Local reporters like those in Federally Administered Tribal Areas, Swat, and Mingora are crucial to accurate, fully formed
news coverage. Their importance was evident in August, when reports began to
emerge that prominent Taliban leader Baitullah
Mehsud had been killed by a U.S.-launched missile apparently fired from an
unmanned drone over South Waziristan in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA. As Reuters
noted in the middle of the dispute, “independent verification of the claims
and counter-claims is extremely difficult as the Mehsud lands where the U.S.
missile struck the house of Baitullah’s father-in-law are remote and
inaccessible.” It was up to local reporters to get the information firsthand.
Eventually they did, confirming Baitullah Mehsud’s death.
A similar missile strike was the focus of Hayatullah Khan’s
last assignment in North Waziristan. Khan, a
freelance journalist well known in the region, had filed photos and a story
showing a U.S.-made Hellfire missile had struck a home in the town of Miran
Shah, killing senior al-Qaeda figure Hamza Rabia. The story, which appeared in
the widely read Urdu-language daily Ausaf,
and the pictures, distributed by the European Pressphoto Agency, contradicted
the Pakistani government’s official explanation that Rabia had died in a blast
caused by explosives located inside the house—the same sort of questions that
surrounded the death of Baitullah Mehsud.
The next day, December 5, 2005, five gunmen forced Khan’s
car off the road, abducting the journalist as his younger brother Haseenullah
watched helplessly. For six months rumors swirled about who had taken Khan
before the phone rang at his family’s home at 4:40 p.m. on June 16, 2006. A
Pakistani intelligence officer identifying himself only as Maj. Kamal said
Khan’s body had been dumped in Miran Shah’s marketplace. With that, the officer
said, his responsibility to the family had ended. The corpse was thin and
dirty, in the same clothes Khan had been wearing when he was abducted.
For the shaky Musharraf government, admitting in late 2005
that the United States could
impinge on Pakistan’s
territory was a political embarrassment. The last thing the embattled Musharraf
needed was an enterprising local reporter offering photographic evidence that
contradicted the government’s sanitized version of events. Worse, the
photographs made their way around the world undercutting Musharraf’s
international credibility, particularly in the Islamic world.
Khan’s death reverberated far beyond FATA, and remains an
issue in Pakistan
three years later. When I was in Pakistan in July, several
journalists raised the case and its implications. “As far as reporting from the
tribal areas, I don’t think much has changed,” said Muhammad Arshad Sharif,
Dawn TV’s defense and foreign affairs correspondent. “As for the border areas,
it’s still the military and secret intelligence agencies that call the shots.”
At the time of Khan’s abduction and murder, the Musharraf
government had been conducting a running battle with Pakistan’s vibrant and increasingly
defiant media. Some journalists openly accused the government of being
complicit in his death. Sailab Mehsud, then president of the Tribal Union of
Journalists, was blunt when he spoke with CPJ at the time: “We know that the
government had a hand in this. A message has been sent that we should stop
doing our work. For us, the post-Hayat period will only be more dangerous.”
Mehsud was right about future risks. Since Hayatullah Khan’s
death, at least 13 more Pakistani journalists have been killed on duty, five of
them murdered. None of the murder cases have been investigated to any
significant degree. CPJ places Pakistan
12th on its Impunity Index, which ranks countries in which journalists are slain
regularly and governments fail to solve the crimes.
Under international pressure, Musharraf agreed to have
Khan’s death investigated by Peshawar High Court Judge Mohammed Reza Khan (no
relation to Hayatullah). North
West Frontier Province Gov. Ali Mohammad Orakzai set up three commissions of
inquiry of his own. But while Judge Khan submitted his report in August
2006, the results have never been made public. Neither have the findings of any
of the Orakzai commissions.
Musharraf and his successor, Asif Ali Zardari, refused to
release the reports despite repeated calls from Pakistani journalists and the
international media rights community. The government has yet to respond to
CPJ’s most recent written request, made in September.
Journalists have long been under attack in Pakistan, no
matter who is at the head of the government, and Khan’s death could simply
become another milestone on a long road of unexplained deaths. In Khan’s case,
though, investigative reports are stashed away in the government’s records.
Making those reports public would be a small step in the direction of reversing
years of impunity at a time when the government says it is starting the nation
down a new path.
Part 1: During 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 4 Hayatullah 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.