PAKISTAN: REPORTING TERROR - A JOURNALISTS' TIGHTROPE
Karachi, 19 June (AKI) - (by Syed Saleem Shahzad) - For Pakistani and Afghan journalists, reporting on the US-led "War on Terror" is like walking on a tight rope as all concerned parties in the conflict often find the truth bitter and unacceptable. Pakistani tribal journalist Hayatullah Khan’s prolonged abduction and his subsequent murder in the tribal borderland of Waziristan is proof of this fact.
The murder of US reporter Daniel Pearl in January 2002 was the first unequivocal message to the media to keep their “hands off the mysterious and the complex world of al-Qaeda, the Taliban and the Pakistani jihadis”. But while the fate of the American newsman drew headlines around the world, the deaths of local reporters barely get a mention.
However, the passion for reporting and fervour to get the news first is the spirit that drives journalists to often ignore the dangers and transgress into "Restricted Areas".
So far four journalists have been killed in Waziristan alone. Others have fled to towns like Bannu and Dera Ismail Khan in the tribal belt which lies on Pakistan's Afghan border or to Peshawar in Northern Pakistan. Many have even left the profession altogether as it's difficult to do any reporting when every party involved, be it the government or the Taliban, insists on the publication of their point of view or dire consequences.
Hayatullah Khan’s murder is a case in point.
There are two sides to this story. A missile struck al-Qaeda’s militant Hamza Rabia’s hide out in the North Waziristan town of Mirali in December 2005 killing him and several family members. According to US intelligence officials, Hamza Rabia, an Egyptian, was a close associate of al-Qaeda number two Ayman al-Zawahiri, who is wanted in connection with the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States. Reports also suggest that Hamza Rabia had replaced Abu Faraj al Libbi, another al-Qaeda leader who was captured in Pakistan in May.
At the time of his death, Pakistani intelligence services in Waziristan sent a clear warning to tribal journalists to avoid reporting his death as being caused by a US missile strike, urging them instead to describe the incident as an explosion in the house where the militant was handling explosives and making a bomb.
Hayatullah Khan ignored the warning and even travelled to the site of the bombing. He reported on the incident and described it as a US air strike and even photographed the missile parts which lay among the rubble to support the eyewitness accounts of the attack.
Sources in North Waziristan maintained that Hamza Rabia was actually targetted twice. The first time he was invited to a friend’s house which was hit in a missile strike but Hamza narrowly managed to escape. Some accuse the journalist Hayatullah Khan of being a spy as his wife was allegedly a friend of Hamza Rabia’s wife and had given her a locket. It was only after the gift was handed over to Hamza's wife did the two air strikes occur. The suspicion is that a tracking device was placed in the locket which directed the two attacks on Hamza’s hide outs.
Nevertheless, Hayatullah Khan disappeared soon after Hamza’s death. Six months later his body was recovered with four fresh wounds on his back. Khan's family blame Pakistan's powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) for his murder.
While Hayatullah Khan was killed, there are dozens of other reporters whose lives have become a living hell as they continue to try to truthfully report on the situation on the ground in the tribal areas and in other parts of Pakistan.
"Aminullah Fitrat is a Quetta-based reporter working for a wire service," said Sajid Aziz, the general secretary of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists in an interview with Adnkronos International (AKI).
"He was abducted six months ago by the intelligence [services] and released after a lot of warnings. He reported facts on the military operation in Baluchistan. His reportage annoyed the government and since then Amin’s life is miserable. He was abducted and kept in an illegal detention of an intelligence agency, but he did not change his style of work and therefore constantly faces threats and mental torture. So much so that Inter Services Public Relation Department of the Pakistan armed forces sends him threats and warnings,” Sajid told AKI in a telephone interview.
"Qamar Yusufzai is another journalist in Baluchistan who reports for the electronic media. His coverage on Taliban activities has caused him a lot of suffering with threats and mental torture," Sajid maintained.
"The journalists just cannot report what they see or assess," he said. "You know the example of a Karachi-based journalist Obaid Mujtaba. He reported on the corrupt practices of prison authorities. The Deputy Superintendent of Jail Amanullah Niazi (recently killed in drive-by shooting in Karachi) managed to get him arrested and beat up, after which he was stripped and photographed with nude call girls and transvestites and the photographs were sent to his daughters," said Sajid.
"We have been bringing these incidents to the attention of the concerned authorities including the prime minister and the information minister but they simply say they are unaware of any such occurrences," Sajid maintained.
"I personally spoke to the [army] Corps Commander of Peshawar in 2005 about the murders of journalists in Wazirstan and then recently I was in Quetta and also met the governor of Baluchistan," said Sajid. "I was leading a delegation of 100 newsmen and I simply asked the governor the reasons for closing down a newspaper in Baluchistan after it had reported a story which Islamabad disliked. I pointed out that the government supports pseudo-journalists and newspapers only because pseudo-journalists and organizations are the one who can afford to blindly support government policies.
"Genuine journalism is all about objective criticism and genuine reportage. The governor replied that he neither knew about the closure of any newspaper nor about the victimisation of journalists in Baluchistan!" Sajid said.
The situation in Afghanistan is reportedly even worse as local journalists do not even have organised forums in which to at least register their protests.
Journalists are reportedly rounded up everyday in Afghanistan when they try to work independently. Sher Shah Hamdard is a journalist based in the Afghan city of Jalalabad, who has been detained many times by American forces. The last time a US plane was downed in the Afghan province of Kunar, he travelled there for the story and was rounded up and released after many days.
Having journalists embedded with the coalition forces is the only option available to reporters who want to cover the military operations in these far flung areas. But in such a case the Taliban can then hit back and their fighters then consider everyone - embedded journalists - to be combatants.
The Pakistani military has also allegedly prevented the foreign media from reporting in the area. Any foreign journalist who applies for a Pakistani visa requires at least a six months to process his visa request [the condition was partially waived during the 8 October earthquake] as his or her application has to be passed on to the interior ministry who then passes the application on to three different intelligence agencies namely Pakistan's Intelligence Bureau, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the military intelligence. Only after all these bodies have checked the application will the reporter get the visa.
In this way any incident that is time sensitive or is a breaking news story will not be reported from within Pakistan as a reporter would prefer not to waste his or her time in travelling to Pakistan. Even if the journalist is insistent on travelling to Pakistan, he or she would only be allowed to go to Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore. Cities such as Quetta, the capital of the restive province of Baluchistan or Peshwar in northern Pakistan would be out of bounds. Any transgression into these area would land them in jail.