The September 30 Daily Times in Pakistan headlined a story “Peace being gradually restored in Swat,” although daily skirmishes continue between the military and militants. A few days earlier, a massive car bomb in the heart of Peshawar killed at least 10 people and left some 70 wounded, while an explosion destroyed a police station in Bannu. Qari Hussain Mehsud, a Taliban commander in North Waziristan told The Associated Press that his organization had become only stronger after leader Baitullah Mehsud had been killed in a missile strike, most likely fired from a U.S. drone. Clearly, the government offensive that started in April to reclaim the Swat Valley and surrounding areas from militant groups has not marked the end of conflict. Journalists, many of them local reporters who are in the middle of this fighting, will continue to face extraordinary risks and difficulties.
I went to Peshawar
and Islamabad recently to talk with Pakistani
journalists who covered the military’s first all-out assault against militant
groups that had spread beyond their traditional stronghold of the Federally
Administered Tribal Areas along the border with Afghanistan
into the neighboring Swat
Valley and Mingora
district. In a series that we’ll post over the next five days, I’ll describe
the pressures Pakistani journalists face in covering the fighting, the
restrictions on their coverage, and the thoughts of a reporter who embedded
with the military. Our series will revisit the 2006 killing of frontier
journalist Hayatullah Khan; the government has not only failed to solve this
case, it has kept secret its own investigations. And I’ll offer recommendations
on how to take some of the pressure off Pakistani journalists who are covering
a war of global importance that is being fought in their own hometowns.
Some of these journalists,
in fact, lost their homes. Behroz Khan was one.
the night and early morning of July 8 and 9, a group of armed men came to Khan’s
home in Balo Khan village in the dusty district of Buner in Pakistan’s North West Frontier
Province. A month before, armed men had
ransacked and looted the house; a failed arson attempt had followed that. The houses in Buner are not easily destroyed: They are stout,
with thick earthen brick walls, generations old. But on this occasion in July,
the men left nothing to chance. After ordering everyone out, they dynamited the
home, destroying it. At virtually the same time, a similar attack was carried
out at the home of another prominent Buner journalist, Rahman Bunairee.
Khan reported for Pakistan’s
English-language daily The News for years from the border areas with Afghanistan.
His family is wealthy, with land holdings and businesses in their district.
They have been there for generations, and could be considered among the landed
gentry of the ethnically Pashtun area. Khan has been a regular contact for CPJ
for years, and I met with him and some 20 other journalists from the area in July
in Peshawar, capital of the North West Frontier
Province, or NWFP, and
the jumping off point for journalists covering the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
In a national broadcast on May 7, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza
Gilani had gone on the air to announce that Pakistan was at war. Operations had
started on April 27 with attacks on insurgents in several small towns; they were
in full swing through May and June.
The combat, which is ongoing, is unique in Pakistan. The
Pentagon called it the
largest military operation that the Pakistani government had ever carried
out. It was an all-out assault by the Pakistani military on what is generally
reported to be the Taliban, but could be more accurately described as sometimes
united clusters of militants with local political and economic ties, some
operating from a sense of religious obligation. Some have cross-border links
with Pashto and Taliban organizations in Afghanistan, but most have a
narrower, sometimes village-level power base. Some have criminal ties,
including involvement in the opium trade.
In the year or two before the military’s attacks, the militants
had spread beyond the neighboring Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA),
where the government has never held full authority over the local population,
largely ethnic Pashtuns. They administered courts, settled disputes, enforced
traditional dress codes and either overran police stations, or used the police
to administer the harsh justice they were meting out. To many residents they
offered an antidote to the inefficient and corrupt policies that had been
passed down from Islamabad.
Many Pakistanis across the country saw them as fellow Muslims and countrymen
unfairly demonized and attacked by the United
States in a spillover from the war in Afghanistan.
There were two distinct groups of journalists who covered the
fighting in and around Swat. Khan and Bunairee were typical of the local journalists
across the NWFP. About 260 local reporters wound up joining the general
population in fleeing the all-out attacks by the Pakistani military, according
to the Khyber Union of Journalists. Some stayed behind to take their chances,
but their coverage was severely limited by the danger. Much of the coverage was
ultimately left to Pakistani reporters from outside the region who had embedded
with the military. They confronted the limitations that embedding implies: skewed viewpoints, self-imposed censorship, and outright
military control of information.
attack on Behroz Khan’s house, while extreme, was not unique. Many of the
journalists I met said they were under pressure from all sides; even those who
were long-term residents felt there was little to no room to operate neutrally
in the battlefield. Several said that self-censorship, born out of fear of
retribution, was a reality to which they had long ago resigned themselves.
Why were Khan’s enemies so adamantly determined to destroy
his house? “I never received any threat,” he said. “But when these men used to
visit our village, they would ask for the names of me and my brothers and
cousins. But no one has claimed responsibility.”
The same night they dynamited Khan’s house, militants also blew
up the house of Rahman Bunairee. There was no doubt, in this instance, as to their
reason: They told Bunairee’s family they
were retaliating for his reporting.
“They had come to destroy our house, and they told us so. They told my father, ‘We have
orders to blow up the house because of your son’s criticism of the Taliban.”
he said. Bunairee was a popular reporter for Khyber TV, a national, privately owned
broadcaster in Pakistan, and
government-funded Voice of America’s Deewa service, which targets the Pashto-speaking
audience in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border area. Bunairee thinks it is because of his
reporting on VOA that he was singled out for retribution.
After the explosion, Bunairee joined his wife and four
children in Pakistan’s
southern port city of Karachi.
Khyber and VOA offered him support as he sorted out what to do next, but he
didn’t have the luxury to think for long. Around July 20, in separate
incidents, small groups of gunmen climbed the wall at Khyber TV’s Karachi bureau looking
for Bunairee. He wasn’t in the office when they came for him, he told me. He
was holed up in a guest house in the capital, trying to figure his next move.
He did not know exactly who his assailants in Karachi were—or at least he
didn’t feel safe speculating—but he said he knew they were a militant Islamic
group angry with his reporting. A
few days later, Bunairee fled the country for the United States, reluctantly
leaving his family behind as he sought refuge for them all.
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.
: 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.