August issue 2006
Fiction from the Frontlines
Islamabad 2001: A Pakistani journalist was urging a retired army officer on telephone to pose as a serving Inter-Services Intelligence official and give an interview to the bureau chief of a leading western wire agency as an anonymous source. After arguing with the retired official for several minutes in a mix of Urdu and Punjabi, the journalist finally called out to his bureau chief saying that his ISI source was on the line.
An hour after the telephone interview, the western agency filed a sensational story about the divide within the ranks of Pakistan’s military establishment and ISI’s opposition to President Pervez Musharraf’s decision to withdraw support to the Afghan Taliban.
The story was a hit — and so was the stringer who arranged the fake interview.
As hundreds of foreign correspondents descended on Islamabad, Peshawar, Quetta, and some, even Karachi, to report on the war in Afghanistan and terrorism, a new breed of journalists, known usually as “fixers,” and stringers, got unprecedented importance.
The majority of foreign journalists were unable to go inside Afghanistan to cover the war and were desperately trying instead, to find some exciting stories from within Pakistan. Small pro-Taliban rallies were being blown out of proportion and many Pakistani stringers were aiding them in procuring quotes from “anonymous” army, intelligence and interior ministry officials to support their pre-conceived stories about Pakistan and its role in terrorism.
In addition, “fake” interviews with the Taliban and Islamic militants were also conducted.
The task of genuine journalists, who wanted to file only factual stories, was becoming increasingly difficult because they were competing against these sensationalist stories.
Often reputed foreign newspapers and wire agencies ran stories without verifying them because of stiff competition.
International wire agencies, which usually avoid anonymous sources as a rule of thumb, lowered their standards of proper sourcing, banking more and more on mysterious anonymous sources, from places like Multan, Lahore and Peshawar, which often fed them detailed accounts of the interrogation of some key Al Qaeda suspect being conducted in Islamabad.
Often the same story had different versions; at other times, stringers lifted the content from the story of a rival agency/newspaper and peppered it with their own language to make it sound different.
The real irony was, despite the fact that foreign media organisations would often recognise that the information was not credible, they still went ahead and used it. In fact, some of these international wire services and newspapers actually sought out stringers who claimed that they had close contacts with intelligence agencies and paid them handsomely for their “work.”
A reputed foreign newspaper filed a story regarding the defection of Afghan foreign minister, Abdul Wakil Muttawakil, which proved to be totally incorrect, much to the editor’s embarrassment.
Often, intelligence officials exchanged information with some journalists on a quid-pro-quo basis and used them to leak information and even plant misleading stories.
Then there were many Afghans, who were desperately trying to sell all sorts of stories about Al Qaeda camps and the Afghan Taliban to western journalists in exchange for a few bucks. One such Afghan stringer claimed that he had escaped from the Kandahar prison of the Taliban/Al Qaeda, but later it was discovered that he had been living at an Afghan refugee camp in Peshawar for the past one year.
Some daring local journalist even presented Pakistani tribesmen as fierce Afghan Taliban warriors.
French correspondent Joel Marc Epstein and photographer Jean Paul Guilloteau of the Paris weekly L’Express, and their local stringer Khawar Rizvi, were arrested in Balochistan in December 2003 on charges of arranging interviews and photographs of “fake Taliban.”
The trend of concocting stories and quoting fake anonymous sources that started during the time of the U.S.-led war on terrorism, continues to this day. And what’s more, it has helped change the fortunes of dozens of stringers who earned mega-bucks in dollars for their dubious “meritorious” services.
Amir Zia is a senior Pakistani journalist, currently working as the Chief Editor of HUM News. He has worked for leading media organisations, including Reuters, AP, Gulf News, The News, Samaa TV and Newsline.