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Tuesday 21 October 2014
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Pakistan media faces jihadis' ire

Anindya Rai Verman

As reports about the international outcry in the aftermath of the Taliban’s attempt to assassinate 14-year-old schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai continue to occupy media space, many would agree that the Taliban have reacted in ways typical of terrorists.

What flies in the face of logic is the demand of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which was quick to take credit for the attack, that Pakistani news media provide ‘balanced’ and ‘unbiased’ coverage, by which they meant giving prominence to the Taliban's ‘justification’ for the attack, mainly citing Islamic laws the Taliban claim Malala ‘broke’ with her campaign for girls’ education; that Malala had spoken out against the group and praised US president Barack Obama and was hence was a ‘spy of the west’.

Faced with a barrage of negative media coverage over the attack, the Taliban have started threatening journalists. Media reports say the threats have been ‘specific’ and directed against named individuals and that the militants have selected suicide bombers to target media organisations, particularly the electronic media and some foreign media organisations. This has prompted several Pakistani and international news organisations to take extra security precautions. Some journalists have also been provided police guards.


Righ-thinking journalists

What seems to have particularly riled the Taliban militants is the unusually outspoken condemnation in the Pakistani media space by some commentators, and ordinary members of the public and even people who have in the past sympathized with the militants. For many right-thinking outside journalists and observers of Pakistani affairs, the Taliban demand of an ‘unbiased’ media coverage of their motives behind the attack on Malala may seem to be outrageous. After all, it wasn’t as if it was some ‘wronged’ organisation belonging to the civil society making such a demand; here we are talking of hardcore terrorists. However, though Pakistanis have held some protests and candlelight vigils, what seems to have given the Taliban the ‘encouragement’ to insist on journalists giving ‘unbiased’ coverage to their motives behind the attack is how even most government officials have refrained from publicly criticising the Taliban by name over the attack, in what critics say is a clear lack of resolve against taking on terrorists.

For long, the jihadi media -- including jihad publications both in the print and online space, militant literature, some ‘suspect’ madrasa publications, leaflets and Shabnamas (night letters) etc -- has held grievances against the ‘mainstream media’, regarding the later as being westernised, and a ‘secular puppet’ of the armed forces. Independent reporters seldom dare to visit Taliban-controlled territory as the Taliban have kidnapped and killed many reporters in the past, though the Afghan Taliban used to welcome foreign journalists until a few years ago.

Matters for mainstream journalists in Pakistan are certainly not helped by the western, especially American, view – also held by a significant portion of the Pakistani establishment which has, in part, helped form the Western view -- of the Taliban as comprising both the ‘good’ variety and the ‘bad’ ones. If the Taliban views the mainstream media as being a ‘puppet’ of western interests, it is precisely the international community’s belief in the ‘myth’ of the ‘good’ Taliban that has complicated matters further for mainstream media journalists. As recently as June this year, Mullah Nazir, an influential Taliban leader in South Waziristan and a ‘good Taliban’ much favoured by the Pakistani military and government, became the second Taliban leader after Hafiz Gul Bahadar, the leader of the Taliban in North Waziristan, to order a ban on polio and other foreign-funded vaccination drives in areas under his control to protest against US drone strikes in tribal areas.

The ambiguity of the Pakistani government in showing a clear resolve to act against terrorists means that Interior Minister Rehman Malik’s offer of a $1 million bounty for Ehsanullah Eshan, the central spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban, for the attack on Malala, and the claim that security agencies are investigating the attack and trying to hunt down those involved, may seem to many as being just cosmetic announcements, bereft of serious intent, and made following international outcry over the attack. Malik’s announcement that the Pakistan government has decided to honour Malala with the Sitara-e-Shujaat award for bravery may also be seen in the same light, though American actor and former UNHCR goodwill ambassador Angelina Jolie has expressed the hope that the Nobel Committee seriously consider Malala for the Nobel Peace Prize.

What is really worrying is that the chasm between the jihadi media and the mainstream one in Pakistan can be expected to widen following the attack on Malala Yousafzai, further increasing the security risks for Pakistan-based journalists in the mainstream variety.

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