Taha: Between international media and tribal journalism

Independent journalist Taha Siddiqui explains the very real dangers for operating as a journalist in Pakistan, one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists.

Taha Siddiqui is originally from Karachi but now works as an independent journalist out of Islamabad. He contributes to international publications and reports for outlets including the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, Die Welt, Arte and France24. He also works with NGOs and activists.

He explains here the very real dangers for operating as a journalist in Pakistan, one of the three most dangerous countries in the world for journalists. He talks about burgeoning new media and Internet access in the tribal areas, as well as how to pitch your story to suit the international media agenda.

What do you cover in your reporting?

I focus mostly on minorities and terrorism issues, and politics.

What kind of terrorists are we talking about, in the context of Pakistan?

As you know with regards to terrorism, here we have the tribal areas and Pakistan as the front line ally in the war on terror after 9/11. So terrorism has become a very homegrown issue in this country. I focus on which terror attacks happen, which terrorists are operating in the country, and how they are operating, especially in the tribal areas.

We also have 95 percent Muslims here, with 5 percent of religious minorities including Christians, Hindus and other religions. So minority rights are a big issue.

You are at a bridge between international media and tribal journalism – how does that work?

Working in the tribal areas is very hard to do independently, when we go from Islamabad or when we go from the other parts of Pakistan. When we go into the tribal areas we usually have to go through the local journalists who are already working in the tribal belt and operate with them. Usually we use them as fixers or as local stringers.

What changed after 9/11 in terms of the interest of international media?

Before, Pakistan was not on the international journalism map as such. During the 1990s, the nuclear issue was one thing that made a lot of headlines - in 1998, when Pakistan carried out nuclear tests - but it was not much covered by the international media. After 9/11, international media have set up their offices here, they have set up their bureaus and reporters here, and they always come. Reporters even travel to Pakistan ,and that is mainly to cover the fact that Afghanistan is next door.  For most of them, Afghanistan might not be as safe to travel to and so they keep Pakistan as a base.

How have things changed specifically for those involved in tribal reporting?

Image - fromafghanistan.pngWell, most of the FATA reporters are covering international issues now. Earlier on, nobody really knew what the tribal belt was about, what was going on there in the 1990s or even before. The tribal belt has existed since independence, but after 9/11 it became a focus for many international journalists who started interacting with the local journalists, because this was where the Taliban fled to. We know that Osama Bin Laden came through the tribal areas into Pakistan and that other international terrorists have come into Pakistan through the tribal belt. So the tribal belt has become a hotbed for all of this international terrorism and global jihad.

What are the most common issues that the international media are looking for when it comes to FATA?

In FATA, it's only about terrorism. As far as I can see there is a void as concerns the legal framework. The tribal areas are still dealt with using a draconian law known as the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR). The FCR does not give any political rights to the people, there are severe human rights violations there and no press freedom rights. Despite that, this aspect of the tribal belt is not covered by the international media. At most they cover the fact that there are terrorists operating out of there, or there are drone attacks.

Even if they discuss education, they would discuss education from the point of view of Taliban bombing the schools. The angle is always -what are the Taliban doing in the tribal areas? It's as if the tribal areas did not exist before the Taliban came there - they did exist there and there are tribal people there, and tribal people are not the Taliban. The Taliban have come from other places, or have recruited the local people, but there is a local population, which has infrastructural issues, which has developmental issues. Moreover, it has legality issues. For example, the Constitution of Pakistan does not apply there. These issues rarely get international coverage.

In whose interest is it to keep FATA under such strange legal and political structures, which give it the quality of a 'country within a country', where foreign actors can also operate freely?

As we know, Pakistan has been ruled by the military for the last 67 years, following independence.  The military has ruled the country for half of its existence openly, and the other half behind closed doors. And this tribal belt is the border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the military likes to maintain its proxies. We've seen that happening in the Afghan jihad, used against the Soviets to declare war on them. It was this tribal belt where all the camps were made, all the activities were done together with the CIA and the ISI (the intelligence agency of Pakistan). They recruited jihadis globally, people came from everywhere. Somehow because we are in a security state, it suits to keep some areas of Pakistan completely lawless, so they can do whatever they want, which is what we are seeing happen.

At the same time, the political leadership of the country is so busy dealing with issues in mainstream Pakistan that they do not even go down to the tribal areas. In our history most of our Prime Ministers have not even visited the tribal areas, except for one. The political parties could not even operate there until 2008, I think, when the last government came in and allowed political parties to act. Kashmir in the north is another example, or Balochistan on the Iranian border side. All of these  are dealt with in a way whereby the federal government operates and controls their resources, and does not allow basic human and political rights to the people of these areas.

