As the Pakistan army braced itself for Operation Zarb-e-Azb, journalists around Pakistan and globally received a press release — not from the Pakistani government, the parliament or any other civilian body — but from the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR), the military’s media wing, stating that an Operation had commenced in North Waziristan on the directives of the Pakistani government. The government itself did not officially announce anything, although a few ministers came out to confirm the same, only after the media wing of the army announced it.
“All local journalists were asked by the military to leave the day they launched the Operation, and now most are based in Bannu, next to the tribal belt, and it is hard to reach anyone inside since cell phones do not work, there is no internet and a very few landlines exist,” says Safdar Dawar, a journalist who hails from North Waziristan and is the former President of Tribal Union of Journalists.
“Even if we manage to reach someone still in the agency, they are afraid to speak since they do not know whether to trust anyone in these circumstances, and that, too, over the phone,” Dawar adds.
According to Dawar, the real on-ground situation from North Waziristan is hard to assess given that the media is not allowed independent access. “No one really knows what is going on. We are regurgitating what the army is telling us,” he complains.
But insiders in the media industry say, due to background briefings by the military with news editors and other senior journalists, information flow from such operations is always controlled. “The ISPR is even asking different news organisations to play particular patriotic songs praising the army on their channels nowadays,” says a source in the media industry who wants to remain anonymous.
And this pro-operation line has been observed not only locally but with international media coverage too, says Mahvish Ahmad, co-founder of Tanqeed, an online magazine that launched a media watch section on its website, critically analysing the North Waziristan Operation.
For her, journalists are not asking the right people, the right questions.
“It remains difficult to verify information coming out of North Waziristan but it is relatively easy to ensure that reporting on the area goes beyond an unquestioned touting of the state line, especially the hundreds and thousands of Waziris who are caught in the cross-fire between the state and militants. For all of its claims of editorial balance and neutrality, the foreign press sees Pakistan through a security-centric lens, ostensibly side-lining the voice of a democratically-elected government, representatives, and the people of Fata,” explains Mahvish Ahmad, who is based out of Islamabad.
Her online publication has been monitoring the reporting in four major international papers. And Tanqeed’s data shows that the international media relies heavily on security sources: over 40 per cent, and [security] experts: 20 per cent, while residents from Fata are grossly under-represented, constituting only 9 per cent of total instances of sources.
“A closer reading of the international press also reveals that the bulk of their experts have a background with, or close relations to, Pakistan’s security forces,” Mahvish adds.
In comparison, Tanqeed research shows the Pakistani press gave equal airtime to the government: (38 per cent), as it did to the security forces: (34 per cent).
However, even if local media gives equal space to both civilian leadership and security forces, the quality of these reports lacks basic reporting ethics.
“The local media is too afraid to ask the right questions. There are thousands of refugees in Bannu who have come from North Waziristan. But the media only asks them non-controversial questions like how they are feeling or how they got to Bannu — never once do they try to dig deeper and ask what they feel about the Taliban, the army, or the conflict in their region, etc., even though most of these refugees have been suffering for over a decade now,” says Dawar, the North Waziristani journalist.
According to data collected by Tanqeed, as the Operation started, the Taliban have gotten little or no coverage. “Our numbers show that insurgent statements constitute only 2.7 per cent of total instances of sources in local and international reports, indicating that they get little to no airtime,” Mahvish explains.
But Dawar feels that with the peace talks that the government launched earlier this year the Pakistani Taliban were able to get a fair share in the media, at least up until the Operation was launched.
“Those close to the Taliban started to come on TV and speak their mind. The media ran their press releases, too. So they became legitimate stakeholders in the whole process and got good coverage,” says Dawar, adding that even through social media presence — the Taliban ensure that the world out there knows their ‘version of the truth’.
Observers also feel that while the Taliban got undivided attention of the media in recent months, many news organisations did not refer to them as terrorists, and did not critically analyse their statements or grill them when on air, and resorted to self-censorship.
For example, when a news channel team was attacked earlier this year, one of their anchors came on TV and pleaded to the Taliban spokesman (on phone with him) to spare Pakistani journalists, and in exchange promised to give them sufficient airtime to present their point of view.
Because of this, some feel that there should be a set of guidelines when the Taliban are provided airtime on TV.
“Glorifying crimes is against the law of the land,” says Puruesh Chaudhary, who runs an independent media development organisation called Agahi.
But as far as threats are concerned, for Chaudhary, significant evidence indicates that the gravest of all threats is the lack of organisation’s support in terms of physical security, competitive salaries and training opportunities to journalists.
“It’s not just about the journalists from Fata, any news organisation when they send journalists to a conflict zone; the journalist is fully aware, trained, and equipped to handle the story as and when the events unfold. Unfortunately, this is and has never been the case for the media in Pakistan,” she adds.
Dawar who has lost at least 13 journalist friends in the tribal belt, (all except for one killed by unknown people) says the threat matrix in the region is very complex and that is why independent reporting is almost impossible.
“The only journalist that the Taliban accepted responsibility for killing was Mukarram Khan, who they warned three times before taking him out. So, at least we all knew who was after him. With the other 12, we have no idea who killed them and the inquiry report never saw the light of the day,” he adds, hinting that it could be either the military or the militants behind the killings.