Hamid Mir: Taliban are killing ‘non-conforming’ jorunalists by declaring them as spies…

Musa’s slaying scares reporters away from Swat
Saturday, February 21, 2009 (The News)
By Hamid Mir

MINGORA: “The pen is mightier than the sword” is a phrase we learnt at school. Unfortunately, the dangerous situation in Swat has changed this idiom, which should now read something like this: “The gun is mightier than the pen.” The truth is always bitter and difficult to digest.

The murder of brave journalist Musa Khankhel in the volatile valley has discouraged many who always believed in the might of the pen. Not few but dozens of newsmen left Swat hours after the burial of their colleague. Many television channels moved their staff and equipment to safer places like Peshawar.

Now the world may not watch live coverage of peace marches initiated by Maulana Sufi Muhammad or funeral prayers for any slain journalist from the picturesque valley, currently in the throes of an unrelenting insurgency.

A senior local journalist introduced me to two of his colleagues and poignantly predicted: “These two soldiers of the pen will also be killed very soon, because they are fearless like Musa Khankhel, but you may not be able to telecast live their funeral.”

At least three local journalists working for prominent TV channels informed The News that they were also receiving life threats after the killing of Musa Khankhel. Unidentified callers told them that the technical staff of their channels coming from Lahore, Islamabad and Peshawar for the live coverage of the situation in Swat would not return alive if they were not sent back immediately.

Two technicians of Geo Television, with a van full of transmission equipment, were rounded up by Taliban in the Charbagh area the other day. The fighters initially declared them spies but later released them after the technicians promised that they would not venture again into to the area.

An emergency meeting was called at the Swat press club to discuss the new threats being faced by journalists. I tried my level best to convince more than 150 journalists present there that they should not leave the region. Maybe I was not aware of the problems faced by my local colleagues.

They claimed that the government was not in a position to provide them security. On the other hand, their high-ups always push them to dig out some exclusive stories and visuals. This urge for exclusives is not in the interest of the Taliban and the security forces.

As a result, the news people face problems from both sides. One journalist angrily said he could stay in the profession only if allowed to wield a heavy weapon. I discouraged him and said journalists should not carry weapons but should take other security measures. However, most of my colleagues demurred, with a young journalist showing me a pistol hidden under his jacket. He said he did not move without his gun.

One local newsman said at the meeting: “We request our non-local colleagues to leave Swat immediately because there is no government here and we cannot provide them security; they should come back when the situation gets better.”

Most of the participants readily supported this suggestion. Only one local journalist Shirinzada and a local newspaper editor Ghulam Farooq opposed this proposition and insisted, with their eyes welling up, that they were ready to sacrifice their lives like Musa Khankhel but would not stop speaking and writing the truth.

We had no choice but to respect the majority view. I also accepted the decision and agreed to quit Swat. But I must explain why the presence of an independent media does not sit well with the Taliban and the security forces.

The fighters generally consider electronic media as their enemy, thinking that all private television networks are in control of the government and project only destruction of schools. They accuse the electronic media of lacking the courage to show the schools occupied by the Army and used as bunkers. They allege sometimes local journalists provide information about their presence to security forces. In a retaliatory move, they have banned all cable TV channels in Swat.

On the other hand, security forces always blast the media for projecting the Taliban as heroes. The government, which has also discouraged the coverage of “terrorists” and its security personnel have no problem in negotiating and making deals with the “terrorists”. Some top officials in the security establishment always considered brave journalists like Musa Khankhel as “bad chaps”.

The slain reporter always refused to accept dictation from security officials. His bad temperament was another problem. Once a security official abused Musa Khankhel and he paid him in the same coin. It was the start of a much bigger problem. Musa was kidnapped and beaten up for two days. He was threatened not to make noises; otherwise, his family will be killed. The reporter shared the incident with me and some other colleagues. I wrote about the threats in an article published on the editorial pages of The News on January 13, 2009.

I wrote in the article: “I also know another journalist of Swat by the name of Musa Khankhel for many years. In the last few months, he has survived two assassination attempts. He told me that some elements within the security forces wanted to eliminate him physically due to his reporting.”

Hours before his murder, Musa Khankhel sent me a message that I must be careful while moving in the Kabal area. I asked him why he was worried even after the peace pact signed with Maulana Sufi Muhammad and the resultant 10-day ceasefire announced by the Taliban.

Khankhel replied: “You will watch the scenes of destruction in civilian, residential areas of Kabal. You will show live destroyed homes and mosques and people will equate your coverage with the bombing of Gaza by Israelis. You will become a security risk and they will kill you in the name of national interest. And the blame will be placed at Taliban’s door.”

He convinced me that my movement in the most dangerous area of Swat was not in the interest of those who always considered a free media as their enemy. I never underestimated his opinion and immediately left Kabal. Two hours after this conversation on telephone, I received the shocking news about the killing of a young man concerned about my security, but not his own. He saved me but I could not save him. Peace in Swat was a dream of Musa Khankhel, who is no more alive to fight for the cause. The situation in this valley of horror and terror is very complicated but I am still hopeful of peace despite the fact that there is a lot of distrust between the Taliban and the security forces.

The moving force behind the peace move is the common man. The ruling party in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) was formed by Bacha Khan, who belonged to the Indian National Congress, before the partition of the undivided sub-continent. The Awami National Party is a secular and liberal party that took a calculated risk by negotiating peace with Sufi Muhammad, who does not support democracy but backs peace in Swat.

The ANP leadership is aware that if there is peace in Swat, its government will have a chance to establish its writ. A provincial minister, Bashir Bilour, was able to visit Swat on February 18 after a along time. Two more ANP ministers visited the city a day later on February 19 to condole the death of Musa Khankhel.

Ministerial visits to the no-go area prove that the ANP will not be the only beneficiary of peace in the troubled valley, but the whole state of Pakistan will ultimately benefit from stability there. Peace alone will help the state establish its writ. The anti-democracy Sufi Muhammad accepted the importance of political forces by negotiating peace with them.

Indeed, this move is the victory of political forces because finally they will try to compel Taliban to surrender their arms. If Taliban agree to surrender, the provincial government will announce amnesty for them. More than 400 schools will reopen and more than 200 destroyed educational institutes can be rebuilt if the state enforces its writ. Thousands of girls can only go back to school only if the peace initiative succeeds.

Maulana Sufi Muhammad has assured the people of Swat that he will make efforts to reopen girls’ schools. One hopes that the cleric will not back out of his commitment.

Most people in Swat say that “peace and stability of our area is more important than winning the so-called war on terror”. They are angry with the reaction of the west and some liberal Pakistani analysts, who think that peace will benefit the Taliban alone. These analysts must take risk and visit Swat in the best interest of the truth. They will realise that there are only two options for the state to bring stability to Swat: one is peace and the other is war. The state cannot win this war because the use of guns and tanks will keep producing more Taliban. If there is no peace, there will be more anarchy. There will be no development. No schools, no newspapers and no television networks. More journalists will be killed. More journalists will leave Swat. I am leaving Swat today. I am committed to coming back. But I cannot come back if there is no peace. I can use my pen and camera only for reporting the truth if there is peace. Otherwise, I will become another Musa Khankhel and my pen will be silenced. Musa was killed by those who don’t want peace.

NWFP Information Minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain said Musa was killed by a “third force”. But he did not name the third force. Maybe he will expose it after peace returns to Swat.

Musa once asked me a question that if the British government could talk to the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and make peace with them, why the Pakistani rulers could not negotiate peace with Taliban. I know that UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown and US President Barrack Obama will not like this question to be answered. Maybe they will also say that Musa Khankhel was a Taliban sympathiser.



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