Attacks on the Press 2009: Pakistan

Top Developments
• Press has very limited access during two military offensives.
• Reporters face attacks, threats from all sides. Four are killed.

Key Statistic
6: Homes of journalists destroyed by militants in retaliatory attacks.

As Pakistan’s military launched two major offensives within its borders, officials pressured news media to report favorably on the conflicts while the Taliban and other militants threatened and attacked critical reporters. Reporters for Urdu- and Pashto-language news outlets came under the greatest pressure because of their wider influence among Pakistanis. Journalists who opted to embed with the military said they were forced to comply with heavy-handed restrictions on what they were allowed to see and report.


Main Index
Regional Analysis:
As fighting surges,
so does danger to press

Makings of a Massacre
Country Summaries
North Korea
Sri Lanka
Other developments

With varying levels of access and success, Pakistan’s news media covered the military offensive beginning in April to drive Taliban and Taliban-linked groups out of the Swat Valley in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), and a second drive into South Waziristan in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA, that began in October.

Neither offensive was militarily conclusive, and the response from the militants’ side was a horrific round of suicide explosions, car bombs, and armed attacks. After the military moved into South Waziristan in October, insurgent attacks included a suicide bombing at the U.N. World Food Program in Islamabad; an assault on the General Headquarters of the Pakistan Army; the murders of a brigadier general and education minister; several market bombings in the northwestern city of Peshawar, the worst of which took 100 lives; and a suicide bombing on a Peshawar office used by Pakistan’s main intelligence agency. The army blamed most of the attacks on the Tehreek-e-Taliban, the group led by Hakimullah Mehsud that it was battling in South Waziristan.

In July, CPJ traveled to Islamabad and Peshawar to meet with journalists covering the military offensive in the Swat Valley. About 260 local reporters were forced along with about 2 million others from the general population to flee the combat areas, according to the Khyber Union of Journalists. Some stayed behind, but their coverage was severely limited by the fighting and by threats of reprisal from militants. The homes of at least six journalists were leveled by militants in retribution for critical reporting. Much of the front-line coverage was handled by Pakistani reporters from outside the region who had embedded with the military. They encountered the limitations that embedding implies: skewed viewpoints, self-imposed censorship, and outright military control of information. Video was heavily censored; coverage of destruction caused by army shelling, for example, was banned.

Calling its operation “Rah-e-Rast” (or “Back on Track”), the military focused its efforts on the NWFP’s Malakand Division. In recent years indigenous local militant groups with links to the tribal areas had succeeded in establishing control and abrogating peace treaties with successive Islamabad governments. At one point, militant groups were in control of areas only 60 miles (100 kilometers) from the capital. Journalists described the fighting in the Swat Valley as a “protracted low-intensity conflict,” and several said militants continued patrolling in their hometowns months after the government had claimed success. (Several noted in the next breath that they would not dare report the militant presence in bylined news stories for fear of retribution.) “We still receive anonymous telephone calls, we still receive hand-written letters from the militants,” said Sher Shamseen Shah, president of the Peshawar Press Club. The risks facing reporters in the NWFP came into sharp relief in December when a suicide bomber set off an explosive as he tried to enter the Peshawar Press Club. Four people were killed, including a club employee and a police constable. Roughly 30 journalists were inside for a press conference when the bomb exploded.

The second military offensive, this into Waziristan, began in mid-October, with two army divisions totaling about 28,000 troops backed by local Frontier Corps members who joined when fighting came to their hometowns. The BBC and others estimated the Taliban to number between 10,000 and 20,000, with several hundred hardened ethnic Uzbek fighters adding support. By the end of October, the army was restricting reporters’ access to the fighting, which local residents, relaying news by telephone, said had been fierce.

The military did not allow reporters to embed in Waziristan until late year. “They don’t like to take reporters into areas until the hard part of the fighting is over,” Mazhar Abbas, deputy news director at ARY News, told CPJ. With little or no access, local reporters used phones to maintain contact with sources and witnesses. “In Waziristan, even the local stringers aren’t reporting from there. They get telephone reports, but they are not there to witness the fighting—the army told them to clear out of the conflict area,” Abbas said.

Journalists told CPJ that the Pakistani military, while making some improvements in media relations, lagged well behind the Taliban in terms of accessibility and disseminating information. “The Taliban need the media, too,” Abbas noted. “They are using text messaging more than ever to push information to journalists.” Having waged an insurgent-style war for more than two decades, first against the Russians and now NATO, the Taliban were media savvy, if hardly media friendly.

