Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

In Pakistan, war coverage is a booming business

The arrival of hundreds of journalists for CNN, the BBC, and other media prompts a jump in prices, from hotels to cellphones to T-shirts.

About these ads

In this leafy, glitzy city of mansions and embassies, the carpet merchants and taxi drivers are smiling. For war and crisis have brought journalists by the hundreds, and with them credit cards, expense accounts, and shopping lists for friends and families back home.

On television screens, the outside world sees Pakistan as an impoverished country in deep social turmoil, with daily protests against growing civilian casualties - now estimated at 1,500 according to the ruling Taliban - in neighboring Afghanistan from the four-week-old US-led bombing campaign, and hard-line religious leaders continue to urge young, impressionable followers to take up arms in support of the Taliban.

But another Pakistan exists, too, where anger and violence bring war correspondents, who have generated a sort of mini-economic boom.

The evidence is clear on the roof of the five-star Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital. Once the bastion of pigeons and satellite dishes, the wavy concrete rooftop, since Sept. 11, has become home to a few dozen wooden platforms where news presenters from CNN, the BBC, Fox News, and others report before a gorgeous backdrop of the wooded Margalla hills or Pakistani government buildings.

The backdrop comes with a hefty price tag: $500 a day for a four-square-yard wooden platform. (Tent and armed guard not included.)

Downstairs in the hotel itself, room rates have gone up three times since Sept. 11, from about $135 per day on Sept. 12 up to $275 today. Some news organizations have moved out, renting lavish homes instead, but CNN still occupies most of the fourth floor at a cost of close to $15,000 per day.

"It's not like we're going to stop covering this story because we've blown our budget," confides a producer for a Western TV news network. "If you're going to cover this story, you have to have a lot of people here, and you have to be on all the time. It's outrageous, but it's the cost of doing business here."

For journalists, the wartime surge has increased costs in other ways as well.

• A one-way cab ride from the Marriott to the Afghan Embassy (Pakistan is the only country that still has diplomatic relations with the Taliban) has quadrupled from 50 rupees (80 cents) to 200 rupees ($3.25) in the past two months.

About these ads

• Tajikistan's Embassy in Islamabad has been handing out nearly 100 visas a day to journalists trying to enter rebel-controlled northern Afghanistan. Three-day visa service costs $70. Those with less time, or patience, can pay $190 for one-day service.

• Getting a mobile-phone connections cost 2,500 rupees ($40) before the war. Now, the demand has far outpaced supply. One can still buy a mobile connection on the black market, however, at about 10,000 rupees ($160).

• Local journalists, known as "fixers" for their ability to arrange and translate interviews for foreign journalists, also have raised their prices. Some who once worked for $50 a day now demand three to four times that rate.

• And perhaps the ultimate benchmark, an Osama bin Laden T-shirt, once cost 20 rupees (30 cents) in the streets of Peshawar, a pro-Taliban frontier town. The shirts are now available in Islamabad's finer bookstores for 700 rupees ($11).

Entering Afghanistan is even more expensive. There are unconfirmed reports from numerous news organizations that they were asked to pay $2,000 per person for the current Taliban-conducted bus tour of Kandahar, to witness firsthand the destruction wrought by continued US-led airstrikes.

To get into Feyzabad, stronghold of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, takes a $300 helicopter ride. Space is so booked, however, that some reporters have hired cars for hundreds of dollars, only to be stopped by armed gangs on the road who can demand an additional "toll fee" of as much as $4,000.

At the Marriott, Paolo Carta of the European Broadcasting Union says this is the most frenetic time he has seen in the news business.

"You've got several stories going on all at once - anthrax, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Milosevic [war crimes] trial, and this - and these news organizations all have limited budgets, which have to be evenly spread," says Mr. Carta. "It will get to a point where they can't sustain it."

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.