What is the everyday life of a tribal reporter?

I've actually made a , and how the journalists operate in FATA. In FATA most of these reporters are not actually journalists to begin with. Some of the ones that I met have businesses, they are probably operating a shop or operating petrol pumps. And they are the ones working for international agencies like Reuters and AP. They have business concerns and journalism is usually their side thing, because of the passion they have for it. They need to do that because they don't usually get paid for their journalism. Most of the ones that I've met are usually given an appointment letter,  they are given a microphone with a logo on it, and most of the channels or news organisations tell them that is all that they can give, that they will not give any monetary returns for the work.

At the same time, I think in the last ten years round about twelve journalists have been killed in the tribal belt, which is over one journalist a year in a region where very few journalists operate. Many of them are friends of the ones who are already working there. Those friends are working under conditions where their friends have been killed - nobody has investigated it, and nobody has been punished. They don't even know who did it. The Taliban sometimes claimed responsibility, but the government is now talking to the Taliban, so they have become a stakeholder in the political process. There is a fear of being threatened, there are monetary concerns... so journalists in the tribal belt are in a really bad condition.

The majority of the killings have happened since 9/11 and since Pakistan became the front line of the 'war on terror'. Of all journalists killed, only one investigation reached its final conclusion and that was also of a foreign journalist, Daniel Pearl. For the rest of the Pakistani journalists who have been killed, there has been no investigation, there has been no follow-up, nobody knows who killed them, and nobody has ever been punished. That is why Pakistan has been regarded as one of the most dangerous countries in the world.

Drones attract a lot of attention internationally, but what do the politics of drones look from the local perspective?

The drone attacks have been one of the most contentious issues in the country with regards to politicians, to the many Islamists in the country, and civil society, which also talks about the drone issue.

As far as international organisations are concerned, they themselves have agreed that when reporting comes in, we don't know how authentic it is. When you go to the tribal areas, most of the reporters who are filing stories of drone attacks are filing them through sources in the Taliban or in the military. All of these people have a stake in the situation in the tribal belt and they have their own outcomes they want to see from the war on terror.  They might be misleading, and we have seen that there are misleading figures provided by journalists at times. But you have to understand that when a drone attack happens, this is a mountainous area between the Afghanistani and Pakistani borders where often nobody goes, and there are these houses or huts where the Taliban or terrorists are living. From our sources in the tribal belt, I've gotten to know that usually the Taliban cordon the area off and they do not let the normal people or even the journalists see who was killed, and then they later release a statement. So factual, on-the-ground reporting with regards to drone attacks is not happening.

Secondly, when it comes to the politics of drones, for the longest time in this country the government has been lying to its people, saying that the drone attacks are something that are violating our sovereignty and are being forced upon us. But recently we saw Pervez Musharraf, who is the retired general from the last military dictatorship (at the time of 9/11 he was ruling the country), accept on international TV that yes, we did accept these drone strikes but not in these numbers. Now the numbers are always questionable, but they did accept. Wikileaks showed the same; there have been documents leaked by . The cables quote the last Prime Minister in the former government saying - “you continue with the drone strikes, while we will continue to condemn it.” 

The politics is that you can publicly condemn it here, so that the people see you as victims, while you let the international forces operate these drones in tribal areas and do whatever they want. At the same time, because there was a legality issue in the tribal areas compared to mainstream Pakistan, you cannot even legally question the victims and the families of the victims, who have been trying to fight cases here and have not gotten any reprieve. So the politics is: publicly condemn, secretly agree. 

One of the other big questions that people keep mentioning is whether civilians are being killed or not? Imran Khan (the popular cricketer turned politician, who has a government right now in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, next to the tribal areas) led a rally to Waziristan, where most of the drone attacks happen. He said that this is a peace rally and we are going to show the world that these are peaceful people. But he could not even reach Waziristan, he was stopped on the way.  So, what are they trying to hide?  If there are peaceful people there, if there are only civilians being killed, then allow access to the international media. But the fact that they do not allow access to the international media shows that there is something being controlled. Information outflow is being controlled. 

Then again, we met with some of the people at this peace rally who claimed to be innocent victims of drone attacks. When you probe a little bit with these innocent victims, they always have this one unidentified, unknown guy, who was travelling with them, or who was living with them. When you keep probing them, you hear the same thing from different groups.  So in that sense, the Taliban or the military are lying about what is going on there, and the civilian deaths are in my personal opinion misreported. Unless they allow free access to internationals, and even to locals like us, we cannot claim whether civilians are being killed or not.

How would you describe to a foreigner the difference between 'tribal' and Taliban, two terms which often get confused in the media?

