the publisher told me in writing that my visa ended on July 31, so I needed to leave the country. When my passport was returned, I was able to see that my visa is valid till October 2011.

Turns out many, many people at Express knew about this. Faria Syed, web co-editor, was holding the passport in her desk drawer on publisher Bilal Lakani’s orders. Kamal Siddiqi, managing editor, knew about this and was complicit, as was Mahim Maher, the city editor, who told another newsroom employee that I am really “overreacting.”

Despite the fact that journalism is supposed to be a bastion of truth and free information, The Express Tribune lied to me  and illegally withheld my travel documents. Their plan, according to Kamal Siddiqi, was to “return her passport ten minutes before she got on the plane”–to go back to the US.

Now, why did they do this? Kamal explained that as well: my official fellowship ended a few months ago, but I wanted to stay in Pakistan. My obligation to Express was up. I went to Kamal and asked him if they wanted to keep me. Otherwise, I told him I was willing to explore other opportunities. He assured me that they wanted me to stay. But from that moment on, accomplishing anything at Express grew incredibly tough. I was denied translators, transportation, assignments and ultimately my stipend. I kept going through the proper channels, scheduling meetings with the editor and even the publisher to try and figure out what was happening. Kamal later admitted that Express didn’t want the liability of keeping me in Pakistan, but they also didn’t want me to work for a competing Pakistani publication. They were trying to sabotage my experience so that I would choose to go home. When I showed no signs of letting up, when I begin to use friends as translators and find my own transportation (since they led me to believe it was a resource issue), I was falsely notified by Express that my visa had expired and I needed to leave the country. They would handle the travel arrangements (at my expense, of course), but I couldn’t have my passport just yet because the travel agent needed it, etc.–they offered a variety of flimsy excuses.

I realized something was up, so I arranged my own travel and became increasingly insistent about my passport. That’s when my dealings with all power players at Express grew heated and nasty, and that’s when everything came out. Express didn’t want me to work for them. They just didn’t want me to work for anyone else, and to them this somehow this justified the unethical and criminal act of holding my documents without my consent. Rather than tell me that they would prefer me to leave the country and not take any other jobs in Karachi (and there were several offers), they lied and broke the law.

I was trying to work with Express out of some sense of loyalty, because they sponsored my original visa. I was naive enough to think that the difficulties I faced were merely the general woes of working at as an expat in a developing country at a very young newspaper and not reflective of a particularly unethical business m.o.

So I ask again, IHT, are you comfortable lending your masthead to a paper this immature and inexperienced, run by executives who are so blatantly petty and ego-driven? Because my naivete is my own, but your affiliation is part of what fueled my unwarranted trust in The Express Tribune and those that run it.

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11 thoughts on “While working as an expat journalist, a Pakistani newspaper stole my passport

  1. this is appalling, how could such a reputable newspaper do something like this? misunderstanding maybe?

  2. this is illegal in Pakistan. and well, it’s plain disgusting. Glad that you contacted the embassy/consulate. You cannot expect much from people for whom journalism is mostly a distraction operating on the whim of a puerile publisher.

  3. Blame the king not his kingdom. It wasn’t The Express Tribune, it was certain ET employees.

  4. What is the kingdom without the king? Bilal Lakhani most likely gave the direct order to hold my passport, but the behavior of staff, both on twitter and in the newsroom, indicates all of the editors and many mid-levels (sub-editors and photographers) knew this was happening for quite some time…

  5. Ummm…this is indeed a horrible experience and of course this treatment was being meted out to you at the behest of Bilal Lakhani. This is the problem in our country. Most big businesses are Family run and as a result such an unprofessional behavior becomes perfectly acceptable. You were a foreigner and you had options like contacting your embassy to resolve this matter but a normal Pakistani is generally helpless. However just so that you know you will find a lot of really good people and organizations in Pakistan as well which are highly professional, friendly and helpful. So don’t give up on us just yet 🙂

  6. Hi Talha,
    I’ve met so many amazing people here–friends who took me in, fed me, gifted me, went out of their way to give me rides, show me their cities, and make me feel comfortable and secure. And I heard “you are a guest in my country” from at least a dozen strangers. There’s an incredible sense of hospitality and generosity here, and it spans economic and social divides. I love Pakistan and Pakistanis, and I can’t wait to come back!

  7. Hi 🙂

    I am glad to hear that you also exposed to the hospitality of the Pakistani people, this is an integral part of our culture and society but sadly these elements of the society are hardly ever projected in the local or international media however with people like you experiencing this affection and respect first hand i hope these characteristics of our society will be promoted as well. On the other hand i am shocked at the treatment you received at the hands of Express, I work in a Media Planning and Buying agency and all the newspapers and TV channels interact with us on a daily business to capture business from us. I wish i would have heard what you were going through at their hands sooner, some pressure from our end might have resolved this issue sooner. Anyhow i am glad things worked out for you. However as a Foreign Journalist with Personal experience in this country i am interested in knowing your views about Pakistan, its people and our Society. So do share your views. 🙂

  8. I used to write for them until I discovered how shady their ethics and employees are. Bowed out before it could affect me too personally. I’m really sorry you had to go through this. I wish I could say this isn’t a reflection of Pakistan as a whole, but this is what many people here deal with on a daily basis. Corruption and lack of ethics at every level.

  9. This was indeed a very horrible experience :S whatever the truth and true intentions maybe, the fact remains that you were unjustly treated and the Tribune acted extremely unethically, might I say, even ‘typically’.

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