Asia-Pacific, Headlines, Human Rights

RIGHTS-PAKISTAN: Vestiges of War, Hopes for Peace

Ashfaq Yusufzai

PESHAWAR, Pakistan, Jan 11 2010 (IPS) - “We aren’t going to be browbeaten by acts of cowardice and would continue exposing Taliban and (other) militants,” said an angry Shamim Shahid, president of the Peshawar Press Club (PPC).

The spate of media killings in Pakistan in the year just past – and the likelihood that it could continue unabated this year – has steeled the resolve of the public, including the media, against the hardline Islamic movement, raising hopes of stemming the tide of violence in this war-torn South Asian nation.

Late last month, a suicide bomber blew himself up at the entrance of the PPC building, killing three people and injuring 22 others in what appeared to be the first direct attacks on journalists Pakistan.

The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), an independent organisation of media professionals in the country, strongly condemned the attack. It immediately released a statement saying the violent act against journalists had given the lie to the militants’ claims that they were waging a war for the cause of Islam.

“Islam is a religion of peace, tranquility, brotherhood, whereas the Taliban believe in enforcing their own rule, and are indulging in terrorism for their ulterior motives,” PFUJ president Shamsul Islam Naz told IPS.

Recent attacks have further alienated the public from the Taliban, sparking hopes for achieving peace in the violence-wracked Pakistan, declared Bashir Ahmed Bilour, senior minister of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), in an interview in his office at the provincial capital, Peshawar. The militants do not have any religion – their sole agenda is to sow panic, he added.

When the Taliban government was forced to flee the Afghan capital, Kabul, in late 2001, the militants were welcomed by the local population in the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA), where they took sanctuary. At that time the people had great respect for them, thinking they were defending the Islam religion against the United States and its allies, recounted Rukhshanda Naz, former resident director of Aurat Foundation, a national organisation advocating women’s rights in Pakistan.

Today, the people are informing the government of suspected militant activity, Mian Iftikhar Hussain, information minister of the NWFP, told IPS. “We are getting an exemplary response from the public,” he said.

Hasbanullah Khan, president of the Tribal Union of Journalists – an organisation of journalists based in the FATA – also expressed belief that that there has been a reversal of public support for the Taliban movement. The people, once supportive of the Taliban, have realised their mistake, he explained. It is now common knowledge that bomb attacks, such as those on government-owned schools, where carried out by radical Islamists, he said.

The media have seen the real motives of the militants, said Bilour. “They are boldly writing against them,” thus exposing their violent acts, “which will further erode their image and pave the way for peace by getting much public support,” he said.

Hussain said the government eliminated the militants from Swat – one of the 24 districts of NWFP – in 2009 with public support. “About 3.5million residents volunteered to vacate the area for a full-fledged military operation and became refugees,” he said.

Naz of Aurat Foundation said the people are no longer willing to provide sanctuary to the Taliban and other militants. They have grown sick of their vicious activities targeted at innocent civilians and their confirmed involvement in kidnappings for ransom and other crimes, she said. “First they operated in the garb of Taliban. Now, they are referred to as ‘militants, extortionists’.”

“Attacking mosques, markets, schools, army and police has diminished the Taliban’s popularity,” she added. Now, the people are organising ‘lashkars’, a militia group composed of male volunteers recruited from the villages. These armed men patrol the streets and keep an eye on the militants.

That civilians are keeping a check on the militants’ movements bodes well for the prospects of peace in Pakistan, she told IPS. This has given her hope that this year will be a peaceful one, Naz said.

According to Intermedia, a non-profit media organisation, 2009 was a bloody year for the Pakistani media. Of the ten journalists who died last year as a result of militant assaults, four were killed in Punjab, three in NWFP and one each in FATA, Balochistan and Islamabad,” said the media advocacy group in its annual report released last Dec. 30.

The report added there were 163 reported cases of direct attacks on the media last year, including murders, assaults, kidnappings, explicit threats, censorship cases and attacks on media properties and establishments.

Intermedia documented at least 24 cases of assaults on working journalists across the country in 2009, of whom 70 were injured. Punjab registered the highest number of journalists targeted and wounded in militant attacks, with 36, while 12 were maimed in Islamabad, 10 in NWFP, seven in Sindh and five in Azad Jammu and Kashmir, located within the Pakistani-controlled part Jammu and Kashmir, the northernmost state of India.

At least 28 journalists in 2009 received threats from militants in person or over the phone. Of these, nine were based in Islamabad, eight in NWFP, 73 in Sindh, and one in FATA.

The journalists were reportedly targeted by hard-line militants groups because of their perceived tilt toward the government – a charge Shahid denied vehemently, saying that the journalists gave the militants space to be heard. Their statements were printed in all newspapers and broadcast on satellite TV channels, he added.

Toward the end of 2001, the U.S.-led coalition forces dismissed the Taliban government in Kabul, forcing the Taliban and their al-Qaeda allies to flee to Pakistan through a 2,400-kilometre porous border. They took sanctuary in the FATA on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, 400 km south of Peshawar, from where they began targeting the U.S. and Pakistani forces.

Since 2002 suicide and bomb attacks have disrupted the relative calm in this South Asian state. Such attacks have escalated steadily since then. There were two such attacks in 2002 and 2003, seven in 2004, seven in 2006, 56 in 2007 and 59 in 2009. In 2005, there were four.

Across Pakistan 80 suicide attacks – up from 34 in 2008 – killed about 2,300 civilians and 1,000 security persons in 2009, based on police data. Fifty of the suicide attacks took place in the NWFP.

“We are holding peace walks in the city to invite the people to join our peace efforts. We shouldn’t lose hope. There is always light at the end of the tunnel,” said women’s rights advocate Naz.

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