Safdar: Journalism in the tribal belt

Safdar Dawar from the North Waziristan Agency tells us about the “day and night” difference between the FATA region and the rest of Pakistan.

Safdar Dawar is from the North Waziristan Agency and from FATA's Dawar tribe. He tells us here about the “day and night” difference between the FATA region and the rest of Pakistan, and takes us through some of the history of the tribal areas from British rule in 1901 right through to the shifts following 9/11, and the changing roles of different military powers.

He talks about the many obstacles in access to information for reporters in the region and the powerful stakeholders that have to be negotiated by journalists.

You recently received an award for journalism. What was that award for?

It was an International Human Rights award in 2012. I was President of the Tribal Union of Journalists in FATA, and leading that single platform in a tribal area where we have over 300 journalists members' bodies. It is a single platform working for human rights, as well as media rights, because there is no judiciary, no law, and the government is so powerful.  That's why they gave me the award, because the Tribal Union of Journalists is a single body in the tribal area, in the most dangerous area for journalists and human right activists in the world. There is no peace.

How would you explain the concept of FATA to someone you have never met?

FATA is a Pakistani area along the border with Afghanistan. FATA means Federally Administered Tribal Area. That means it is directly under the jurisdiction of the federal government, because FATA has no province nor any district. FATA has its own law, brought by the British Government in 1901; the

Frontier Crime Regulations

A special set of laws applicable only to the FATA regions, depriving the residents of basic legal and political rights.


Frontier Crime Regulations. That is why we are separate; we have a separate culture and separate law from the whole country. I have a Pakistani identity card but there are a lot of differences between the tribal society and settled areas, it's like the difference between night and day. There are seven agencies in FATA: Bajaur, Orakzai, Kurram, Mohmand, North and South Waziristan, and Khyber. The population nowadays is more than ten million, and we have twelve seats in the National Assembly and four in the Senate Assembly of Pakistan.  The

Political Agent

A Political Agent is the administrative of each tribal agency, representing the President


Political Agent is our king. He is responsible for everyone in the Agency. He's like a judge, but he's also our education and health officer. There are seven Political Agents who control each Agency in the tribal area. We are also directly under the governor of the KP province (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, bordering FATA), who is a direct agent of the President of Pakistan. That is why FATA has its separate rules and the 'black law' of the FCR.

People often use two ways to describe FATA. One is that it is a tribal area of Pakistan somewhere in the north, and another in the media is that it's Taliban territory. How would you explain to a foreigner what the distinction is between “tribal” and Taliban?

There is a difference between Taliban and tribal. The Pashtun, for example, have their own tribes and we call them tribal people. In South Waziristan there are two big tribes - the Mahsud tribe and the Wazir tribe. Also in North Waziristan, there is the Wazir tribe, the Dawar tribe, and so on... there can be more than five tribes in each Agency. They have their own culture, their own situation, coming from over a thousand years ago. Before settlers came, all Pashtun were tribal, but as time passed they became Pashtuns. The “hilly” Pashtuns, who live there on the border, are still tribal.  They have their own leaders, “maliks” (community chiefs), and their own Jirga system and judiciary.

The British government could not control the area when they were ruling Pakistan and Hindustan.  Until now, there are many border areas where there is no Pakistani army or any Pakistani government rule. When the war was against Russia in Afghanistan, America supported Pakistan - they trained their jihadis, al-Qaeda and others to fight against Russia in Afghanistan. The Taliban at that time controlled over 90 percent of Afghanistan. There were also a lot of training camps, and the tribal people supported them with food, money and weapons.

Then, when America attacked Afghanistan along with NATO forces, there was a space left in FATA, because there is no judiciary and no information. Also the hills and the environment were set up very well for them. The people were already supporting them because for three decades they had done so. And then came America's war on Pakistan, and terrorists have come here and they are planning to attack Afghanistan and other places. 

So before they were living like guests when they were fighting against Russia, but this time they came permanently to the tribal areas. That's why the tribal elders felt that they were foreigners and would not allow them to control our society and our tribes. They have their own culture and their own power, and would not allow them to act like this. They had supported them in the past and they would support them, but in this situation they could not because it is against our culture for someone to rule over us. Then they started to kill the maliks and elders in targeted killings.

Next the Pakistani army entered FATA for the first time and nowadays the Pakistani military presence is more than 80,000 strong. That is also new for our tribal people because they never had to deal with the Pakistan army and their role or power before. They did not welcome any government before, and they do not support them now. But nowadays, that is the situation.

