PEC exclusive interview with a senior journalist Mudassar Shah

PAKISTAN: PEC exclusive interview with a senior journalist Mudassar Shah reporting from troubled Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA): “To be a journalist in this region is the most dangerous job”

by Israr Khan, PEC Representative in Islamabad

Pakistani Journalists who are doing journalism in the world’s most troubled Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) and Baluchistan on the sensitive international border with Afghanistan are in a great danger. They are at the mercy of Taliban and military forces, as it has become too much dangerous for them to report from these armed conflict areas and bring the truth to the world.

In FATA, Pakistan, since 2004, about 150 thousand Pakistani military force is stationed fighting with Taliban militants to flush them out of the area. Since the US and NATO coalition forces poured in in Afghanistan to hunt down Al-Qaida and Taliban, domestic insurgency popped up on this side of the border, now reporting on these warring groups is grave risky for journalists.

The Press Emblem Campaign (PEC) in its effort to mobilize the world community to stand by journalists in conflicts zones and dangerous situations has attempted to interview a senior Pakistani freelance journalist Mr. Mudassar Shah, 38, who has been reporting regularly from FATA region, including Waziristan, the Swat Valley, Islamabad and Afghanistan since 1998.
Mr. Shah files news stories regularly for the US Free Speech Radio News, Asia Calling, and various other radio including DW and print media organizations. His reporting focuses on militancy and other socioeconomic issues that affect Pakistanis and Afghans, such as music, the conditions in refugee camps, the effects of Sharia law on tribal communities, the collapse of Pakistani’s judicial system and health related issues including AIDS.

PEC: What is your experience of the conflict zone as a reporter?
SHAH: Since the US and NATO forces entered into Afghanistan, it introduced a new dimension to reporting in the Pakistan, namely conflict reporting. It also put much responsibility on journalists and media covering stories in these troubled areas including Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, tribal areas and in Baluchistan province where security and safety situation is worse.

PEC: What dangers and difficulties you face while covering this area?
SHAH: To be a journalist in this region is the most dangerous job, as you can’t differentiate between enemy and friend. Intimidation to journalists by the unknown people is a common custom. In view of the increasingly complex nature of conflict situations, we are stuck between devil and deep sea while reporting on various sensitive issues. These militants are considering journalists the ‘enemy and western spies’. They think us as anti-Islamic if we report against them. Reporting on the military is also ‘to be careful’ topic.

PEC: Can you pinpoint those sensitive issues which need a great care for you to report on?
SHAH: Well, for example you cannot report on female education and women rights, and if you do so, then unknown threatening calls will not only make your life miserable but they could also anytime hit you badly. In most cases reporters face with threats and harassments from the military, police and militants. Journalists reporting on the Taliban’s activities, military operations and other security-related issues often incur the wrath of the warring sides and sandwiched between them. Journalists from these areas increasingly report threats, coercion, kidnapping and targeted killings by both militants and the military, and many self-censor to avoid retribution.

PEC: Why they [militants] are against reporting on these issues?
SHAH: Militants think that reporting on female education is an effort to encourage girls for becoming another Malal Yousafzai who was been targeted and injured in Swat valley by Taliban. There is a hill of issues in FATA education sector, but if you report on them, they will threat you for dire consequences. Females are still playing a proactive role in this region in education sector and without taking the danger in account, they are still ready to get education, but the facilities are meager.

PEC: Apart from these gender issues, what are topics that are almost untouchable for you?
SHAH: Smuggling of goods and drugs on Pak-Afghan border is another topic which is much dangerous to be reported on, if you want to stay safe then keep quite. If you report on such issues, you will every time feel that you could be detained or targeted at any moment.
As, there is no access of foreign journalists to this region and for local journalists even doing independent investigation and reporting on the US drone attacks is also not possible. However, still we take the risk and try to report on these issues.

PEC: What is the level of support of the government in protecting journalists in the conflict zone?
SHAH: Unfortunately, there is no media law in Pakistan that provides for complete protection to the journalist community facing threats and violence. Several tribal Pakistani journalists had been killed, many other injured and harassed through the hands of unknown enemy while performing their duties. No culprit has been so far brought to justice. We are always a soft target, as no government is protecting us.

PEC: How does it feel to almost get you arrested or targeted?
SHAH: As, I am reporting in conflict zone for the international print and electronic media, I have been receiving threats, sometimes life threats from both sides. It is painful when you feel that an unknown enemy is every time chasing you and you are helpless.
Three week back, when I was working on the smuggling issue on Pak-Afghan border, I was detained for several hours my camera and voice recorder were been broken by levies [the force recruited indigenously on a tribal basis, fall under the federal government’s control, and are appointed by the political agent who is also their commanding officer]. Recalling another incident happened to me in December 2011, while I was going for interviewing somebody, on the way suddenly some unknown peoples attacked on me. There was intense firing, I escaped but my nephew got injured and was put in custody. The next day, I went to Assistant Political Agent [APA] Jamrud, khyber agency but he was reluctant to listen to me. During that meeting, a phone call came to APA and I was harshly beaten and put behind bars. Latter, I developed abdominal pain and infection. I was put in cell with known Taliban militants among whom most were involved in NATO containers cases. Mentally and physically, I was in extremely bad condition for nothing.
Later, I was released, but when I started work on another story “NATO OIL TANKER JOCKEYS”, life threatening phone calls started coming to me. The story was on tribal children of under 18 who were supposed to sit at the back of the oil tanker when they reach the difficult areas of Khyber Agency. It seemed like camel jockeys while those helper got very less amount for all this and most of them did not know of human rights and its violation. After threats, I left this area for some weeks and went to other cities, but was spotted. At last, again came to this area where I had family and home.

PEC: How do you manage your relationship with your family? (I mean how you deal with it when every time you work in danger zone and sometime get life threats. How you convince it.)
SHAH: Yes, my family is always worried about my safety. Since my family is residing in tribal area, so when I am under threats, my family also gets the threatening calls which are always much hurting. However, I try to convince my family that if journalists are not telling the true picture to the world, then who will come to help us. In such areas when situation becomes intense, even the volunteer organizations leave, still journalists will be there on the scene covering news for readers.

PEC: What are your suggestions to improve the access to the conflict zones?
SHAH: Direct access of foreign media and journalists is almost impossible to these areas, however by well equipping and well training the local journalists, they can access to the area. Even some time, we local journalists are presumed as agents of any foreign country by the local people. Safety trainings are required there and the journalists’ defense groups and organization should play their proactive role in this regards. No government or media organization for which the reporter is working are not ready to well equip them or train them to cope and face with such difficult situation in conflict zones.

Source: PEC


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