Fighting displaced hundreds of thousands, including these people at a makeshift camp in Swabi. (AFP)
Fighting displaced hundreds of thousands, including these people at a makeshift camp in Swabi. (AFP)

As combat raged, local reporting was stifled

Yesterday, I reported on the plight of Behroz Khan and Rahman Bunairee, two Pakistani journalists whose homes were destroyed by militants. Many other journalists in the North West Frontier Province, or NWFP, faced grave dangers and were forced to flee, undermining independent reporting in the region. The same early July night that Khan and Bunairee’s homes were destroyed, Pakistani officials claimed a clear-cut military victory and encouraged the refugees who fled the fighting—relief agencies put the number at 2 million or more—to start returning home.

The fighting had been centered in the seven districts of the NWFP’s Malakand division—Malakand, Swat, Bunir, Shang La, Upper Dir, Lower Dir, and Chitral. The area is separate from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA)—itself a rear guard area for Islamist fighters in Afghanistan. In recent years, indigenous local militant groups had succeeded in establishing firm control and had abrogated peace treaties with successive Islamabad governments. At one point, the groups were in control of areas only 60 miles (100 kilometers) from the capital, Islamabad. Population statistics are soft in Pakistan, but perhaps 20 million or more people were no longer under the control of the central government.

According to official military reports collected and organized by the Herald magazine, part of the Dawn Media Group, at least 29 towns were struck by heavy fighting, including air assaults by the Pakistani Air Force. Local and international news reports reported some coordinated air support from U.S. military drones based in Afghanistan, although it is difficult to determine the full extent of the cooperation.

The bulk of the military’s ground assault ended by late July, although skirmishing and retaliatory car and suicide bombs have continued. Despite the government’s declaration of victory, few of the reporters with whom CPJ spoke believe the “war” is over. Some have started using the term “protracted low-intensity conflict,” and several said militants continued patrolling in their hometowns (even though they would not dare to report it in bylined news stories for fear of retribution.)

Sher Khan Afridi is president of the Khyber Union of Journalists. The union has branches in seven tribal agencies in FATA and six in the NWFP. It is fair to say that the union’s members are local front-line journalists bearing the brunt of the conflict. The “Khyber” in the union’s name is an indicator of just how close to the front line these reporters are. The Khyber Pass (it’s called Torqam on some maps) is the border crossing point on the main road linking Pakistan and Afghanistan. At night in Afghanistan it is controlled by Taliban checkpoints. In Pakistan, the military says the road is fully under their control, but local reporters told CPJ the army at best has partial control, with the road openly used by both sides night and day.

Afridi (whose Pashto remarks were translated by the Peshawar Union of Journalists President Mohammed Riaz) said his members have been under the gun for a long time. “Before 9/11 we were harassed by the local agencies’ political administrations, and after 9/11 we’ve been suppressed by the militants and the security forces,” Afridi said.

A bomb blast in Peshawar during the early weeks of fighting. (AFP)
A bomb blast in Peshawar during the early weeks of fighting. (AFP)

He spoke to me in a room at the Peshawar Press Club crowded with reporters from the conflict areas. Riaz had summoned as many as possible to tell me their stories. When the 20 or so reporters weren’t busy talking with me they were either locked in conversation with colleagues or talking into their cell phones—the room was noisy and amiable. Almost all were dressed in the traditional white or tan shalwar kameez of loose-fitting cotton pants and thigh-length shirts. They were animated, articulate, and frank in their conversation.

Afridi said that during the fighting, he estimated that 50 percent of the region’s journalists—including members of other journalist unions—fled their home villages, some taking their families to live with relatives in safer areas, some staying in hastily pulled together government-run refugee camps. When they returned in the following weeks, many found their homes and those of their neighbors had been destroyed by the fighting. But a few homes—Afridi said six in all—had been specifically targeted because they were the houses of journalists. He was sure the houses were hit by local militants because the invading army did not have the specific local knowledge of who lived where at the time.

If the dangers to journalists had waned since the height of the conflict, it seemed clear that significant risks would remain for some time. Shamseen Shah, president of the Peshawar Press Club, ticked off a list of towns where militants still held sway. “We still receive anonymous telephone calls, we still receive hand-written letters from the militants.” His members are pressured by the government as well. “Time and again,” Shah said, “we are ‘asked’ to ‘behave’ by the higher-ups of the secret intelligence agencies.” 

The series:

Part 1During an all-out military offensive, local reporters faced grave risks. Some literally lost their homes.
Part 2: Dozens of journalists flee the Swat Valley and nearby areas, leaving independent local coverage scant.
Part 3: Coverage of the fighting was left in large part to Pakistani reporters from outside the region who had embedded with the military.
Part 4Hayatullah Khan was murdered in 2006 in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. The government investigated—and then kept its reports secret.
Part 5: Government, media can undertake reforms to improve security.