How did the situation change after 9/11?

After 9/11 it totally changed. Before 9/11, America and the world was supporting jihadi organisations and groups. But after 9/11 America suddenly changed its opinion about them and started to question who their heroes were, and who these jihadis are that are fighting for them. They decided that they were the Taliban, and that we should eliminate the jihadis from our area.

That was unbelievable... for twenty years America funded the jihadis and told us to support them, and now suddenly they were telling us they are not jihadis but terrorists, and we should eliminate them otherwise they will attack us. At the same time Afghanistan still blames us that some warriors and Taliban are coming across the borders from the tribal areas, and they are suicide bombing in Afghanistan and attacking NATO forces. There is a very confusing situation nowadays in the tribal areas.

Tell us about your experiences as head of the Union. What is daily life like for a local reporter in FATA? What is the operating environment like?

I worked for over ten years in tribal areas, because I belong to the North Waziristan Agency.  Before 9/11 there was a fear of the Frontier Crime Regulations.  If you read the 'black law',  there is a ban on press freedom, a ban on expression and unity

You cannot register your organisation there. Also, the Political Agent is still the “king” of the area - he can punish someone with no reason for 14 to 20 years. Anyone. And we cannot approach any judiciary. So the environment is very problematic for journalists from the area, and it is very difficult to report from there.

So there is no judiciary and there is no other platform to support journalists. That is why we formed the Union in 1987. Our elders met and united two or three journalists from across FATA.  Sailab Mehsud, founder of Tribal Union of Journalists, was also punished seven times without any revenge. Once he was punished for 14 years, which is the death punishment here in certain areas. He united some journalists and then we started reporting from the whole tribal region, working under the umbrella of the Tribal Union of Journalists. Now we have 300 journalists registered,  working with national and international print and electronic media in different Agencies. We have 13 press clubs in FATA, some in buildings we rent and some in buildings provided by the government. The press club in South Waziristan has been attacked and the Taliban said asked why we were reporting from that area. They also attacked one radio station, and we stopped reporting.

That was the situation we were facing at the time, but it was not as difficult as today's targeted killing because the although the government arrested or punished us, we could publish. After 9/11, when two colleagues were targeted in Wana, South Waziristan in 2005, we realised that another game had started against journalism. In the same year a third colleague, Hayatullah, was kidnapped from North Waziristan and after six months in prison with militants, we found his dead body in 2006 in Mir Ali (a town in North Waziristan). In such a short time, about six years, we lost 13 colleagues. Many were also injured and many kidnapped, but released after the efforts of our Union.

Who was responsible for the deaths?

Of the 13 deaths, the Taliban took responsibility just for one, the death of Mukarram Khan Aatif.  For the other 12 we don't know where the enquiry report is, nor who carried out the killings. We demanded a lot and protested for the government to investigate the case, that they should be aware of what is going on in the area, but they did not.

What is the role of the Union of Journalists?

There are just three M's: military, militants, and the media. Sometimes the  the first two, military and militancy, get together against the third M. Everyone has agreed that the Tribal Union of Journalists is a very popular organisation in the tribal areas, because there is no other system. We have our own Press Club and we are reporting from the area. Also on an organisational level, there is no democracy in the tribal areas and we elect our bodies at local and central level by vote.![Image - 3 Ms.png]( /3_ms.png__345x225_q85_crop_upscale.jpg "Image - 3 Ms.png")

It is like we are living in a lake of crocodiles here; there are many crocodiles and groups of powerful stakeholders fighting with each other, and we are just sandwiched between them. We have a lot of experience of the environment and conflict from reporting in such an environment over the last decade. But the situation varies a lot across FATA; in North Waziristan there is one situation, but in South Waziristan another. In Kurram Agency there is Shia-Sunni fighting, and in Khyber Agency there are Lashkar-e-Islam (a militant organisation active in the region). In different Agencies and in different villages, there are different sorts of difficulties we are facing, but now we are doing well. At least we are reporting to the world on activities in the area.

On the international level, Afghanistan and 9/11 added other problems to reporting from the area because more powerful stakeholders and powerful players entered the area, fighting each other and balancing their powers against each other. 

How has the situation changed as reporters realise there are more and more drone operations going on in FATA? Firstly, what are the difficulties in getting the reports? But also, how much demand is there from the outside for those reports?

