Pakistani Journalists in the Line of Fire

Journalists err, militants punish
By Iqbal Khattak
Daily Times, November 29, 2006

PESHAWAR: “Let me chop off his head who has reported that I have surrendered to the army,” late Taliban commander Nek Muhammad said a day after his April 24, 2004, deal with the army that was dubbed a “capitulation” by the media.

The remarks frightened a group of journalists, among them this correspondent, who were interviewing Nek Muhammad in the Kaloosha area of South Waziristan a day after the Shakai deal, which collapsed on foreign terrorists’ issue within months. The journalists looked at each other with pale faces after hearing from Nek Muhammad that their necks depended on their reporting from Waziristan.

On our way back to Wana after meeting Nek Muhammad, my BBC colleague and I were laughing to recover from the unbelievable moments since we did not know how our organisations interpreted the deal. People in Peshawar, Islamabad, Lahore or Karachi may not realise it, but it is very difficult for journalists to work in conflict zones like Waziristan. A single word in a story is enough to invite serious trouble from militants. The mood of militants about journalists can change as quickly as the weather in Britain, and Nek Muhammad was behaving like a good boy when all of a sudden he looked a different man after his comrade told him that newspaper headlines said that he had “surrendered” to the army.

And what happened on Tuesday in Miranshah, North Waziristan, underlines the danger the journalists are facing. A technical mistake or someone else’s blunder can cause physical harm to the people on the ground reporting from one of the most dangerous places in the world.

“I cannot believe what happened to me,” senior journalist Haji Pazir said a day after the militants, known locally as Taliban, stormed his office, burned all newspapers, took away his 22-year-old son and banned the sale of newspapers in the entire North Waziristan.

Pazir will thank God for saving him, as a journalist described it as “sheer good luck” that the militants did not harm him.

“I had terrible moments explaining to militants that it was not my mistake and I cannot be made a scapegoat for someone else’s mistake. I thank God because the militants believed that I was telling the truth,” Pazir said.

The saying, “To err is human”, appears to be absent from the militants’ dictionary.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF), an international media rights group, said in its reaction to the events in North Waziristan on Tuesday: “The Taliban reaction to an erroneous news report was out of all proportion.”

“Caught in the crossfire between jihadis, the security forces and tribal chiefs, journalists work in extremely difficult conditions in the tribal areas,” RSF says. “These incidents, combined with the detention of two Pakistani journalists by the Taliban (in Afghanistan), highlight the dangers for reporters in this region.”

If journalists cave in to the militants’ pressure, the government may try them for treason for “glorifying” militants. In either case, the danger from both sides is similar. Three journalists have been killed while covering Waziristan and the situation is not improving.

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