Media under fire

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WHY would the Taliban try to recruit insiders from the ranks of journalists? This was the first question that came to mind after a former student, now a journalist, sought my advice some months ago on whether to accept a Taliban offer of a hefty salary for spying on the media.

I got my answer when last month the militants reissued a 29-page decree in which they declared open war on the media. The document juxtaposes religious injunctions with prevailing media ‘malpractices’ for rhetorical effect. It prescribes different punishments for journalists, some more severe than the others.

The much-publicised decree is a ‘fatwa’ that the Taliban issued in 2012, but which was largely ignored. This time the militants’ threat prevailed: their diktat got enough coverage in the national and international media, leading to fear among journalists especially those in Peshawar and other parts of the province.

Some journalists critical of the militants stopped covering militancy and went into temporary hibernation; some even contacted the militants to get info on their newly defined limits. Since the cover page of the fatwa gave prominent display to the logo of an international media group, amongst others, journalists at the group’s Peshawar office were asked to work from home.

Living under such threats for years, the defensive strategy of journalists — to recoil in the face of an immediate threat — has so far helped them avoid giving space to the militants. Once directly threatened, Peshawar and Fata journalists would go underground. Resuming work was a possibility after some time had passed and the media was no longer an imminent target. But this time round the situation seems different.

The Taliban, at least their core leadership, is based in the country’s remote areas, from where violence was perpetrated to attract mainstream attention. From slaughtering people in Swat and Fata, to guerilla-like attacks on strategic military installations in urban centres, every militant action in the past provided a readymade story for the media. By staging daredevil attacks in full view of the national media, the Taliban made their presence felt even if headquartered elsewhere.

But more recently, fresh military action in South Waziristan has resulted in increased pressure on media outlets from the state not to run militants’ stories. Also, violence has become so pervasive that many TV channels prefer infotainment to traumatising their viewership.

More crucial, however, is the emerging scenario in Afghanistan. The strained relationship between the US and the Karzai government has not only created a dilemma regarding the future structure of power in Afghanistan, but also uncertainty for the Taliban in Pakistan. So far their material dependence on the Afghan Taliban and backing for their cause against the US had won them enough ideological and physical support inside Pakistan. But the Pakistani Taliban understand that the durability of their power depends mainly on the strength of their organisational structure within the country.

Growing Talibanisation in urban areas is evidence of the militants’ increasing organisational strength, as is the centrality of the TTP’s demand for Sharia across Pakistan. This was the main demand of the Swat chapter of the Taliban in the past, while the Taliban in Fata were more interested in fighting Nato forces and jihad mainly across the border. Therefore they usually demanded freedom to move across the border.

But how effectively the Swat Taliban have hijacked the tribal Taliban’s agenda especially after Mullah Fazlullah became the TTP chief is not the issue here. The point is to understand how seriously the Taliban are trying to strengthen their organisational base in the country for which they need the national media’s support to propagate their relevance.

In other words, militants desperately need to inspire like-minded people in order to spread their network to other parts of the country. Being shrewd students of war psychology, the Taliban want to achieve maximum deterrence through minimum resources: eliminating the opposition is not only the first move, they want to launch it with a big bang.

Killing three media workers of Express TV in Karachi was a calculated effort to create a spectacle. In one way, the effectiveness of this move became evident in the prime time show of the TV channel in which the TTP spokesman’s views were solicited. He accepted responsibility for the act while the apologetic anchorperson assured militants of satisfactory coverage ignoring the fact that the TTP is a banned group. The anchorperson forgot that ‘guaranteeing satisfactory coverage’ to the Taliban meant inviting the wrath of the military, which in return would result in more violence.

What strategy should journalists adopt to stay away, at least ideologically, from the conflict in which the stakeholders — both the military and militants — are more interested in the aesthetics of war than concerned by the loss of innocent lives? In the absence of no easy solution, the least the media can do is to discourage elements within its own ranks who run with the hare and hunt with the hounds. In the Express TV case, balancing a story by accommodating multiple opinions would have been more acceptable than inviting the spokesman of a banned militant group to claim responsibility and then allowing him to preach his ideology to justify violence.

If such practices are not discouraged straight away, the time is not far when terrorists will claim coverage that is no less damaging than their capacity to inflict physical harm on the institution of the media.

The writer is a journalist. syedirfanashraf@gmail.com

DAWN

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Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF) is an independent media research, documentation and training centre working to promote and defend freedom of press.. Follow us on Twitter / Facebook.