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Pakistan's holy wars, unholy media

Publication Date : 11-05-2014


Caught face-to-face in the melee, I looked at him and smiled nervously. Holding a huge stick, he smiled back and took aim at my head. I ducked and ran. The stick hit me in the shoulder, leaving me wincing with pain.

Standing at a safe distance, I picked up a stone and threw it at him. He laughed, holding his ground, while I ran to rejoin my colleagues, several dozen journalists standing outside the parliament building in Islamabad.

He had come with a group of militants to protest a newspaper article he believed ridiculed Islamic values. They blocked the road for an hour or so, threw some stones at policemen who ignored them, chased a few cars and dispersed.

Although protesting against the press, they did not attack journalists, knowing that they needed them to cover their protest.

This is how Pakistan used to be until the 1990s. We often had such encounters with policemen, political activists or religious extremists. But nobody ever held a personal grudge against the journalists. It was assumed, and accepted, that journalists will write whatever they write. If you had a complaint, you wrote a rejoinder that was also published, and the matter was settled.

If you were really upset, you could grab a daring journalist straying too far from his flock, give him (not her because women were spared physical violence in those days) a few blows and let him go.

People did not go about kidnapping or killing journalists.

The Pakistani society began to change after 1979, during the 20 years of civil war in Afghanistan. Both the then-Soviet Union and the United States flooded our central Asian neighbour with weapons. Although meant for the war there, a lot of sophisticated military hardware ended up in the hands of religious and ethnic fanatics in Pakistan.

Many young zealots went to Afghanistan to fight the ''holy war'' and returned home, fully armed and trained, ready to take on anyone who dared challenge them. Yet, the media was spared, perhaps because the media was still in chains.

The government owned the electronic media, Radio Pakistan and Pakistan Television. Urdu newspapers had a clever policy: they published whatever was sent to them. Stories both condemning and praising a particular group or person were often published on the same page.

Some English language newspapers did criticise religious groups and their policies but they were ignored because very few in the religious circles read them.

Attitudes towards the media started changing in late 1980s, when newspapers became relatively free and even the Urdu press began to publish hard-hitting stories.

Those irked by these stories attacked newspaper offices, damaged their machines, burned papers, and beat journalists – but still refrained from killing them in cold blood.

The first serious attack I remember was on the British Broadcasting Corp. office in Islamabad in July 1995 by a group of Muslim militants who burned it after beating the journalists who were working there. They threatened to come back if the BBC continued to show a film report about Sipah-i-Sahaba.

After the attack, I spoke to some local leaders of the group and to the BBC journalists working in the local bureau. The Sipah-i-Sahaba leaders said the film had used an interview of their leader, Maulana Azam Tariq, out of context and showed their madrassas as prisons where students were forced to stay against their will.

The Sipah-i-Sahaba is not known for showing mercy and is often accused of using violence as a means to achieve its objectives. Investigations carried out after 9/11 also linked to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network.

But after the Sept. 11 terror attacks and the consequent US military action in Afghanistan, other militant groups also used violence against the media. This increased in direct proportion to the increase in the media’s influence in society, particularly in the last 12 years.

Also read: Journalists in Pakistan: Here be dragons

Acutely aware of the media’s massive influence on the people, and deprived of the methods political and religious groups in more sophisticated societies use to win over journalists, the militants knew only one way to coerce the press: violence. And rarely did they hesitate to use it.

They hid behind ideology to justify their desire to control the media through violence. The most common excuse was that of "cultural imperialism." And this reaction was not confined to Pakistan.

The arrival of satellite television in the Muslim world provoked deep anxiety among most militants, increasing their fear of Western cultural domination. They saw Western television as not only misrepresenting Islam but also threatening Islamic culture by showing images of liberal Western societies, with an emphasis on sex and violence.

So they targeted Western television channels. But when local channels became too critical, they also were not spared.

But the militant groups also, at times, showed grudging admiration for the free press, both Western and local. They often displayed a great desire to use the media to publicise their views, particularly those based in states with repressive regimes. In such countries, the militants often faced arbitrary arrests, torture and even executions.

Getting their stories in the media, particularly on Western television channels, helped ease the pressure and sometimes saved lives too, particularly in countries like Egypt or Syria. Afraid of a popular reaction, despotic governments have had to release prisoners or at least refrain from executing them when their stories appeared in the media. Therefore, the militants not only understood the power of a free press and admired it too, but only when it suited them.

Iran's Ayatollah Khomeni was a good example of this paradox. During the 1960s and '70s he railed against the authoritarian government of Reza Shah Pahlevi for its censorship and control of the Iranian press, but after the Iranian revolution the new Islamic regime with the ayatollah at its helm placed severe constraints on the media.

In recent years, many militant groups have also started to attack local journalists because they believe that the press, both local and Western, favors the mostly secular forces in countries and refuses to give voice to the militant point of view.

In the countries where the government still controls the media, the militants view the local press as unable to report anything other than the party line. So they turn to the Western media while also labeling them as “servants of the great Satan” because they did not promote their cause.

By 1990s, control of and influence on the media has become a major battleground for Muslim secular governments and militant groups. The governments expected the media to support their suppression of religious "fanatics;" the militants expected the media to support their often-violent struggles against the government. When the media tried to maintain a neutral stance, both parties saw a free press as a major hurdle to achieving their aims.

Both wanted the attention of the media but only against the other. And after Sept. 11, militants in Pakistan used another strategy to draw the world’s attention, killing journalists. The Wall Street Journal reporter, Daniel Pearl, was killed because the kidnappers knew that his abduction and death would get headlines across the globe.

His may be the first death in this game but it certainly was not the last. Pearl's death made Pakistan unsafe for journalists. And since there were very few Western journalists in the country, and those who came stayed away from the militants, the attention turned to Pakistani journalists.


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