Alamgir Bhittani: when reporting can cost life -by Shafiq Ahmed

Alamgir Bhittani was the first to report Baitullah Mehsud’s death. But breaking news about the death of Hakimullah Mehsud in a U.S. drone attack cost him his life.

Journalists working abroad or in urban centers of Pakistan, are usually unaware of the risks faced by reporters working in the country’s hostile tribal region and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. They have little idea that a single news story or even a comment disapproved by the militants could cost a correspondent his life.

One such tribal journalist Alamgir Bhittani met a similar fate a few weeks ago. Apparently, Bhittani died of a heart attack on May 28 , but the cause of his death was the enormous pressure of a single news report about the death of Tehreek Taliban Pakistan (TTP) chief Hakimullah Mehusd, which was initially confirmed by the officials in Islamabad. Some of his friends and colleagues say that he had received threats from militants after breaking the news of Hakimullah Mehsud’s death.

But his close friend, who is also a journalist, informed Viewpoint that not only the news about the death of the TTP chief, but his comments in a radio talk show about the militants also irked the Taliban. After receiving threats, he then decided to stop reporting for some time and even shifted to a safer place in Islamabad a month before his death. Bhittani belonged to Tank district and worked with Deewa radio, a subsidiary of the Voice of America’s Pashto service.

He covered the troubled tribal region of South Waziristan and its adjacent districts for many years. He also worked for Reuters wire service and contributed for daily Dawn, Pakistan’s leading mainstream broadsheet. During his professional career, Alamgir extensively covered the ‘war on terror’ in the tribal region and conducted exclusive interviews with slain militant commander Baitullah Mahsud as well as other Taliban leaders.

I once asked him, howwas it to work with Deewa radio, which focuses on the tribal regions and the ongoing military operations there. He said: “Quote whatever the officials or the militants say. Don’t give your own comment or never dig out sensitive information.” Despite his clear thought how to work with foreign media organizations, he was entangled in a Taliban web for breaking the news about Hakimullah Mehsud and once uttering few words in a talk show which were not liked by the TTP. It took his close circle of journalist friends, including myself, by surprise that militants could threaten Bhittani.

I travelled with him twice to the tribal region and found him very popular among the tribals and different militant groups. Three years back when we were together in the main market of Wana, the headquarters of South Waziristan Agency, I saw people whispering about Bhittani. I still remember the words I told him, “You are as popular in Wana as Amitab Bachan (an actor) is in India.” Bhittani was the first journalist who broke the story about the death of the TTP founder and commander Baitullah Mehsud.

But breaking news about the death of Hakimullah Mehsud in a U.S. drone attack cost him his life. “He had received threats after reporting the death of Hakimullah Mehsud. But he again received threats when he commented on militants in a talk show and his comments were not liked by the Taliban,” said Nasir Dawar, a journalist and close friend of Bhittani. Dawar, who had taken Bhittani to Rehman Medical Centre, where he died before any medical treatment could be given, said five days before his cardiac arrest, Bhittani was taken to the same hospital in Peshawar for different medical tests. And all the results were fine.

“Initially the militants from North Waziristan threatened him for giving “wrong” news about the death of Hakimullah Mehsud. But later he was threatened by the militants from Orakzai Agency and that threat was very serious,” Mr Dawar maintains.

The militants counted his three children, then names of their schools and classes and registration numbers of vans which give the kids pick and drop facility at their respective schools and then told Bhittani that these children would be killed. “He had received such threat by telephone and later by email, which were very serious,” he said. After that he stopped reporting, because he was under tremendous psychological pressure. Dawar says Bhittani then went to Islamabad with his family where he fell ill. “He had severe stomach problem due to the physiological pressure,” says a senior journalist Zeeshan Haider and a former colleague of Bhittani.

“We can understand how difficult it is to work for a media organization in the tribal region,” he said. Alamgir Bhittani used to work from his hometown Tank, but in 2007 , he first shifted to Dera Ismail Khan and then to Peshawar, but no area is safe in the entire Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Mr Bhittani was not the only journalist who died in the line of duty.

May journalists in the tribal regions have died while reporting on the militancy and the ongoing military operation. Last year, a suicide bomber attacked the Peshawar Press Club and the target was said to be the club president Shamim Shahid as he in his writing and comments condemns the Taliban.

Source :Viewpoint