EXPRESS TRIBUNE STOLE MY PASSPORT
Dear International Herald Tribune/ Global New York Times:
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 daily.
My documents were eventually returned when a sub-editor called security to have me removed for yelling in the newsroom The guard told the editor he wasn’t going to lie to me any longer and to hand over my passport. The company had also been lying about the validity of my visa to restrict my movement and prevent me from accepting a job from a competing publication. 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.
Many Express employees were complicit in this situation. Faria Syed, web sub-editor, was holding the passport in her locked desk drawer on publisher Bilal Lakani’s orders. Kamal Siddiqi, managing editor and Mahim Maher, the city editor, who told another newsroom employee that I am really “overreacting.”
Journalism is supposed to be a bastion of truth and free information, but The Express Tribune lied to me and illegally withheld my documents. Their plan, as relayed to a subeditor by Kamal Siddiqi, was to “return her passport ten minutes before she got on the plane”—to go back to the US.
Now, why would 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. If not, I told him I was ready to explore other opportunities in the country. He assured me that they wanted me to stay. But from that moment on, accomplishing anything at Express grew difficult. I was denied translators, transportation, bylines (they published my work, they simply attributed it to “staff”) and ultimately my stipend.
I went through proper channels, scheduling meetings with the editor and the publisher to figure out what was happening. Kamal later admitted that Express didn’t want the liability of sponsoring an American in Pakistan. But they also didn’t want me to work for a competing Pakistani publication, because they “brought me here.” 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, 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, the Ministry of Interior had it, the Islamabad bureau had it, etc. They offered a variety of excuses.
I quickly realized something was up quickly and became increasingly insistent about my passport, contacting U.S. and Pakistani officials. After days of phone calls, I knew for sure that my passport was being held by someone at Express.
Somehow, the higher-ups at Express thought, because they didn’t want me to work for them or work for anyone else, that justified the unethical and criminal act of withholding my documents.