In the tribal areas, old customary laws still exist. The society there operates on a a very close-knit family system where the tribal head is the one who makes decisions for the rest of the tribe.  In these areas they are still living in the way everybody around the world used to live... then development happened, globalisation happened, and urbanisation happened. These areas are devoid of urbanisation. If you go to the tribal areas, you will see most of the houses are made in castle-like forms. They still have these feuds with other families, there are a lot of weapons and they protect themselves, because of the fact that there is an absence of a policing and judicial system. 

At the same time the Taliban have come from Afghanistan, as a political ideological movement that wanted to establish Sharia. Now, the establishment of Sharia law is very different from what the tribal population is like. The tribal population is not asking for the establishment of Sharia law. They say that our old customary law should exist, and we should be allowed to live according to the tribal codes and conducts that we have had for centuries. Although here are a lot of things which are common to Sharia and the tribal codes, for example the way to deal with women or judicial issues.

The lawlessness of this area appears to be sustained by the FCR and FATA laws. Why have they not been changed?

That is a very big debate. When I go to the tribal areas I try to discuss with them how we should do away with these

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, and how you should have policing and judicial systems. But there is a lot of resistance from the tribal elders, who  still hold onto those customary laws that they saw their ancestors following. They think that their customs, their laws and their traditions are going to be lost if they accept those changes. So sometimes the tribal people do not see that these judicial or policing issues have also led to the fact that non-state actors like the Taliban can take advantage. They are victims of the Taliban, and they are also victims of the Pakistani State, but often  they do not point their finger towards the Pakistani State because their own elders have agreed in the past to accept the FCR. 

This is a very complicated debate, but through the FCR you see how they've created a class-based system. What the FCR does is it says - okay,  nominate somebody who is the tribal head of your family,  and the government will give them all the benefits and privileges, which then they can distribute amongst the people. There is a hierarchy, so that the children of those on the top rise to the top, and the rest of the common people remain suppressed. If you talk to the common people, they will probably say that the FCR is an issue and they want to get rid of it. But because those people don't come out and talk, because they have these tribal heads to represent them, that voice is not heard. 

The tribal heads are enjoying privileges from the government. For example they get money for running schools, for running hospitals, which do not exist; there might be one and they are getting money for three. Because of the privilege system that the government has created through the FCR, the tribal people do no realise how bad it is for them and they are also a victim of the system.

Is the situation changing, not just for journalists but for ordinary people in FATA who can now use new media? Is it changing the ability to look into invisible issues such as drones?

Pakistan is seeing a new media revolution. have become a way for people to express themselves. We've also had some censorship, and Facebook has been blocked in the country. Twitter was also blocked, citing blasphemy issues. Currently YouTube is also blocked. It does seem that new media is a threat to the government, or to the security needs of the government, so they sometimes need to clamp down on it.

At the same time the percentage of people online in the country is not that high. In mainstream areas, in urban areas, and some parts of the rural Pakistan, there are people on the Internet. But I believe that the internet narrative is controlled. I have done some stories on how the Islamist parties are using the Internet. Common people in Pakistan that you will meet are hyper-nationalists, emotional and radicalised, because of indoctrination over the years by the military - that we are victims of an international global conspiracy, victims of India trying to invade into Pakistan, or victims of the West trying to destroy Pakistan. That is the sort of narrative you can find online. One of the most liked pages on Facebook is 'We love Pakistan, and Islam is its ideology', or something along those lines.  And when you look at the posts on that page, and what people are sharing, it just shows how much Islamist propaganda there is online, and how people are actually falling for it. In the case of one story that I wrote, people were appealing for funds for Burma's Muslims who have been killed over there, and the Islamist parties were asking for funds and saying that a Muslim genocide is happening. When I investigated further, the images were doctored.  They were taking money from people, saying they would give it to people from Burma, yet when I asked them they had no idea how they were going to reach those people. That is one example of how the state is trying to control the narrative of new media, through censorship and saying its blasphemy, or national interest, or vulgarity. There is a lot of moral policing.

On the other hand is the question of how much digital outreach we have?  The tribal areas are very far behind as far as roads or other civil infrastructure is concerned. The Internet requires telecommunications to be established first of all.  Most of the time, the telecommunication networks in these areas are blocked, so access to the Internet for these people is very low. Internet literacy is also very low, so using new media is still an issue. But equally, I've seen a lot of people on Facebook or Twitter who are from the tribal areas, because cellphones have become very common here in the last decade or so and the cellphone market has grown exponentially. They use pseudonyms -  I have seen a lot of people on Twitter from the tribal areas, but they do not give out their real names.  Even on Facebook they do that. They use fake names and fake pictures, and try to stay behind a cloak.

