I remember the shock of seeing an AK-47 hanging from the shoulder of Hayatullah, a tribal journalist from North Waziristan. It looked like an ungainly appendage, which had no business being on the shoulder of a journalist. He said by way of explanation, “The government has told us it can’t give us any protection against the armed groups, so we have to take care of ourselves.” It was August 2005.
Hayatullah’s brother, Ihsanullah, was accompanying him, and he too had a gun slung across his back. When Hayatullah drove us to his home from the Mir Ali bus terminal, his brother sat in the back of the rickety pick-up truck, on guard. All through that visit, the fear that he was a marked man was visible in Hayatullah’s speech and action. We had hardly sat down for tea when he suggested we leave the house for the school he ran. It was “much safer” there, he said. From what? His answer was vague: “People know we are here.” What people? “The people in the neighbourhood, the tribesmen,” he said simply. Later that night, he received calls from others, “intelligence people”, who wanted to know his whereabouts.
Hayathullah was abducted in January 2006. Six months later, he was found dead. His killers remain unidentified. The same year, his younger brother, Bashir Khan, was also killed, followed by the death of his wife in a bomb attack in 2007.
Hayathullah reported for the Urdu daily Ausaf, and freelanced for foreign news organisations. His abduction and death came after photographs he took proved that a US Hellfire missile had hit a target in North Waziristan. This contradicted the Islamabad government version that the attack had come not from American forces, but rather from Pakistani forces. But it was Hayatullah’s regular reporting on the growing militancy and the ‘war on terror’ in the tribal areas that had him worried. “I think one day I’ll be killed for my reporting,” Hayat once told the writer Eliza Griswold, whom he helped to report from North Waziristan.
Today, many journalists in Pakistan, especially those in the tribal areas and Balochistan, share Hayatullah’s concern. Journalists reporting from the troubled borderlands are caught between a coercive state apparatus and groups of insurgents, both of which want to control access to information. Whereas there were more than 30 journalists based in Waziristan in 2005, today they are so few that they can be counted on one’s fingers. “Journalists have moved to safer towns outside the tribal areas, as they increasingly find themselves in the line of fire,” says Ihsan Dawar one of the few journalists remaining in Waziristan. Last year, the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists released a report timed to World Press Freedom Day – 3 May – that said that dozens of journalists in the tribal areas and Balochistan had given up journalism due to the threat of violence.
FCR and ‘terror’
To report on Pakistan’s tribal areas was never easy. Long before the ‘war on terror’, the bugbear of a tribal journalist was the infamous Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR), under which tribesmen have no freedom of speech (taqreer) or writing (tehri). FCR invokes collective tribal punishment for the actions of an individual – in this case, the reporter who happens to be tribesman. All through the 1990s, journalists from tribal areas were arrested, fined, punished and sent into exile by the political administration or tribal jirgas for ‘disturbing’ the law-and-order situation through their reporting.
In the late 1990s, when the government campaign to disarm the tribes was at its peak, Nasir Khan, a reporter from Mohmand Agency, reported on a tribal clash in which heavy weapons had been used. The political administration fined the tribes, which in turn asked the journalist himself to pay a hefty fine, because it was his reporting that had brought about the punitive action. The Tribal Union of Journalists (TUJ) had to intervene, and ask the political administration to waive the fine so the tribes could let go of the journalist. The FCR was the British way of keeping the tribes from creating trouble for the colonial administrators. Under its auspices, the ‘political agent’ who conducts business with the tribesmen on behalf of the central government acts as judge, jury and executioner. The current Awami National Party government in the Northwest Frontier Province, which came to power after February 2008 elections, has formed a committee to look into repealing this ‘black law’, since the majority of the tribesmen want the legislation to go.
But things have become significantly more difficult since 2001, with the launch of the US-led ‘war on terror’. In the notoriously lawless Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), a journalist has long had to negotiate a minefield of hostile sentiment from both the state and local tribesmen. But to this witch’s brew of long-standing distrust is now the added element of militancy and military operations. “Reporting on a region where the fate of the ‘war on terror’ will be decided is like courting death every day. It’s not a job for the faint of heart,” says Iqbal Khattak, Pakistan representative for the international watchdog Reporters Without Borders, which in 2007 had ranked Pakistan 152nd out of 169 countries in terms of press freedom.
Since US operations began in the tribal areas, journalists have found that reporting often comes at a price. Journalists are not just victims of random violence, but are targeted with intent. Indeed, the TUJ blames all sides of the conflict for “purposely targeting” journalists. Says Aurangzaib Afridi, vice-president of the TUJ, “Whenever the armed groups enter a new tribal territory, they go for the journalists first, because they want to control information and do not want the truth to come out.” But when the journalists themselves seek out either side for information or verification, they are often not available or are untraceable.