Yes, the drones... If you look at the whole tribal area, after daylight no one moves around. It is our culture, our system. No shop will open and you cannot see anyone on the road. Also after 9/11, in North Waziristan especially, there are regular curfews from evening until morning. So journalists cannot move to cover the drone attacks, because the drone attacks happen at night time. In the daytime there is also the problem that in many parts of the tribal areas, journalists are not allowed cameras. The Taliban and others don't allow recorders.

The stakeholders are also so powerful that we should balance reporting. Otherwise we will lose our lives, as we saw in the last decade. When we report on the basis of truth, we face no difficulties, but when we become part of one or other group we face problems.

If you look at the media, we never miss a single report of a drone strike, but we can't complete these as investigative stories. We just break the news or give updates and news stories, reporting when something happened and where was targeted.

Tell us a bit about the practical process of collecting evidence about drone strikes.

I can give you a fresh example from North Waziristan last Friday. It happened in Miranshah (a town in the Agency) where Commander Mullah Sangeen, an important commander in the Taliban, was targeted in a night time drone attack.  In the morning all the civilian public was aware that Mullah Sangeen had been targeted in the attack by the drone.

But the Taliban and government official denied knowing anything until 2pm, and the


Inter Services Public Relations, an arm of the military that coordinates military information with the media and civil society.


ISPRdon't have a spokesperson in the area. Finally, when the funeral prayers were announced in the mosques of Miranshah, only then did the Taliban and the government officially accept that it had happened.

How do you use mix of hands-on analogue reporting techniques, along with social media such as Facebook and Twitter?

Image - fatarestrictions.pngIn Pakistan, reporters face a very dangerous situation, particularly with these media.

There are also no mobile services and no internet facilities in many areas. There are bans on mobile phones, phone cameras, and even the Internet and TV channels. But we have a situation where more tribal students or government servants working in the Federal area are using like Facebook, Twitter, and blogging.

What advice would you give to those reporters starting out in their career?

I think my advice is that life is more important than journalism or a job. Reporters can lose their lives; our thirteen colleagues lost their lives by making little mistakes. 

I think if we are reporting from a certain area, we should be aware of the culture, the local tribal groups and militant groups, and we should be fully informed about the area we are reporting from. Journalists today operate locally, because even a Pakistani journalist from a neighbouring region cannot enter into certain tribal areas, as well as journalists from Islamabad or Lahore. That access is a big problem.

Journalists should be aware of the whole situation, possible dangers and culture and then they can try to understand the conflict and which stakeholders are doing what. That is very important advice for a journalist here.

I remember one particular event which happened in one of the districts on the border with North Waziristan.  I reported it to my organisation as the first drone strike in a settled area, which in the past had always happened in tribal areas. The government and other stakeholders asked why I was putting this information out. They protested against the US actions, saying they don't have permission in settled areas – they might have signed some agreement with Pakistan, but only for FATA and not the settled areas. As far as I know, they have an agreement over an area a certain number of kilometres from the border with the Pakistani area. It just covers the tribal area.

What do you find most disappointing about the situation for journalists, the biggest obstacle? What would you like to be able to cover more, or talk about more?

We want cameras and journalistic equipment that we can use here easily, that we can use to access information. The big problem is that we don't have access to information. We are trying and we are getting there, but there are no information officers based in the Tribal Agencies. So one of the amendments the government should make are reforms of the FCR, to extend camera laws to tribal areas and to remove the ban on freedom of expression. They should support the Union and allow tribal journalists to affiliate nationally.

These are the main problems – if we had government support to create our own media, our own newspaper in FATA, our own radio station and TV channel,  then we could give more space to the problem. Nowadays we are reporting drone attacks, suicide bombings, fighting... but it's not complete reporting from the area. We can't get the space in a provincial or international newspaper, or a provincial TV channel or radio station.

There are differing reports about drone attacks and consequences, with large discrepancies in the thousands. Why do you think that is happening?

As I mentioned before, journalists have problems covering drone attacks for many reasons. Another factor is that the US is one of the stakeholders here, as are the Pakistani government and the Taliban. The fourth stakeholder is civilian drone victims, common people from the area. Pakistan has their own numbers, and the US has their own numbers, as do the Taliban or al-Qaeda. We are trying to report more on their suffering in drone attacks, but there is not much investigative reporting. That is the main problem.

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