Journalists were hard-pressed to cover this exceptionally dangerous, logistically challenging story, which was unfolding on multiple fronts. Baluchistan, where Taliban operating in Afghanistan tended to congregate, was removed from the fiercest activity, but there, too, reporters were beaten, obstructed, and threatened. “The Baluch nationalists often dictate to us that their reports should be published in such and such a manner,” Razaur Rahman, editor of the Daily Express, told the International Federation of Journalists.

Four journalists lost their lives in 2009, one of them during the Swat Valley military offensive. Janullah Hashimzada, who worked for Shamshad TV, an Afghan station, was killed in the Khyber Agency in August when three gunmen in a passing car fired at the Afghan journalist and his colleague, Ali Khan, while they were traveling on a public minibus near the town of Jamrud. Hashimzada, the station’s Peshawar-based bureau chief for Pakistan, also reported for The Associated Press, the Pajhwok Afghan News agency, and other news outlets. No one claimed responsibility for the killing, but Hashimzada was known as a critic of the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, and his reports had challenged authorities and intelligence agencies in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. “He received threats four weeks [earlier] to leave Peshawar and not report Taliban and Al-Qaeda activity in Pakistan,” Danish Karokhel, director of Pajhwok Afghan News agency, told CPJ. Khan was severely wounded in the attack.

Musa Khankhel, who worked for Geo TV and its print affiliate The News, was killed in February while covering a peace march led by Muslim cleric Sufi Muhammad. He was found with gunshot wounds to the body and back of the head in a militant-controlled area near the town of Matta after he became separated from the rest of his four-person reporting team. A BBC report citing Khankhel’s brother said the journalist had been abducted at gunpoint from the peace march, and that his hands and feet were bound when his body was discovered.

In January, a suicide bomber killed Tahir Awan, a freelance reporter for the local Eitedal and Apna Akhbar newspapers, and Mohammad Imran, a cameraman trainee for Express TV, in the town of Dera Ismail Khan, in the NWFP. They died in an explosion that had followed a smaller blast, a double bombing apparently intended to kill early responders to the scene. At least five other people were killed and several more injured in the early evening attack. Dera Ismail Khan had been home to sectarian fighting between Shiite and Sunni groups for years, although it was not clear if the bombing was tied directly to that conflict.

The news media encountered growing interference from the government of President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani. Several developments were worrisome. Minister for Information and Broadcasting Sherry Rehman, a former journalist, resigned in March after Zardari aides pressured cable carriers to remove or give less preferable placement to two prominent news channels, Geo and Aaj, noted for their critical coverage of the government. Geo said the government also exerted “immense pressure” on the government of the United Arab Emirates, where Geo has broadcast operations, to halt production of “Meray Mutabiq” (According to Me), a popular program that was critical of the government. And in October, a key committee in the National Assembly backed legislation that would allow the government to ban live news coverage deemed terrorist-related and restrict material deemed defamatory to the government or military. Abbas, the ARY News editor, said it was “almost a revival” of the censorship imposed by Pervez Musharraf in his last, desperate months in office. Legislation was pending in late year. In an effort to head off government censorship, representatives of eight prominent stations drafted a set of voluntary rules to govern the depiction of violence.

An international journalist came under threat in late year. On November 5, The Nation newspaper cited unnamed sources in accusing Wall Street Journal correspondent Matthew Rosenberg of working for the CIA, Israeli intelligence, and the U.S. military contractor Blackwater (known now as Xe Services). The unsubstantiated accusation, which forced Rosenberg to leave the country, drew sharp rebukes from Journal Managing Editor Robert Thomson, CPJ, and international news organizations. In a letter to Qamar Zaman Kaira, minister for information and broadcasting, the news organizations noted that Rosenberg was a “respected journalist of high standing” and said the story had needlessly raised risks for everyone in the press corps.

The Nation struck again the same month with a front-page story and photo accusing Daniel Berehulak, a photographer for Getty Images, of being a CIA agent. As in the other case, The Nation offered no substantiation. Hugh Pinney, Getty’s senior director of photography, wrote the paper’s editor, Shireen Mazari, to say that the story “needlessly increased” the risks facing its photographer. CPJ pointed out that such accusations have the effect of raising suspicion about all journalists, creating hazards for everyone.