Unsung: FATA journalists soldier on despite threats and lack of support

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Bannu: When Umer Daraz Wazir, a reporter for Mashaal Radio, the Prague-based Pakhtu news and current affairs service run by Radio Free Europe (RFE), was asked at the entrance to Bannu cantonment to stop and wait for some time, he had no reason to be concerned.

He was not the first one asked to stop and wait at a security check-point. People including journalists working in Bannu are often stopped by security forces at the checkpoints. In a city that has turned into a virtual garrison after the military operation in the neighboring North Waziristan against militants, security concerns are high.

The cantonment is where all the public offices are based, along with the military headquarters. Umer Daraz had gone to interview an official in the cantonment area two weeks ago when the security personnel on the gate stopped him and handed him over to a person in plain clothes.

He was blindfolded and shifted to an unidentified location inside the cantonment.

“I asked them what my crime was but no one would tell me,” Umer told News Lens. “I was really shocked when they started interrogating me.”

After spending a night in an empty room, they let him go. He said he didn’t know who they were and why they kept him in detention. “They detained me and let me go but still I don’t know what for.”

Umer Daraz is one of the several journalists from North Waziristan Agency where the Pakistan Army started an operation against militants in June last year. Displaced from one of the most troubled of tribal areas along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, they live and work in the Bannu city.

Not long ago, Noor Behram, another journalist from North Waziristan was also detained at the same gate and released later.

Noor Behram, who was the president of Tribal Union of Journalists (TUJ) then, said he was also stopped at the main gate of Bannu Cantonment. He was also detained at the cantonment. The authorities let him go after other journalists intervened.

“After journalists interceded with the authorities, they let me go,” says Noor Behram. He says the authorities said the tracking machine at the security checkpoint could not read his identity card.

Journalists from the tribal areas commonly known as FATA or the Federally Administered Tribal Areas have been working under constant threats since the day they started reporting from the militant-infested border region – one of the most isolated areas of the country.

The Taliban militants may be FATA’s and its peoples’ biggest worry – close to a 4 million people have been displaced by military operations against militants since 2007 – but it is by no means the only.

FATA has almost a century old administrative system implemented by the then colonial British Raj. Tribes were ruled by a legal system that ran parallel to the rest of the united India. It is called the Frontier Crimes Regulation or FCR, used by the British authorities to discipline the troublesome and independent tribes living in FATA.

The tribes didn’t want foreigners to rule them so the British raised the FCR according to which a whole tribe can be punished – including women and children – for the crime of a person from that tribe. The FCR doesn’t allow any media – radio, TV or newspaper – any politics or political gatherings etc.

“Before 9/11, we were silenced by the FCR and now we are surrounded by threats like Taliban groups, the authorities, our own society and even the security agencies,” said Umer. “You have to tread carefully every step of the way while reporting on a conflict zone like FATA.”

There are about 270 journalists working from the tribal areas of Pakistan. 12 journalists from FATA have lost their lives in the line of duty since 9/11.

Malik Mumtaz, a journalist from Fata, was shot dead in Miranshah, the main town of North Waziristan Agency on November 27, 2013. He was shot while he was on his way home after working at the press club that day.

“We don’t know who killed him but we do know that his only crime was his reporting,” says Habibullah, his cousin.

Habibullah told News Lens that his family opposed his decision to take up journalism after his cousin was killed for reporting.

“I came to this field to continue the mission of my late cousin,” Habibullah told News Lens. He said the local community asked him to join journalism to give voice to the oppressed people of the region.

Sailab Mehsud, founder of Tribal Union of Journalists, is clear about where the threats to tribal journalists come from.

He says there are three powers in the border region — the Pakistani state, the Taliban and the journalist community.

“The journalists are vulnerable to threats from the militants and the state,” Sailab told News Lens. “They face life threats, financial crisis, displacement and insecurity. In a situation where the state and the militants want to control information, it is very difficult to ascertain who is right and who is wrong.”

He said the journalists could be safe if they made sure that their reports are balanced, covering both sides of the story from the Taliban and the security forces.

“It is hard to for a journalist to report facts but you have to find a middle way, keeping in view the bigger threats to yourself and the community that can emanate from reporting,” Sailab explained.

In a place where there is no media and journalism schools, most journalists are not qualified or trained in journalism. They know little about responsible journalism. And if that isn’t bad enough, says Umer Wazir, they have very little understanding of conflict-sensitive reporting.

“You have to train them in principles of responsible journalism, ethics of journalism and encourage qualified people to enter this field as professional journalists,” said Umer Wazir.

Nearly a hundred journalists have been killed in Pakistan since 2001, 12 of which belonged to FATA. Except for the case of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal journalist, and that of Wali Babar, the Karachi based journalist who worked with Geo, not a single case has been investigated.

“We are trying our best to find the killers of Malik Mumtaz and to know the real causes behind his death but nothing has come out of investigations so far,” said Habibullah.

He said that after the assassination of Malik Mumtaz, the authorities had promised to investigate the case but there hasn’t been much by way of progress.

“Similar promises were made after the killing of Hayatullah but that case has now been in limbo for nearly 10 years,” said Habib.  Hayatullah, another journalist from the North Waziristan Agency, was killed in 2006 when he reported that a rocket fired at the house of an Arab militant was from a drone.  Little was known about the US drone operation in the tribal areas before that.

Under the circumstances, the tribal journalists are pessimistic about their future and that of journalism in FATA. However, Umer Daraz says that the challenges facing tribal journalists will serve to polish their skills and help them learn from experience, albeit the hard way.

“Surely, I am more cautious after the detention and try to get versions of all parties because I don’t want to end up in a similar situation again,” he said.

Safety apart, most of the tribal journalists are not paid by their organizations. Media organizations don’t support their journalists in the field or the families of those who have died in the line of duty.

“When reporters are shot dead the media organizations don’t give them due coverage, let alone compensation,” said Habibullah.

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