Taliban threats, abducted journalists in Pakistan

Over the last few days, several papers in Pakistan reported that a Taliban organization in North Waziristan gave a “last warning” to Pakistani media. The story was widely reported, quoting an e-mail message from Muhammad Umar, a “spokesman for the Taliban Media Center,” the papers said. The group is angry about the way it is being portrayed on Pakistani television. The message, sent to many Pakistani media outlets, asked “Why is the media only conveying the army’s point of view? Is this proof that the media is also working as an ally for the government and the army? Or they are being forced to hide the truth?” according to translations in Pakistani English-language papers.

Umar said the media could either be with “the terrorists or the truth.” The threat didn’t get any more specific than that.

This isn’t the first “last warning” handed out by a Taliban group—and there are many different groups lumped under the name “Taliban”—to the media. Taliban groups are not always media friendly, but most are surprisingly media savvy. They fully grasp the importance of outside media coverage of their activities and make full use of the Internet and DVDs sold in marketplaces and distributed freely to local and international audiences. Most journalists, foreign and local, have Taliban spokesmen (and they are all men) on their speed dial, and faxes and e-mails flow steadily back and forth.

But threats like Muhammad Umar’s have to be taken seriously. Last year, in a five-part series  I reported on the pressures on journalists in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and the neighboring areas of the North West Frontier Province. Many had to flee the fighting there with their families, others complained that they had no allies when trying to cover the conflict fairly—not from the Taliban or the army, which insisted that reporters embed with their forces and then heavily censored their reporting. And that’s not to mention the gun runners, drug traffickers, or corrupt local officials who see no need for anyone to be telling the rest of the world what they are up to. 

There are two journalists being held in FATA right now. The cases show just how serious the threat is, and how varied the anti-media forces operating in the region are:

Beverley Giesbrecht has been held captive since November 11, 2008. Periodically, videotapes of her appear, or telephone contact is made with friends. Giesebrecht was a relatively new convert to Islam after the 9/11 attacks in the U.S. When she left her home and life as a businesswoman in West Vancouver, she started calling herself Khadija Abdul Qahaar and launched a Web site, Jihadunspun, which is no longer available. The Canadian government will only say that it is aware of her case, and will release no other information. Canada, like many other countries, is adamantly opposed to paying ransom for the release of its citizens being held hostage.

Asad Qureshi, a British citizen of Pakistani origin, went missing on March 26, on his way to North Waziristan. The documentarian was planning to interview Taliban leaders for a story. Reports that he was travelling with two former officials from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency were corroborated when video statements of the three men started appearing on Web sites. Pakistani media reports based on the videos and sources within the ISI say that the men are not being held by the same Taliban group that issued last Friday’s statement warning. According to Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper, the e-mail accompanying the video contains a list of the Taliban leaders to be released, threatening to kill their hostages if they weren’t they also demnded $10 million for the release of Qureshi. The British government isn’t making any substantive statements about the situation.

The Pakistan theater of war is a dangerous place for journalists. And the same goes for Afghanistan, where kidnappings and deaths of foreigners and locals, combined with casualties from car bombings and improvised explosive devices have takes a steady toll over the years of conflict. A threat like that from Umar is just another example of how far the situation has deteriorated, and the direction it is headed.