When a certain TV channel in Karachi started receiving a string of phone calls from the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan or TTP in Peshawar for not running a statement they had sent on its ‘ticker’, the battle-hardened office prepared to shrug it off as another pesky bother in a day’s work. Till news reached them of a bomb blast near their Peshawar bureau office. And the ticker flow promptly yielded to the TTP demand.
In recent years, Pakistan has rivalled Syria in being dangerous for journalists—so many have been assassinated so frequently. The needle of suspicion is shared by political parties, intelligence agencies, jehadi groups and the mesh of mafia. But that was before the TTP appeared on the scene. The TTP—responsible for much of the recent violence against the Pakistani army, and itself at the receiving end of state retribution in the form of airstrikes—does not issue empty threats. And now they have the journalists in Pakistan in a vice-like grip.
“The TTP behaves like a powerful state and is media savvy, realising its value, and becoming categorical in its demands,” confesses Nusrat Javeed, host of the popular talk show Bolta Pakistan, on Aaj TV. “Like it or not, it can dictate terms to the Pakistan media. The state cannot ensure my safety, so we are forced to carry their statements.” Javeed says he has survived so far because he hasn’t ever crossed what he calls a vital ‘red line’—he does not unduly provoke militants.
Indeed, so confident is the TTP of its clout that it literally dictates terms to the channels. “They will call the producer and say ‘control this anchor’. I have been asked to use my judgement, but I have not stopped my criticism,” says Javeed. Like other anchors of wide influence, Javeed is well aware that on them rests great responsibility, because every TV channel employs hundreds of journalists and non-journalists whose lives are at risk. The crowds on the streets are innocent, too. A single step across the ‘red line’ may bring about an angry bomb attack that would spare no one.
The Nawaz Sharif-led Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) government, which continues to hope for peace talks with the TTP despite a surge in terrorist strikes—including the one near the ghq in Rawalpindi that killed over 30 security personnel (and invited the retaliatory airstrikes)—in late January and February is trying everyone’s patience.
Yet, knowing the TTP’s preference for suicide bombs, Pakistan’s streets aren’t exactly heaving with indignant protests. Instead, ‘civil society’ issues statements and urges print and electronic media to stop the ‘appeasement’. “They do so (the appeasement) by terming Taliban and jehadi groups as ‘stakeholders’, referring to terrorists as ‘commanders’ and ‘ameers’, permitting them to issue fatwas at the slightest hint of dissent and enjoying a ratings boost from the ensuing, violent mayhem and glorifying terror by showing images of heavily-armed, masked criminals, as if they were heroes,” says human rights activist Tahera Abdullah.Other, solitary voices are also being raised against the TTP’s deadly bombing run in Pakistan. “The (government) policy should be to hit the terrorists so hard that we prevent all future attacks, anywhere, ever,” writes the Daily Times.
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, whose mother Benazir fell to TTP bullets, refuses to see much merit in their declaration of a month’s ceasefire on March 1. “Mass murdering terrorists lie. They cannot be trusted,” he tweeted.
Mohammad Ziauddin, veteran journalist and executive editor of the daily The Express Tribune, which has lost three employees in a TTP attack, says pressure on the media today is a more vicious form of ‘terror’. The only answer, he says, is for the media to speak with one voice and take a unified stand against extremism.
“Pakistan is a war zone, making it one of the most dangerous places for a journalist,” says Ziauddin. “While the government has not provided security, owners also have yet to come to terms with the reality, and have not provided the kind of security needed.”
Ziauddin recalls the heroic struggle of the Pakistan media for freedom of the press and restoration of democracy over the decades. Journalists ran the constant risk of imprisonment, even punitive lashes of whips. “Today, a market-driven media has effected a sea change; there is no unified mission and no one speaks with one voice. Media owners really have no idea of how to go about it, so some will give space and airtime to every opinion, whether it be of the TTP, the military or politicians. If one group does this the rest follow, even though every code of conduct is violated,” he notes.
Columnist Ayaz Amir hits out at apologists for the TTP in the media, who continue to seek peace. “Trust them to plug this line and quietly urge the government to remain steadfastly on course for peace talks with the TTP—something visible only through special goggles to the apologists and the Chamberlainites of the interior ministry.” It’s small wonder then that Taliban Media Apologists or TMA is fast becoming the new acronym for the beleaguered Pakistani media.
By Mariana Baabar in Islamabad