Taliban kidnapping and Fatwas forcing journalists to toe pro-Taliban line…

Taliban’s ties with media

By Syed Irfan Ashraf

TALIBANISATION is a carefully designed package comprising an assortment of soft and hard parts. Both are used as it is against the rules of the deadly game to nurture one category while ignoring the other. No one understands this better than journalists working in the north-western conflict zones of the country.

During the last four years the media and the militants were not averse to one another, with extensive coverage being given to the subversive activities of the Taliban. In fact, the media earned a controversial reputation for glorifying villains as heroes. But the honeymoon period is over now, making it hard for those reporting on the conflict to perform their duties without fear or favour.

Previously, when Talibanisation was still in its infancy in Pakistan’s seven tribal agencies, information was accessible to media personnel. Militants would call the media’s more prominent members and accept responsibility for deeds carried out in the darkness of the night. Such calls were responded to with alacrity, and hefty media coverage was ensured, helping Taliban leaders establish an identity and a sense of direction. However, this also made the Taliban dependent on journalists. Some shrewd reporters served as the Taliban’s advisers and sympathisers to gain access to new information, which earned them prestige and honour among their colleagues along with monetary benefits.

Anecdotes deepen one’s insight into this relationship. A Taliban leader once asked his journalist friend whether or not he should cover his face before the TV cameras. The journalist responded, “No, Haji sahib, this would eliminate the awe factor.” In August 2007, the Taliban occupied Haji Sahib Turangzai’s mausoleum in Mohmand Agency and invited journalists to take note of their maiden appearance. In the face of harsh questions being posed by the journalists, a nervous Taliban commander, Omar Khalid, said, “If the media personnel are not happy with us, we will quit this mausoleum.”

Thanks to the apathy of the state security apparatus, the 33-year-old Omar Khalid gathered enough militants to extend his rule in the agency and beyond. He also kept the local journalists happy by keeping them updated and co-sponsoring their excursions to Lahore by sending them money.

However, a paradigm shift is visible now. While the security forces have never been an ally of the journalist community, the militants too have turned their guns on it. This development has been a source of immense worry for media personnel in the NWFP and Fata. Half a dozen have already been killed in the line of duty, many others are being threatened and the remaining few are ready to fall in line to avoid the Taliban stick. Everyday brings unreported stories of kidnapping or harassment, making it hard for professionals to report without compromising their journalistic values.

It is intriguing to note that the Taliban, otherwise seen as mediaeval-minded, are as media savvy as any in this modern age. They regularly monitor the media — both local and international — and revert to the journalist in question after taking note of minor ‘slants’ in his report. This makes the journalist more conscious about the importance of his choice of words and of inserting the Taliban view in every report.

A close relative of a Peshawar-based journalist working for international radio was called to a madressah by the Taliban in his native Hangu district and was made to listen to a recorded report. Then he was asked to warn the journalist to “toe the [Taliban] line or face the consequences”. As a result, the journalist stopped reporting from Orakzai Agency.

A couple of senior journalists in the NWFP are facing a fatwa issued by a Taliban shura. One prominent journalist reporting on the conflict was kidnapped from Peshawar after being invited to interview Taliban spokesman Maulvi Omar. A group of journalists on their visit to South Waziristan to interview the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan chief Baitullah Mehsud were disconcerted when the Taliban asked for a senior journalist who had allegedly called them “miscreants” in radio reports.

Another senior journalist from Peshawar was spared after he appeared in the ‘court’ of militant commander Mangal Bagh and tendered an apology for an editorial written in the newspaper’s headquarters in Lahore. In the troubled Swat valley, journalists never forget to carry a gun when in the field. This is how militancy and journalism coexist in the conflict zones of Pakistan.

Part of the problem lies with the journalists themselves. Until now, many media personnel working in Pakistan’s conflict zones and areas adjacent to the latter have failed to adequately distinguish their journalistic role from the sensitive nature of the ongoing conflict. They report from the world’s most dangerous areas but are unaware of their own role in the war. This is partly because, caught up in the events of the day, many journalists fail to take note of anything except that the situation is unusual and worth reporting.

The lack of professionalism on the part of some is also due to the absence of proper training and education, and a missing capacity to understand the magnitude of the problem. Moreover, many are exploited by the media organisations they work for. These organisations appear more concerned with breaking news and less about the safety and well-being of their employees.

High-ups in the media organisations sitting in their cosy newsrooms in Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad always push their front-line reporters to capture the heat of the conflict in their reports. In this vicious media circus the ongoing cut-throat competition has set a criminal trend where visuals are more important than the life of a reporter.

In the short span of a week, the staff of a newly launched TV channel was twice targeted in Swat. But the bosses were more concerned about the good performance of a rival channel than the safety of their own staffers. When a cameraman became unconscious after recording executions carried out by the Taliban in Mohmand Agency, his bureau chief proclaimed him a coward ignoring the fact that his cameraman was suffering from trauma.

It is understood that reporting in the conflict zones of Fata and the NWFP is getting tough with each passing day. Growing insecurity because of the increasing influence of militants in the tribal belt and the NWFP is a major reason, but sensitising TV channel bosses to the plight of underpaid and untrained conflict reporters working in sensitive tribal agencies and the conflict-ridden districts of the NWFP is another serious issue that needs to be dealt with immediately.