Asia-Pacific, Headlines, Human Rights, Press Freedom

PAKISTAN: Outlawed Taliban Have Free Run of Media

Ashfaq Yusufzai

PESHAWAR, Sep 2 2008 (IPS) - Taliban factions in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and tribal areas have been outlawed and their accounts frozen by the Pakistan government. But that has not in the least bit altered their presence in the media.

Has the thriving Urdu-language press become the mouthpiece of the outlawed Taliban?  Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS

Has the thriving Urdu-language press become the mouthpiece of the outlawed Taliban? Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS

Taliban representatives regularly call up the mainly Urdu-language media for free publicity. On the heels of the ban order on Aug. 25, Mohammad Omar, spokesman for the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), telephoned journalists to say the government’s decision could not harm their interests, but would strengthen them instead.

"We don’t have any bank accounts. We have everything, but no account," he told IPS from an undisclosed location.

Asma Jahangir, leading lawyer and chairperson of the fiercely independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) blames the media for playing into the hands of the Taliban.

"The portrayal of militancy in the newspapers and electronic media send horrifying messages to the public," she said in a phone interview from Lahore. "The Taliban, who are wiping out civil society’s members in target killings, are drawing strength from media coverage."

The Taliban carry out blasts and suicide attacks and are quick to claim responsibility for the death of innocent people in the media, she says. The media should highlight the human rights violations committed by the Taliban, she stresses.

"What is deplorable is the government’s silence over the genocide at the hands of Taliban," she says. The Taliban have free access to the media, but the government seems to show no urgency to rein them in, she adds.

Ashraf Ali, an independent researcher on the Taliban in Peshawar University, echoes Jahangir’s views. "The media is blatantly promoting the Taliban," he says. "The leader of the TTP is based in South Waziristan agency (in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas – FATA). All districts of the NWFP and tribal areas the TTP have spokespersons, who are available to each and every journalists," he observes.

Even state-run PTV is unquestioningly giving space on prime time news to the Taliban spokespersons. For Pakistan’s interior minister, the bigger concern is that the Taliban publicly acknowledge their role in suicide attacks that target civilians.

"They (Taliban) themselves have claimed responsibility for several suicide attacks and the government cannot engage in a dialogue with such people," Interior Minister Rehman Malik is quoted saying.

Early this year, the federal government refused to back peace talks between the Taliban in the Swat Valley and the provincial government of the NWFP. However, the ruling Awami National Party-led government could not negotiate lasting peace, and violence has escalated in most parts of the NWFP and FATA since June.

Pakistan’s print and electronic media are freely reporting the activities of the Taliban.

Nevertheless, the Anti-terrorism Act 1997, Section 11(W) is very clear about the role of the media while printing, publishing or disseminating any material to incite hatred or coverage of any person convicted for a terrorist act or any proscribed organisation.

Sub-section (1) says "A person commits an offence if he prints, publishes or disseminates any material, whether by audio or video-cassettes or by written, photographic, electronic, digital, wall-chalking or any other method which incites religious, sectarian or ethnic hatred or gives projection to any person convicted for a terrorist act, or any person or organisation concerned in terrorism or proscribed organisation or an organisation placed under observation."

The law says that any person guilty of an offence under sub-section (1) shall be liable by way of summary procedure, on conviction, to a maximum term of six months imprisonment and a fine.

But no one in the media, which is said to be the fourth pillar of a state, has bothered with the law in the insatiable hunger for news about "terrorism" which sells in the national and international media.

Not only do ambitious journalists risk their lives to interview the heads of proscribed organisations but also some have gone a step further and have become the mouthpiece of the banned organisations themselves.

Reporters in the lawless FATA walk a thin line. Some have been killed in suspicious circumstances, while others have fled for safety.

The militants dub journalists as "wajibul qatl (liable to death)" – if they report anything against their wishes they are likely to die.

Media observers who did not want to be identified believe that the media has lost all sense of impartiality. Whatever a proscribed organisation says is accepted as news and publicised by the media. In most accounts of the violence and military operations, the Islamic fighters are valorised.

Has the thriving Urdu-language press become the mouthpiece of the outlawed Taliban?

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