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Journalist gunned down during prayers in Pakistan

Courtesy Voice Of America

Slain journalist Mukarram Atif, reporting for the Voice of America from Pakistan's Mohmand tribal agency.

PESHAWAR, Pakistan – According to his family,  Mukarram Khan Aatif, 47, knew the risks he faced, but still decided to continue reporting.

As a journalist in Pakistan's northwest and tribal regions, Aatif worked for the U.S.-government funded Voice of America Pashto-language radio service Deewa, and for a local Pakistani Urdu-language network called Dunya. He covered his own communities in the tribal regions which are ravaged by militancy and terrorism.

Aatif told the stories of those who had been displaced after military operations forced them from their homes. His colleagues say he tried to balance the stories about violence and terror with the underreported, but vital stories about education and health.

"He used to find a news story in everything," said colleague Hameedullah Khan.

But his reporting upset the Taliban, who say Aatif refused to cover them the way they wanted, and dared to criticize their actions - which is why, they say, two gunmen armed with AK-47's entered the mosque where Aatif was praying last week, and shot him dead

"He was on our hit list," Taliban spokesman Ihsannullah Ihsan told NBC News. "And now we will target other journalists who have become a party against the Taliban."

Aatif became the 38th Pakistani journalist to be killed since 2002, and the first to be assassinated in 2012.

The Committee to Protect Journalists named Pakistan the deadliest country to report from for the second consecutive year in 2011. Of the 46 journalists killed as a result of their work across the world last year, seven died in Pakistan. In 2010, out of 44 journalists killed worldwide, eight were from Pakistan. Local journalists, typically working in and around their home communities, are often at greater risk. 

Aatif was no exception. He narrowly escaped a twin suicide attack while reporting from the Mohmand tribal region in December 2010. Two other journalists were killed in that attack. His colleagues say he often talked about the horror he witnessed that day, as he watched the blasts from less than 100 yards away. 
Three years ago, when the Taliban decided they were unhappy with his reporting and passed along a death threat through the local journalists’ association, Aatif chose to move his family from the tribal regions to an area just outside of Peshawar, rather than stop working.

"We left our native village in Mohmand and shifted our family to Shabqadar because of threats from the Taliban militants, but they chased us even here," said Haji Yaqoob Khan, Aatif's older brother. "He was a journalist, and well-known to everybody, but to me, he was still a child. I was always worried for his security, but I couldn't save his life."

Colleagues and family members remember Aatif as an honest, hospitable, and hard-working man. Hundreds attended his funeral prayers in Mohmand last week, and dozens of his colleagues called for justice outside the Peshawar Press Club, as they protested the murder of the man they had all come to know and respect over the years.

Colleague Hameedullah Khan remembers Aatif as a man who was shy with strangers, but was the life of the party among friends; a man who loved to share jokes and laugh.

"He used to buy chocolates from the village shop, just to hand them out to the local children," said his brother.

Voice of America Director David Ensor said that Aatif  “risked his life on a daily basis to provide his audience with fair and balanced news from this critical region."

"We mourn the loss of our colleague," said Ensor. "We call on authorities in Pakistan to do more to protect journalists working there and bring his killers to justice."

Safdar Hayat Dawar, president of the Tribal Union of Journalists, knew Aatif as a "thoroughly professional" journalist who remained committed to his reporting, despite the threats. Dawar worries for the dozens of journalists who continue to work in the region.

"How are they supposed to work, when they're suspected of spying for the U.S. or for Pakistan's armed forces?" said Dawar. "Twelve journalists have been gunned down in the tribal areas since 2005, and we don't know what will happen next."

NBC News’ Amna Nawaz contributed to this report from Islamabad.