By Zafar Iqbal
Throughout the sixty one years troubled history of Pakistan, the situation of media freedom in Pakistan has never been beyond criticism and particularly under military regimes media has faced a harsh dealing from its dissidents. Of late, the situation of press freedom has undergone colossal deterioration. As per recent global survey about political rights and civil liberties, Pakistan was ranked as ‘Partly Free’ and ‘Not Free’ in the 2009 version of Freedom of the Press. The latest inroads on media in the country have certainly worsened circumstances for local press to play its role freely and impartially.
The world media watchdog Reporters without Borders in its latest fact finding report has said that in a wake of on-going political and social mess-up in Pakistan, the north western region of the country has become one of the most precarious zones for working journalists. In Swat, journalists have paid a heavy price for performance of their professional duties in a conflict-ridden valley, which has attained extraordinary global media attention due to on- going war between Pakistani security forces and local hard-core Taliban after alleged infringement of a peace accord by later, in which Sharia (religious law) was enforced officially in Swat Valley and its adjacent areas.
The Taliban’s attitude towards media in Swat valley poses alarming threat and terror to Pakistani journalists. A climate of fear and self-censorship has turned this valley into one of world’s most dangerous places for journalists. Unquestionably, the prominent reason behind rising violence against already throttled media in Swat is alarming surge in the Taliban movement who used every possible instrument of torture and terror to gag independent and liberal voice of media including the abduction and killing of journalists, coercion and use of traditional propaganda techniques.
Plainly, the Swat valley has become a ‘no go area for press.’ Besides, the media has also been stopped by the state authorities to cover the recent military operations in Swat and neighbouring areas. In other words, Pakistan’s newly opened war-front, contrary to the accepted norms of media coverage, is out of reach of the independent media. During the complete ‘blackout of information’, claims of losses from both sides could not be verified from independent sources.
The prevailing situation demands free access of media to war zone, therefore, Swat based media organizations have justly demanded that media should be allowed access to cover damages to civilian life by the conflict. In the devastated valley of Swat, like other parts of Pakistan, the cable network was the only source of information and entertainment for poor and middle class viewers to access, but the Taliban barred cable transmission in Swat, considering it a ‘weapon of infidels to pollute the minds of believers’.
The Taliban have also circulated their own DVDs and CDs in which their collaborators and companions were shown and glorified in killing and lashing their opponents. In April 2009, local group of Taliban in Swat warned media to face disastrous corollary, if it did not project them positively and asked journalists end their ‘propaganda’ against Taliban’. Taliban also warned journalists that they would approach Sharia courts if media refused to follow their guidelines in such matters. Local Taliban commanders were furious at journalists that they were taking side of government authorities which, they thought were ‘playing in the hands of West and the US by supporting ‘war on terror’. Unbelievably, the media has no other option but to absolutely comply with the Taliban orders as the Taliban has already established vigorously they can go beyond every limit and can have recourse to use any tactics to realize their ambitions in order to show their powers. This atmosphere of terror and intimidation caused by the Taliban against media has led to self-censorship in Swat.
Media has been forcibly advised by the Taliban to portray their positive impression in the public, though; the slaughter of opponents have always been considered an un –Islamic act and contrary to local norms in a Muslim countries like Pakistan. A section of local media is annoyed against such kind of handling of Taliban against their opponents and ‘traitors’. “We may not dare to refute or criticize Taliban’s brutalities in our text messages even’, laments Saeed- ur- Rehman, a journalist working for an Urdu Daily, which shifted its publication from Swat to Islamabad after attacks of bombs at his offices. ‘Nobody can imagine how local journalists have been trying to perform their professional assignments under permanent threats and intimidation of Taliban in Swat’, Rehman says.
Before the surge in Talibanization in Swat, six local dailies were catering to the need of 1.2 million population of Swat. Now, they all are either closed or have been shifted to cities of Peshawar and Islamabad. The owners of ‘migrated’ newspapers complain that due to curfew and fight their papers were not being sent to the readers regularly. The distribution of newspapers being published elsewhere in the country and from Swat has been stopped owing to clashes between Taliban and Pakistani forces.
A large number of journalists have migrated to Mardan, Peshawar and Islamabad facing life threats, intimidation and fear like other internally displaced persons( IDPs). In this backdrop, it is possible that the ramifications of violence against media in Swat may trigger to other areas where some of media workers have already received similar threats from the Taliban.
In Peshawar, two women journalists of a private television channel were issued threats of their hair being shaved off if they appeared on the small screen again, discloses an article appeared in a leading Pakistani English newspaper. In this situation, one can easily comprehend the scene which Pakistani media might face in near future if these awful incidents against media are not barred vigorously. The media, government and other stakeholders must chalk out an urgent strategy to protect life and liberty of press workers. Sadly, apart from recent boom of electronic media the working conditions of Pakistani press do not portray a good picture of Pakistani media.
Despite the coercion and intimidation form intelligence agencies, government officials and non-state actors like the Taliban , political and ethnic groups, majority of journalists are working in deplorable circumstances. Disgracefully low wages, without any on-job training, non-availability of life insurance and guarantee of continuity of employment are major issues. They also lack required professional capability of working in conflicts.
In this milieu, less equipped and unfamiliar with safety measures Pakistani journalists are bound to perform their duties in a volatile and professionally perilous country in an enduring danger. Both government and media owners must initiate some critical measures for the protection of journalists and survival of independent press. All Pakistani media organizations must equip their employees with latest Information Technology and train them how to work in conflicts and calamities-ridden environment. NGOs and other capacity building media networks should come forward to arrange training programs for local journalists to familiarize them with safety essentials required for coverage of conflicts and war.
Dozens of journalists and their families, who, like other victims of on going military operations in Swat are migrating to other cities, need urgent help of their employers, Pakistani government and other international humanitarian agencies. It is responsibility of government of Pakistan to provide security to all journalists to carry out their professional assignments freely and without any fear in Swat and in everywhere. Indeed, professionally less equipped, underprivileged and unsafe media professionals can not fulfill prerequisites of an independent, objective and free press.