While the Pakistan army conducts a security operation in Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) against militants, there remains a cloak that shadows the entire operation. According to data compiled by an independent research organisation, Fata Research Centre, clashes during the first eight months of this year have left 933 militants dead while 166 soldiers were killed in different incidents pertaining to the operation. Strangely enough, these casualties have only caused a mere murmur in the national consciousness. Newspaper reports are not longer than 10 lines, informing readers of an attack, the name of the place and a meagre number of casualties. No questions asked. No evidence shown. Here the Herald delves in to seek answers behind the mysterious coverage of this most-vital operation.
The last few years have seen deadly bouts of militancy as well as counter-action by the army in order to eliminate the perpetrators. Resultantly, the forces have had some semblance of success in different parts of Fata but have been unable to gain complete control. Currently, the army is primarily engaged in three agencies: Khyber, Kurram and Orakzai. On the other hand, Mohmand and Bajaur have been relatively peaceful agencies since army operations, with only small pockets remaining where militants dominate. Similarly, South Waziristan, too, after completion of an operation in 2009, saw an improved situation as the political administration now controls most of the agency.
North Waziristan, however, remains mostly under the control of the Pakistan faction of Taliban, led by Hafiz Gul Bahadur, and the Haqqani Network with the Pakistan army yet to initiate an operation.
A black hole for the media
The issue, however, remains how to independently verify whether the insurgents have actually been flushed out of the agencies or not. Questions must be raised that if the army claims it has dominance over most of the agencies, why is there limited-to-no-access for media personnel to visit the affected regions? With a lack of verification mechanism and restricted access, the only news source is army press releases and even they do not show any pictures or give names of those killed in the operations, nor do they provide any other detail which could help verify the incident.
Ibrahim Shinwari, a freelance journalist from Khyber agency, says, “we do not have any access to conflict zones. They are all under curfew when the operations are underway and even later; there is high security risk to our lives.” Shinwari, while speaking to the Herald via telephone, says that on occasions, the army conducts a tour of the operation areas from their helicopters and takes journalists around a limited area. “However, we cannot step away from pre-planned routes and are unable to independently find out about the situation.” Awami National Party leader, Senator Afrasiyab Khattak concurs, “Fata is a black hole and a no-go area.” Khattak notes that incidents of terrorism anywhere else in the country are registered on the media’s radar but “nobody can really find out what’s happening in Fata.”
Between a rock and a hard place
Another local journalist, Shams Mohmand from Mohmand Agency adds his disgruntlement at the inability to access the affected areas. “Locals want to share information but they are also fearful of backlash from both military and militants,” says Mohmand.
For Dr Hasan Askari Rizvi, an independent defence analyst, the unconventional nature of the operation and the threat to lives are the main reasons why the media is unable to report. “Often, the action involves ambushes and the fight is only intermittent, making it difficult to monitor,” says Rizvi. Not to forget, the dangers involved in reporting from the operation zone, he says. “The fear of kidnapping or mine or bomb explosions on roadsides makes it impossible for media people to venture alone and report from there.”
What makes the situation even more complicated, Mohmand says, is that locals in the conflict zones have their loyalties divided among both insurgents and military, making it difficult for one to judge the accuracy of their information. The army, he says, only highlights their successful attacks and often exaggerates them. “When security forces claim they killed 20 militants in an attack, our local contact reports back saying that only two died. Who do we believe?” asks an exasperated Mohmand.
Brigadier (retd) Shaukat Qadir, an independent defence analyst, thinks the main reason behind the army’s secrecy is perhaps their lack of success. “Maybe the military is unable to achieve its desired goals and hence is unwilling to share evidence,” he says.
Former defence attaché to Kabul, Brigadier (retd) Saad Mohammad says the fault lies entirely with the army. “Of course there are things that cannot be disclosed but it does not mean one creates a complete wall of secrecy,” he says. “Learning how to handle the media is part of military training all over the world but we have a major communication gap with the media.” Giving the example of the British army, Mohammad says soldiers should be encouraged to speak to journalists, without intimidating them, as it will only help build a rapport. “We must accept our weaknesses to address them. It will only help establish credibility.”
The quiet parties
The media silence has not been helped at all by the lack of interest shown by political parties and pressure groups to investigate and raise voices against army operations.
Blaming the media for lack of coverage, Jamat-e-Islami Senator Ibrahim Khan says his party has raised its voice against military operations numerous times. Khan insists that it is a huge mistake to wage an operation against our own countrymen. “The operation is against our own people and is carried out to appease Americans. It is an American conspiracy which was started by Musharraf, and continued by Zardari and Kayani.” Khan even questions the existence of ‘Taliban’ in the region. “What is the proof that the Taliban are actually behind the terrorism?”
The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf spokesperson Shafqat Mehmood says his party has always condemned any kind of military action against locals, be it American drones or Pakistan army operation. “I will say this again; military operation is not a solution. It only causes collateral damage and we are against it.”
The threatened press
The latest report by a media advocacy group, Intermedia Pakistan, reveals damning statistics, giving credence to the concerns of life threats faced by journalists attempting to cover the most volatile conflict.
According to the report, titled Reporting from the Frontlines, in Fata, militants and security agencies have appeared as the biggest threats. All respondents termed militants as the biggest hazard and 79 per cent felt bullied by military and security forces.
In light of such appalling numbers, naturally, it would be foolhardy to expect accurate, independent and verifiable coverage from the conflict zone.