An important part of the military’s offensive was to turn
public opinion against militants who had enjoyed widespread, if somewhat
ambivalent, support. To turn public opinion around, the military had started
embedding reporters with its units as soon as the fighting started. Although the
limits on coverage were strict, few journalists for
The embedding was part of a public relations move that included changing the name of the offensive from “Operation Black Thunderstorm” to Rah-e-Rast, roughly translated as “Back on the Right Path.” It was part of an attempt to wrest the moral high ground from the insurgents, a “hearts and minds” tactic aimed at making the chaos of war more palatable to civilians.
More than a year earlier, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas had been appointed as the military’s spokesman. With several brothers prominent in the media—his brother, Mazhar Abbas, headed the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists for several years and was a 2007 CPJ International Press Freedom Awardee; another, Zafar, is editor of the English-language daily Dawn—Maj. Gen. Abbas is media savvy and understands the importance of supportive news coverage.
Journalists were ambivalent about the embedding. Muhammad
Arshad Sharif, the defense and foreign affairs correspondent for Dawn TV News, and
several of his colleagues spoke with me recently in the station’s modern, air-conditioned
Sharif is articulate and persuasive. He has the
self-assurance of a successful on-air personality, but he was not able to hide
the personal impact of his war reporting. “I know many people argued that this
“It’s a difficult story to cover. Either you cover it from the side of the militants or go over and cover it from the side of the government. Cover it independently and your life is at risk. Your life can be taken away because you could be a target of either of the two sides,” Sharif said.
Matiullah Jan, a Dawn TV producer who also covers
“Yes,” Sharif argued, “embedding has its merits and demerits. For example, you can’t show the damage and dead bodies if it’s bad for the military. But at least you’re part of history as it is happening, even if you can’t tell the whole story.” He acknowledged that some events are not disclosed in news reports from embedded reporters. “Maybe we can show all our footage later, to show the violation of human rights of war—but at this stage we can’t do that.”
Matiullah contended that too much is sacrificed. “It has taken its toll on objective reporting, but we’re not really talking about it. Civilian casualties are nowhere to be mentioned, let alone military casualties. A lot of journalists have started using the term ‘collateral damage.’ Journalists are paying a lot for covering the war this way. It’s part of the ‘collateral damage’ too.”
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.