Squeezed in this way, tribal reporters – most of whom have no formal journalism training – have had to learn the hard way about balance and multiple-source verification. “What you say about the successes of military operations may be perceived as reporting the failure of armed groups, or the other way round,” says a journalist from South Waziristan who does not want to be named. “You have to triangulate news, and give the other party a chance to respond if you want to live to do another story.” This, however, poses another difficulty: With the military covering the ‘truth’ through a spin of its own, and the militants in hiding, how does one confirm information?
It does not help that desk editors in the metropolis often stress controversial terms and information in stories filed by tribal journalists in a way that can spell disaster for the reporter on the ground. “If the headline says that soldiers have been ‘martyred’ and insurgents ‘killed’, you will have a visitor from the armed groups to give you a bit of ‘advice’,” says a journalist from Mohmand Agency. Sudhir Ahmad Afridi, a journalist from Khyber Agency, recalls how a fellow television journalist had to frantically call up his editor to remove the word militants from a news-scroll about armed groups in the agency. If the scroll remained unchanged, he would stand accused of making “accusations”. “Journalists are caught between the authorities, who want to kill stories, and the insurgents, who want only ‘their’ kind of reporting,” he says. “Truth and the journalists are the first casualties of such repressive tactics.”
The risk of harm is built into any conflict reporter’s job, but is a particular issue in the tribal areas. “Tribal journalists lack education and training,” says Tayyab Afridi, the manager Khyber Radio in Khyber Agency. “Not many journalists know about principles of good, balanced journalism, and that casts their work in a controversial light, inviting trouble.”
At the same time, with the mainstream media’s access to tribal areas severely restricted, the expectations are huge for tribal journalists to bridge the information gap. While reporters have to keep the outside would informed about the tribal areas, they have to do so in a way that does not go against the customs and wishes of tribal people. “If you ask about human rights, women rights, diseases like polio or AIDS [which are associated with NGOs], people think you are working for Western interests – or worse, suspect you of spying,” says Islam Gul, a radio journalist based in Khyber Agency.
Stress, says Mukarram Khan, a radio reporter from Mohmand Agency, is a way of life for the tribal journalist. He says that he accepts the risks that come with his job, but worries about his family’s peace of mind. “When I go to report, I don’t know if I’ll be back safe,” he says, while stuck at a friend’s place for the night after the roads closed down due to fighting between the Taliban and security forces. “My family has been calling me all evening to find out if I am safe. Every time I go out to report, I don’t know if there will be a suicide attack, a minefield explosion or a kidnapping.”
For Mohammad Jamil Khan, a newspaper reporter from Kurram Agency, which is riddled by sectarian strife, stress flows from the threat associated with sectarian positions. “No matter how objective you are, you are seen as a Shia or Sunni sympathiser, depending on which side of the divide you come from.” Jamil’s house was twice hit by rockets when sectarian violence peaked last year in Kurram Agency. He has since moved his family to j.
In the complete absence of a sense of security, even those journalists who do stay on in the tribal areas are naturally given to increased levels of self-censorship. Many are forced to spend more time watching their backs than following up on facts. No wonder, then, that few can make sense of the murky war in the tribal areas. At the same time, others who have the flexibility choose to stay quiet. Journalists elsewhere in Pakistan may be up against agents of censorship such as the regulatory authorities, the government, army, judiciary and intelligence agencies, but these are at least oppressors with a face and a clear reason to control information. In the case of tribal areas, where militants, sectarian organisations and armed tribesmen hold sway, journalists are up against shadowy perpetrators who often treat them as spies rather than reporters. For those in the business of seeking truth and gathering information, journalism in these areas is not just a vocation for news but also one that by its very definition invites trouble.
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
flickr / The US Army
On 1 December 2013, Afghan President Hamid Karzai accused the US of cutting fuel supplies to Afghan security forces. Despite US pressure, Karzai continues to stall the signing of a Bilateral Security Agreement.
From our archive:
Subel Bhandari looks at the Strategic Partnership Agreement, noting its avoidance of contentious issues. (April 2012)
Vijay Prashad reviews Syed Saleem Shahzad’s Inside Al-Qaeda and the Taliban: Beyond Bin Laden and 9/11, discussing Taliban strategy in the context of NATO withdrawal. (October 2011)
Aunohita Mojumdar explores questions of accountability in relation to the West’s “hasty exit strategy”. (February 2011)