July issue 2006
In the Line of Fire
Hayatullah Khan’s family waited over six months for his return. But when the day finally came for Hayatullah to return home, there was no joyful reunion — just a phone call saying where they could find his body.
On December 5, the tribal journalist was abducted from Epi village road, four kilometers east of Mirali in North Waziristan agency. He was with one of his brothers and a cousin when five Kalashnikov-wielding, Taliban-looking gunmen ordered him into their vehicle. The next time his family saw him was on June 16 — his body handcuffed and bullet-ridden.
Journalism is increasingly becoming a deadly job in Pakistan. And this holds true, particularly in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), which lie on the fringes of the new great game in the region.
The murder of Hayatullah Khan, the latest victim of this profession, has sent shock waves down the spine of the journalist community. Newsmen suddenly find themselves in the line of fire. And nobody believes that Hayatullah is going to be the last victim.
His friends and family are convinced that a security agency is involved in his abduction and murder. The assailants, his family believes, disguised themselves as Taliban members to deceive witnesses into thinking they were militants.
“We assumed that the Taliban had taken him away. But they distanced themselves from Hayat’s abduction through a letter and a messenger,” Ihsanullah, Hayatullah’s brother, told Newsline. He’s convinced that the Taliban are not involved. “They don’t hide such acts, if they ever commit them. They do it openly… we have seen it with our own eyes.”
Subsequently, a purported Taliban spokesman called journalists in Peshawar, saying they were not involved in Hayatullah’s killing and said he was murdered by the secret agencies.
Hayatullah was kidnapped apparently after he released pictures showing parts of a US missile that killed senior Al-Qaeda operative, Hamza Rabia, in North Waziristan on December 1. These photographs contradicted government claims that Hamza Rabia was killed in an accidental explosives blast in a house. What caused the Al-Qaeda leader’s death remains a mystery. However, in an interview with BBC Urdu, Hayatullah’s wife claimed that security personnel trapped her husband by repeatedly asking him to publish stories that it was a US missile that had hit the Al-Qaeda man’s hideout.
Whether Hayatullah printed the pictures of his own accord or whether he was coerced into doing so is a big question mark — as is what happened to him subsequently. But what is clear is that the journalist had a reputation for being bold and gutsy. His reports for the Urdu daily Ausaf, The Nation, and European Press Agency (EPA) were often critical of government operations in the tribal areas. An M.Sc. in economics from Government Post Graduate College, Bannu, he started his journalistic career in 1998. He has four children: Naila, 9, Farishta, 7, Kamran, 5, and Faisal, 2.
His family had good reason to believe that Hayatullah would come back alive. “On May 15, the North Waziristan political agent Zaheerul Islam told me that ‘your brother will be released between June 15 and June 20.’ But on June 16, I heard the news about his death,” Ihsanullah said.
Hayatullah’s family believes he was killed handcuffed because he had escaped, and later found by his abductors, who had then decided to shoot him. Another story doing the rounds was that his captors brought him to a Taliban-infested area and shot him dead to spark off rumours of his being killed in a crossfire between government forces and the militants.
Hayatullah’s family and the journalist community in Peshawar and Islamabad continuously protested against his detention, but their protests fell on deaf ears. “You are further complicating the problem by your agitation,” a Peshawar-based journalist quoted a senior official as saying during a meeting with a high-level government functionary.
Following a battery of protests from the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, the Khyber Union of Journalists and the All Pakistan Newspaper Employees Confederation against Hayatullah’s murder, the government was forced to take action and Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz announced a judicial inquiry into the murder. A Peshawar high court judge Justice Raza Muhammad was appointed to conduct the probe.
Incidentally, Hayatullah was not the first tribal journalist to die in the line of duty. Two journalists, Allah Noor of AVT Khyber TV and Amir Nawab Khan, a correspondent with the daily The Nation, were killed on February 7 last year. They were returning after covering a peace deal between the Taliban militant Baitullah Mehsud and the law enforcement agencies in Wana.
Unknown masked men opened fire on their vehicle in Wana. Both Allah Noor and Amir Nawab succumbed to their injuries in hospital. A third journalist, Anwar Shakir, a stringer with the AFP, was badly injured in the firing.
A few days later, an unknown group calling itself Sipah-e-Islam took responsibility for the killings in a letter faxed to newspaper offices. It accused some journalists of “working for Christians,” and of “being used as tools in negative propaganda” against the Muslim mujahideen. No clues to these killings have yet been unearthed.
On December 5, Nasir Afridi, president of Darra Adam Khel Press Club and correspondent of an Urdu daily, was shot and killed while driving in his car in the Khyber Agency. He was caught in the crossfire of a battle between the Bazikhel and the Malakhel tribes. A truck driver was also killed by a stray bullet.
But targeted killings are more common. Religious extremists in Khyber Agency threatened two journalists in early 2006. Nasrullah Afridi, a correspondent for the dailies Mashriq and The Statesman, and Khyalmat Shah, president of the Tribal Union of Journalists (TUJ) in the Khyber Agency (west of Peshawar), were both threatened by local religious leader Mufti Munir Shakir after they reported clashes between his supporters and those of his rival, Mufti Pir Saifur Rehman. They were forced to submit sureties that they would not publish such stories in the future.
Incidentally, the political administration in the seven tribal agencies on the Pak-Afghan border has restricted journalists’ entry into the region since the military launched a major offensive against suspected Al-Qaeda fighters in South Waziristan in early 2004.
The pressure from the militants and the administration has forced most journalists to either shift from Waziristan to adjacent districts or say adieu to their profession. “Most professional newsmen have shifted from the tribal areas to adjoining Dera Ismail Khan, Bannu, Tank, Peshawar and Karachi. It’s hard for them to live in the tribal areas anymore,” remarked Sailab Mehsud, president of the Tribal Union of Journalists.
“The tribal area is passing through a very sensitive phase. It has come under international focus and the entire country’s stability depends on the situation in the tribal areas,” the NWFP governor, Lt Gen (Ret) Ali Muhammad Jan Orakzai, told a delegation of journalists who met with him to lodge a protest over Hayatullah’s killing.
“I, in my capacity as your brother, ask you to keep in mind the national interest when filing your stories,” he said. “The situation can take a dangerous turn, if my position as a tribal governor is not utilised in improving the state of affairs in the tribal areas.”