March issue 2009

By | News & Politics | Published 15 years ago

Isa Khankhel is clueless as to the identity of those who killed his journalist brother, Musa. “I don’t know the killers of my brother. I used to hear from other reporters that my brother’s life was under threat, but Musa never told me this. He used to hide such threats from us,” says Isa.

On February 18, Musa Khankel sent a text message to his brother, informing him of his journey to Matta in Swat to cover the peace caravan of Maulana Sufi Muhammad, head of the Tehrik-i-Nifaz-i-Shariat-i-Muhammadi (TNSM). The 28-year-old Musa also spoke of his plans to interview Maulana Fazlullah, the amir of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Swat (TTS).

No one knows what happened afterwards. Some eyewitness accounts suggest that the budding journalist got up and left the venue of the gathering. Soon after, his bullet-riddled body was recovered in Det Panry, an area known to be a stronghold of the Taliban.

The news of his murder shocked all those anticipating the return of the elusive peace in Swat and brought home the point that the dream of security remained as distant as ever.

Musa had been a journalist for nearly eight years, working as a district correspondent for the English newspaper,The News and for the group’s Urdu television network, Geo. His colleagues say that his reporting in the volatile Swat had left many a quarter uncomfortable, prompting the management to engage another local journalist to keep the media outlet informed, while Musa went into a brief period of hiding.

Undeterred, he resurfaced a couple of months later, writing again for the paper and appearing on its television outlet. It appears that like the hundreds of thousands of hapless Swatis, Musa also believed that the dawn of peace was finally emerging from behind the snow-capped mountains of the scenic valley now soaked in blood. “Musa wanted to speak to Fazlullah to know his mind about the new peace agreement in Swat,” says a colleague.

The killers of Musa Khankhel will probably never be known. The government has condemned the tragic incident and has formed a task force to look into the circumstances, identify his assassins and bring them to justice. The Taliban, on their part, have strongly denied any involvement.

But the assassination of Musa has not only brought to the limelight the enormous risks involved in reporting from volatile regions, but also how vulnerable the reporters are while trying to strike a balance between two competing authorities — the security forces and the militants.

“It is very difficult to maintain a balance,” says a local journalist. “Often, our reporting has irked this or that party. And we have often received angry phone calls, from either the security forces or the militants, threatening to fix us up.”

Musa is the fourth journalist to be murdered in Swat since 2007.

Last year, Sirajuddin was killed in a suicide blast in Swat, at the funeral of a slain deputy superintendent of the police, while Azizuddin, who was abducted by the militants, was killed in an aerial bombardment in Peochar. Another journalist, Qari Shoaib, 32, was shot in the main town of Mingora when he failed to pay heed to the warnings of the security forces.

In 2007, two journalists were killed in Bajaur. The federal government that administers the tribal region promised to take action, but the perpetrators of those behind the assassination remain untraced.

In February 2005, two journalists were gunned down in neighbouring South Waziristan when they were on the way back after covering a peace agreement between militants and the government.

Musa has left behind five brothers and three sisters. His ailing parents wanted him to marry and settle down. “We wanted him to marry as he was the eldest among us, but due to the deteriorating situation in Swat, he refused to do so as his responsibilities towards his profession were doubled,” says Isa, who is also working as a correspondent for different media organisations.

After the brutal murder of Musa, media organisations have decided to stay away from Swat until peace is restored to the region.

Journalists working in the conflict zone complain that while they have come under increasing pressure for “breaking news,” the government and their media organisations have done little to facilitate their work or make their job and lives any safer. There is no training and no insurance. Demands for training in conflict reporting in hostile environments have fallen on deaf ears.

As the Taliban devour more and more territory, squeezing the space for government authority and the free flow of information, journalists are finding it hard to operate in the absence of rules of engagement. Failure by the government investigating agency to identify the killers of many of the journalists who were killed while on duty, is also cause for concern.

A tribunal headed by a judge of the Peshawar High Court was constituted by the federal government to investigate the murder of tribal journalist, Hayatullah Khan in North Waziristan in December 2006. Although the tribunal has completed its findings, the report is yet to be made public.

“Journalism has always been a risky profession and where there are militants it becomes even more difficult,” says Secretary General of Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, Mazhar Abbas. “Those working in areas like the NWFP must be well-trained on how to cover tricky/difficult issues and it’s the responsibility of their organisation to arrange this,” he adds.

Commenting on Musa’s brutal murder, Abbas accuses the organisation of the slain journalist for ignoring the threats he received. “When they already knew that he was being viewed as ‘a pain in the neck’ for those in Swat, they should have temporarily moved him from the area,” he says.

Many journalists have relocated and moved out of their native areas to save their lives, including those reporting from North and South Waziristan, Bajaur, Tank and Swat. Many of them are extremely critical about the apathy and lack of support from not just the government, but also from their respective organisations. “We put our lives on the line to report from these regions. But now we are fending for ourselves. Requests for help have largely gone unheeded,” complains a journalist who had to move out of the tribal region after receiving threats from militants.