Killing of one journalist is a message for another. This is the story of every second journalist working in the conflict zones where dozens have lost their lives and many are under death threat. In tribal areas of FATA and Balochistan, journalists seem more concerned about the telephone from the ‘Amir’ or ‘Commandant’ than of their editors or director news.
“I can ignore the call from the editor but not from the militant leader or intelligence official. I would be fired from the job if I refuse the call from the desk but would be ‘fired’ from life in the other case,” said one tribal journalist, on condition of anonymity.
Selection of words and phrases are most difficult for journalists reporting from the conflict zone. It’s very difficult for them to use words like terrorists and militants; instead they try to use for neutral words like extremists. The construction of how a victim gets constructed in the news is increasingly complicated by the voracious appetite for live coverage of 24 hour news channel. At times, they have had to face difficulties when the ticker desk without taking them into confidence used these words and the journalists were summoned to explain their position.
The news monitoring system of the conflicting parties is so strong that the journalists cannot lie to them. “Their stories are fully monitored on the internet and action is taken against them accordingly,” said another journalist.
Journalists remain under surveillance of both militants and agencies and their telephones remain under observation. Sometimes they were even called and were told what they had been saying on the phone and are often warned to be more careful in their conversations.
Their coverage of events, beepers and reports were fully monitored. A journalist was once called by the leader of a militant group and was enquired about his meeting with the Governor of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. When he informed them that he was only part of the delegation, he was told of his private conversation with him after the meeting. It was so shocking for him that he had no option but to apologise.
The murder of tribal journalist Nasrullah Afridi a few months back was perhaps the warning for Mohammad Khan Atif, a stinger for Voice of America’s Pashto service. Atif too was killed early this month. Journalists in the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA), now waiting for the next target as everyone seems to be hostage of “gun power” whether of the State or Non State elements, making it world’s most dangerous are for reporting.
Prior to 9/11, there were hardly 50 journalists in the tribal areas who used to send soft stories which hardly got front page of the newspapers as there was only Pakistan Television. Events in the post 9/11 not only gave boom to the media in the tribal areas but most of the journalists emerged as stingers. The well-reputed journalists from the tribal areas as well as from Peshawar were well in demand.
Situation was not threatening for journalists till 2003, and they continued their work without much hindrance till the kidnapping of Hayatullah Khan in December 2005. Almost six months later his body was found. The shocking incident spread a wave of terror. There is no clear evidence about who was behind his murder but it was a first serious message for independent and free media. The threat was not confined to tribal areas alone but as the war on terror spread journalists in the settled areas like Swat, Malakand, DI Khan also started getting threats and reporting became difficult.
With two to three years, some five journalists were killed in Swat and Malakand alone, forcing some of the journalists to leave their homes.
From 2005 to 2011, some 24 journalists from FATA, Swat and other adjacent areas were killed, some as a result of target killings while others become victim of suicide attacks.
Fear replaced excitement for reporting in these areas. After 2004, special training courses were arranged by the journalist unions like PFUJ in collaboration with International journalist bodies,” how to report from conflict zone.”
At least 70 percent journalists working in North and South Waziristan and other adjacent areas had left their homes because of safety concerns for themselves and their families. Atif’s murder has just added to their apprehension about independent coverage from these areas any more.
It’s very important that some kind of reporting code be prepared for the journalists living in FATA and Balochistan or wherever there is conflict. Codes of reporting should be different for FATA, Balochistan, sectarian and ethnic conflicts, terrorism. The media owners, editors, journalist must be told to follow these codes.
In the last 10 years, at least six journalists reporting from North and South Waziristan left their homes and settled in the settled areas but their lives remain unsafe. Atif was one of them, who had moved to Shabqadar after getting death threats. A few years back, BBC correspondent, Dilawar Khan Wazir who also remained under constant threat — his house was also attacked — had already moved from FATA.
However, the price is too low — a few hundred dollars — for those reporting from one of world’s most dangerous Federally Administered Tribal Area called FATA.
As Secretary General of the PFUJ, I wrote a letter to one of the US newspapers, asking the management not to endanger the life of local stinger. If they do need one, he must be provided an insurance cover as he has to pay the price after the publication of any controversial story. On one occasion I got a journalist, who was detained by militants, released after they asked PFUJ to verify whether the said person is a journalist or not.
Journalists working in the tribal areas have opted for stingership because of the poor economic condition and poor salary package offered by the local media. None of the 250 tribal journalists are regular employees of any media outlet. Yet they send stories from the most dangerous places on the ongoing “war on terror.”
Sometime they send stories on the military operation and at times on the militants attack on security forces. None of them have life insurance, few have got life saving jackets and have limited training courses.
There are no bureau offices and very few have cameras and mobile facilities. Those working for the print send their stories through fax or Internet (if at all they this facility). The TV journalists send their stories through FTP, but some do not even have this facility. After filing their stories or giving their beepers, they always expect a ‘telephone call’ either from the state or the militants. If the story is too controversial, the reporter often moves to a safer place for a few days and waits for reaction.
Journalists in settled areas like Swat, Malakand or D.I.Khan also face similar kind of threats. At least four journalists have been killed in Swat and Malakand in the last couple of years and the threat for others still persists.
The threat varies from the militants posted outside the office of any newspaper or channel to the intelligence officials who call them on phone or even visit the office in order to stop the reporter from sending any controversial report. Sometime they visit after the story is aired.
Following the murder of Mohammad Khan Atif, the TTP leader who claimed the responsibility of the murder defended the action on the ground that despite repeating warning to him, the slain journalist did not listen to them. The TTP complained their version was not given by him in his reports. Apparently they are more concerned about the coverage and commentary in Pashto language media, particularly the Pashto service of VOA.
What is the life of these journalists? Those living in the settled areas have a much better life then the one living the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, FATA “We don’t have normal life as you people have. In areas where even a common man finds it difficult to work, send his children to school, live with fear of a suicide or drone, freedom of media is just a sweet dream,” said a senior journalist from North Waziristan, on condition of anonymity.
In the last 10 years, at least 95 percent stories sent from the seven tribal agencies and some nearby areas were about the bomb blasts (suicide or remote control), attacks on girls schools on the one side and drones attack on the other hand. In the last one decade, one rarely saw any package or report on any other social or cultural issue. Death is the only news. For international media, any news of the killing of any leader linked with al-Qaeda turns into a major story.
Violent attack against journalists is common around the world. 1106 journalists were killed in 2011, threatening the very concept of freedom of expression. Pakistan remains one of the most dangerous countries for reporting in the world. Over 80 journalists have been killed. Yet, when it comes to the struggle for the freedom of the press or media freedom, they remain in the forefront. They are living for freedom, dying for journalism. Believe me they are not in dozens but in hundreds.
Originally published here.