Dangerous Journalism: Covering the Taliban
By Umer Farooq
Islamabad, Asharq Al-Awsat - In mid-2010, several newspapers in Pakistan reported that the Taliban in North Waziristan had issued its "final warning" to the Pakistani media, after elements of the fundamentalist Islamist movement had been portrayed in a negative light. This story was widely reported, with newspapers citing threatening e-mail messages from Muhammad Umar, a "spokesman for the Taliban's media center".
The Taliban spokesman was angry at the way in which elements of the movement were being described on private Pakistani television news channels. The open e-mail, which was sent to a number of prominent Pakistani media figures, asked "why is the media only conveying the [Pakistani] army's point of view? Is this proof that the media is working in alliance with the government and the army? Or is it being forced to hide the truth?" The Taliban is well aware that the media war represents half the battle, and it has therefore been seeking to strengthen its relations with both the print and broadcast media.
In the majority of cases, relations between the Taliban movement and the media are not good, but often, and somewhat surprisingly, the Taliban appears increasingly media savvy. It is well aware of the importance of foreign media coverage of its activities, and is also making full use of the internet. This is not to mention the Taliban's use of DVDs, which are distributed freely to local and international audiences. Likewise, the majority of journalists, local and foreign, are in constant contact with the Taliban's spokesmen.
However, this relationship does not protect the media and journalists working in tribal regions from the wrath of the Pakistani Taliban. Journalists working in tribal areas are increasingly coming under pressure from tribal militants. The main danger facing the Pakistani media in such areas is being subject to attacks from tribal elements affiliated to Al Qaeda and the Taliban, who are based in the tribal areas bordering Pakistan.
Nine journalists have been killed in Pakistan's tribal areas since 2005, according to figures reported by Pakistan's Tribal Union for Journalists [TUJ], who have warned that such tribes and tribal elements have little tolerance for the media. This is the reason why 50 percent of reporters from tribal areas have migrated and settled in Pakistani cities, particularly the city of Peshawar.
Safdar Hayat, head of the Tribal Union for Journalists, said: "There are a large number of tribal journalists now settled in Peshawar". Around 230 journalists are registered with the TUJ, with around 100 of these living in Pakistan's cities.
In many cases, local warlords in tribal areas have banned the publication of newspapers in their respective regions, following the negative press they receive in local newspapers. A senior tribal journalist, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said: "A common feature in tribal areas is that the warlords terrorize tribal journalists and force them to withdraw their articles on a regular basis".
Local journalists in tribal areas say that self-censorship is the only way to avoid the wrath of the warlords. In most cases, reporters who are not prepared to censor their work in this manner have left the tribal regions for their own safety, and are now covering events from the relative security of cities such as Peshawar.
However, what is remarkable is the inability of the government and security agencies to protect journalists in the tribal areas. In many cases, the government itself has advised journalists to move away from these areas for the journalists own protection.
A senior journalist reporting from the tribal areas said: "In most cases, when we ask the government to provide us with security, officials advise us to move from the tribal areas to the safer cities".
In the last week of June, journalists from all over Pakistan gathered in Islamabad and staged a demonstration outside of parliament. They demanded that the government set up a judicial commission to investigate the death of journalist Saleem Shahzaad [found dead on 31 May after disappearing in Islamabad], and also demanded that the government work to improve the security of journalists based in the country's tribal regions.
Despite this, the government has so far failed to acknowledge the precarious situation faced by journalists in the tribal areas.
Five years ago, the chaotic situation in the tribal regions began to spill over into nearby Pakistani cities. Journalists in Peshawar (a city located near the tribal areas) began to feel the heat of conflict.
"I am facing genuine danger from militants and taking precautionary measures to stave off these threats as much as possible," said senior journalist Shamim Shahid, Bureau Chief of the Pakistan Today newspaper in Peshawar.
"The militants want to target me for my coverage of their armed operations," said Shamim at his office, where a vigilant guard examines every visitor.
Journalists have always found it difficult to pursue news in the tribal belt, and the increased militancy has only increased the risks. Since February 2005, five journalists have been killed there whilst dozens have opted to migrate to safer places.
Militant suicide attacks and bombings have endangered reporters covering events. Two tribal journalists were killed on 6 December, in a Taliban attack on tribal elders in the Mohmand tribal district's headquarters of Ghalanai.
Violence spilling over from the tribal areas has plagued journalists across Pakistan, especially in Swat, where the Mullah Fazlullah-led Taliban wreaked havoc between 2007 and 2009, before the federal government ordered a "decisive" military operation in May 2009.
Ghulam Farooq, editor of the Swat-based Shamal newspaper in Mingora, described the challenges that the Pakistani media has faced. "The militants become angry when they are described as militants or terrorists," Farooq said. "They want to be referred to as mujahedeen (holy warriors)."
However others believe that the situation has improved greatly after the military confronted the Taliban. "There is no fear now," said Sherin Zada, Bureau Chief of Express News TV. "During the chaos of the Taliban, it was extremely difficult to work as an independent journalist".
Some journalists who attempted to cover the events in Pakistan's tribal areas first hand were kidnapped by the Taliban. They were only released after a huge sum was paid as a ransom.
Asad Qureshi, a British citizen of Pakistani origin, went missing on 26 March 2010, on his way to North Waziristan. The documentary filmmaker was planning to interview Taliban leaders. He was travelling with two former officials from Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence [ISI] agency, both of whom were later killed by the Taliban. A video soon emerged of Qureshi being held captive by the Taliban, along with an accompanying e-mail which was published by a Pakistani newspaper. The e-mail contained a list of Taliban leaders to be released, and it warned that the hostages would be killed if their demands were not met. The Taliban also demanded $10 million for the release of Qureshi.
The most damming aspect of this whole situation is the complete disregard shown by the Pakistani government towards the situation in the tribal regions, and the threats journalists working there face from tribal militants. Media organizations in Pakistan have repeatedly asked the government to provide security for journalists working in tribal areas, but their demands appear to be falling on deaf ears.
Seven Pakistani journalists were killed whilst performing their professional duties in the first six months of 2011. Most of them were killed by armed ethnic groups involved in various militant operations, whist a few have died in explosions.
Constitutional protection and legal safeguards to counter the dangerous climate in the tribal regions are almost non-existent in Pakistan, a country ranked among the worst for journalists to work in. According to figures provided by local journalist's organizations, more than 14 Pakistani journalists were killed while performing their duties in the year 2010.