Fighting on home soil

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

HOW should the media report a war? This is the question journalists should be asking themselves in the changed circumstances of today. They seem to have been caught off guard. One cannot even be certain that they are aware of the dilemmas that should be their dilemma.

The war situation today is the first of its kind for journalists. Not that Pakistan has not fought wars. There have been a number of them before — though not all were projected as wars — but until not too long ago the press was in chains and the electronic media was run by the government which meant its script was handed down from above.

Today the media scene has been transformed. The laws of yesterday are gone and controls either do not exist or are ineffective. So the media is for the first time required to make choices and has the freedom to take initiatives.

So this time the dilemma is not posed by restrictions imposed on it as in 1971 during the army action in East Pakistan. The problem arises from the nature of the war the media has to report. The war on terror which Pakistan`s armed forces are fighting is not the conventional war journalists are used to handling the world over. It is a guerrilla war — and what is more — on our own soil. This means that the lines are blurred.

If the soldiers are easily recognisable it is virtually impossible to distinguish the militants from the local civilian population. Then there is the compulsion to mobilise the nation behind the army as it fights the war and incurs losses.

It was with great difficulty that a national consensus was forged after the army decided to pursue the Taliban concertedly in Swat in 2009. In 2004 the operation launched in Fata was seen to be a conflict on the fringe and did not come under the spotlight of the mainstream media.

No sooner was there a let-up in the conflict in Swat and the war theatre moved back to Fata news of the hostilities receded. It was easy to seal off the area from the prying eyes of journalists which was difficult to do in Swat where reports of the atrocities committed by the Taliban as well as the alleged doings of the Pakistan Army made their way to newspapers and television screens.

But that is not all. The Pakistani media which has always been famous for its short attention span and failure to do follow-up reporting appears to have lost interest in the war.

This no doubt serves the army well as it is a state actor and is required to exercise some restraint in its strategy under international humanitarian law even if its adversary is ruthless.

As a result what we get today is a one-sided account of the fighting that suits the powers conducting the war. The casualties (the bigger number) reported are of the Taliban and members of the armed forces who `embrace martyrdom`. Victims of bomb blasts also receive plenty of coverage. But civilian deaths — of men, women and children not involved in the war in any way and who are killed in the course of the military operation — go unreported.

It needs a major and horrendous event like the bombing of Sra Vela in Tirah valley by the Pakistan Air Force to bring civilian casualties to the notice of the media. The 70-plus deaths too, it may be recalled, were first announced as the armed forces` triumph in wiping out a huge number of militants. The bombing of an IDP camp in Kohat the same day received more media coverage.

Other tragedies are also escaping the notice of the media for various reasons. The schools being bombed presumably by the Taliban and the IDPs displaced by the war do not make headlines any more. It would be wrong to say that they are blacked out from the news but they do not receive the reporting and analyses that are essential to catch public attention.

It leaves one wondering whether media professionals have lost interest in issues which have become a part of life in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and are not considered sensational enough. The issues of schools and the IDPs have been reduced to a mundane level, as inevitably happens in Pakistan`s media which has immense capacity to invent issues to keep up a steady supply of exciting news.

Or is there more to it? It is not unexpected that the army would not want to expose its embarrassing failure to observe laws, such as the Geneva Conventions, which recognise the rights of civilians in the war zone. On Martyrs Day observed last week, Gen Kayani paid rich tributes to the 2,700 soldiers who have sacrificed their lives in this war while performing their duty. We salute them. But should not mention have been made of the civilians who have also paid with their lives?

True a majority of them were brutally killed by the Taliban — more in bombing incidents than those beheaded or shot. But we know that there were others — we cannot say how many — who fell victim to the `friendly fire` of the Pakistan Army. They were innocent as well. Why are they are not acknowledged?

The ISPR which issues press releases by the dozen prefers not to mention civilian casualties. Even the ISPR website described the Tirah dead as militants although the press release issued a week later said that the chief of army staff had apologised to the Kukkikhel tribe.

There are grey areas in the war and only the media can shed light on them — that is if it chooses to. When the school bombings and the plight of the IDPs do not receive sufficient focus, the public tends to forget that there is a civilian dimension to this war which should not be pushed under the carpet.