A synthetic image

June 08, 2011


A FEW months ago, I asked a couple of television anchorpersons in Islamabad whether they knew about a restive Fata agency where half a million people have virtually been marooned for the past three years.

Both were unaware that the sectarian strife in Parachinar has displaced Sunnis by the thousands and cut off the area’s majority Shia population from the mainstream. While visiting their own country, the latter group must perforce use a risky route through Afghanistan, which has resulted in the loss of over a hundred lives.

The lack of news from Kurram agency reflects the national media’s widespread indifference towards tribal affairs and lack of interest in reporting the area’s problems. There is plenty to report upon: how have people been surviving since the sole route, the Thall-Parachinar road, was closed in 2007? Why did the authorities fail to protect a private convoy of 25 loaded trucks which were looted and set on fire in the presence of security forces on their way to Upper Kurram? What action has been taken to rehabilitate the people who fled Parachinar after scores of their sect were killed three years ago? Many such questions need urgent media attention, but for different reasons this is not forthcoming.

The problem stems mainly from the attitude of the establishment. A colonial background has led them to believe that the country’s tribesmen live on a strategic faultline. The geographical sensitivity of the western border has destined the tribesmen, it is believed, for a sacred task: to act as a buffer against any foreign threat. This half-baked theory is considered enough reason to isolate Fata from the larger national interests. More dangerously, the approach has seeped down everywhere, including in the media, where highlighting Fata’s problems is considered less important than the state’s security concerns.

Media portrayal of Fata has tended to oscillate between total indifference and selective exposure. In the first instance, the people of Fata and their lives have generally been ignored. Whatever little attention they receive is laid within the framework of, and thus tainted by, stereotypes such as “tribesmen”, “deeply religious society”, “elaqa ghair” (no-go area) etc. Such terms associate the people with their terrain and geography, rather than as people of flesh and blood.

Under not-so-normal circumstances, meanwhile, media coverage has tended to be selective, with issues being defined in the wider regional context. This has shifted the focus away from the actual people.

Spearheaded by the state media, news organisations’ security-centric approach has left the tribesmen with a severe crisis of image. The exercise of creating a tribal identity revolving around the ‘awe factor’ has helped the state, preparing tribesmen to serve as unpaid guardians of the north-western border.

However, representing them as ‘tough’ has distanced the tribespeople from the rest of the country. Physically, these people live in Pakistan, but psychologically the country has yet to assimilate their presence.

The situation worsened a decade ago, when Pakistan’s private media boom coincided with the US sending forces into Afghanistan. A few thousand militants took refuge in Fata. Instead of holding official quarters responsible for their failure to notice the problem, the media started identifying the tribesmen with the terrorists’ cause. Glimpses of this shared vision — that the tribespeople are somehow different from and entirely unlike other Pakistanis — are seen everywhere.

It was much laughed about in Wana that a newly appointed commanding official inquired of a delegation of visiting elders whether children in South Waziristan play cricket. Another high-ranking official, upon return from South Waziristan, told me that he was surprised when some tribal elders demanded a school for their area.

Communications expert Dr. Altafullah Khan refers to the widespread apathy when he says that “our people must broaden their understanding of Fata. Beneath the gun-toting image there lies a human face: smiling children, parents wanting their children to have the best life possible.” Dr Khan complains that “all this is missed out by the world when it regards Fata.

Innocent Pakistanis live in the troubled region but the national organism does not feel their pain.”

Global powers have converged on Fata and imposed a state of war on the tribesmen, while military operations have badly affected the normal routines of the people. Yet the media and civil society have failed to raise a voice for the voiceless. Our television screens exploded into cacophony when civilians started being displaced from Swat. Yet the same channels are silent about the worries of 1.5 million tribesmen who are languishing in camps for the internally displaced or elsewhere. The damaged houses in the area, entire villages and bazaars that have been wiped out, speak of the huge losses suffered by the area’s civilian population. Frightening visuals of civilians killed in the operations are sent from one cell-phone to another, but no television channel is ready to report such tragedies.

The closed administrative structure and synthetically-created identity might have helped officialdom in maintaining the status quo in Fata. However, the growing dimension of human tragedy witnessed over the past decade should now outpace covert strategic gains. What logic would officialdom offer for not letting any media outlet into Fata to raise a voice for the nine million tribesmen there?

How long will some sections of Pakistan’s media continue to rationalise civilian deaths through archaic notions such as that those who live by the sword die by it too? This is a case of journalists serving the state at the cost of its people. Such queries are long overdue. Pakistan’s tribesmen are dying unnoticed, uncounted and unrewarded. It is time to think about giving them their identity, and at least the right to speak for themselves.

The writer teaches at Peshawar University.