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Broadcasting To and From Pakistan

April 28, 2009

Pandemonium broke out in the London newsroom as reporters scrambled to cover the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States–just three short months after Shahzeb Jillani joined the BBC World Service as a radio and online producer.

“I remember staring at the TV screen in shock with this nagging sense that the attacks in America were bound to unleash huge misery to thousands of people halfway round the globe,” says Jillani. Soon thereafter, the BBC began its coverage of the war in Afghanistan. “It’s been exhausting, nonstop reporting ever since,” he says.

For the past the five years, Jillani has been the editor of BBC Urdu Radio, broadcasting news and current affairs to South Asia. He manages a team of reporters and producers who bring news to more than 13 million people worldwide. Pakistani diaspora in the United States and Canada listen to broadcasts on the Web at BBC Urdu.

“When I feel weary, I remind myself that we provide a lifeline to millions of people, especially those in remote rural areas facing insurgencies where there are no TVs, no newspapers.

“We’re covering the war in tribal regions–areas the CIA calls a safe haven for Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants–better than anyone around the world. We have local contacts and reporters on the ground, many of whom face death threats and intimidation for doing their jobs.”

Jillani returned to his homeland of Pakistan shortly after graduating from Lewis & Clark in 1994. He first worked for the party of Benazir Bhutto, the Pakistani opposition leader and two-time prime minister who was assassinated in December 2007. But even though Jillani’s family has been in politics for four decades, he decided to pursue a career in journalism.

A few years after joining the BBC World Service in London, he served as its South Asia correspondent and also traveled to Brazil, Venezuela, and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, on reporting assignments. One of his most thought-provoking assignments was based in the United States: in 2003, he interviewed Muslim Americans about their post-9/11 experiences.

“I traveled from Boston to Texas, Arizona to New York,” he says. “I talked with Muslim business professionals, physicians, and taxi drivers. Virtually everyone had been approached by the FBI. They were questioned at their workplaces or had agents barge in to their homes on the pretext that their names sounded Muslim. Many lives were shattered by this widespread abuse.”

Despite, or perhaps because of, his success at the BBC, Jillani is ready for a change.

“After eight years in one place, I’ve pretty much decided to move on to something bigger and more challenging,” he says.

Jillani, who is currently based in London, is considering moving back to his country of origin. “Pakistan has been a big story during the last few years, and is likely to remain so for some time. I’d rather be in the thick of things now than a distant onlooker,” he says. He’s considering working as a correspondent to report on and explain Pakistan to the wider world. He’s also interested in documentary filmmaking and in politics.

No matter what challenges lie ahead, Jillani feels prepared to meet them. “Studying at Lewis & Clark gave me enormous confidence, the ability to face extreme difficulty, and the courage to facilitate meaningful change.”

–by Pattie Pace

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