Even with pseudonyms, Twitter still knows who they are. Is that privacy issue a concern for reporters, or people who are trying to become reporters?

The fact that they could be traced is something that is secondary to them. Right now, they are more comfortable with the fact that at least they are not using their names and they can deny it. If that gives them a sense of comfort, then at least not everybody knows who they are. If somebody wants to find out, of course we have the NSA issue, as you saw. But the Pakistani government and the Pakistani state does not yet have that kind of sophisticated technology, I believe, to trace such people. If they did, I think the country would have dismantled the terrorist networks, which are also operating digitally. If I am getting e-mails from the Taliban every week with their new uploaded videos on YouTube or Vimeo, pictures show them using Macs and stuff, then they are technologically sound. If there is crackdown, the government might go after them, but it doesn't. That is why a lot of people get away with using pseudonyms.

What are the main themes sought by international media? And how do you try to get them interested in other themes?

When we pitch to the international media, which is a weekly process where foreign editors ask for a pitch every Monday, I have to keep in mind that the foreign editors are getting pitches from all around the world. They sometimes send us a rough draft of what they would like to have covered from Pakistan. The international narrative that I have come to see about Pakistan is that it's a nuclear armed country, that it has a homegrown terrorism issue, and that it is a security state with an enemy across the border that it is really concerned about. So Pakistan is a country which is of global concern, because of the fact that it could destabilise the region, and because of the nukes it has. Anything along those lines is what the international media is very much interested in. The rest of the ideas usually get shot down, and nobody wants to follow them. For example, when you are writing a pitch, usually it requires you to write a synopsis. The synopsis has to include how this is going to affect the regional stability of the area, because of Afghanistan (which the international community is concerned about) and how it's going to affect Pakistan's own stability (because it has nukes and the Taliban).

Minorities are of concern, because we have a very bad track record of dealing with minorities.  Christians have had their homes burned, or Hindus have been forcibly converted, because Pakistan has a large radicalised Islamist population. So that is something that you can push to the international media, and they do want to cover those aspects.

How is that coverage likely to change? Which other narratives do you think the international community should be aware of?

For example, the legal framework of how this country operates. Then again, I understand that international media want a very simple line. From a local perspective we want to cover civil matters, such as health concerns. Health is a big issue, but nobody covers health internationally or talks about health as a global concern.  We only started talking about polio when the polio team started getting attacked by the Taliban. It always comes back to whether it is related to the Taliban or not. 

Another issue, for example, is how the rural areas operate, and the feudal structure of society. Nobody is interested in that, although that is where much of the voting comes from. Seventy percent of Pakistan is rural and living under feudal systems, on a class system. Nobody wants to talk about the rural areas of Pakistan, unless they have some Taliban issue, then they will definitely cover it.  If there are water concerns, health concerns, the way they are being ruled, the way their human rights are being violated, few would be interested.

Have you seen many changes in attitude in Pakistani society since the revelations in the US about Snowden and the NSA?

The thing is that Pakistan is already a security state. They have now found out that the United States was doing what they was doing, with regards to what Snowden revealed, or what Wikileaks came out with, or that countries are resorting to online intrusion of privacy. Pakistan is already a country which is openly censoring the Internet, and nobody is stopping them. It's been almost one year that YouTube has been blocked in the country and we have not been able to convince the government to open it. The Pakistani government says that they are doing it for the the right reasons, because of of blasphemy or national interest or vulgarity, and that is something that resonates well with the Pakistani public. 

In the media you will see some articles, especially in the Urdu press, which do not make it to the international press and which actually say that the government should do all of these things. This country has been ruled by military dictators for more than half of its existence, and people write in favour of that. The majority of the Pakistani population actually agrees that these things should happen, and that the government should clamp down and have a strong hand,  because in the Islamic republic we need to control the narrative, and we need to control the people.

I think it comes down to how the government reacts.  We already know the government taps into peoples' phones; they tap journalists' phones, bug the houses of politicians,  and are already running that whole racket that we saw the US was running secretly. But here it is happening openly, and when they find out that Western countries are doing it secretly, they will probably come to people like us who disagree with them and say - “Hey, you've been talking about these Freedom of Expression rights and all that, but look what the US is doing. We've been right all along.”

Given what you know about the military collaboration between Pakistan and the US, is there a concern that there is also collaboration on a digital level? Particularly as so much of Pakistan relies so much on external digital services and infrastructure... Is that something people write about?

I haven't come across anything discussing what the NSA might be doing with our information, or that our databases have been penetrated. Recently there was an article in the Washington Post, in which they talked about how the black budgetof the US government is the highest for Pakistan, for doing surveillance. Secret services have been monitoring Pakistan's nuclear weapons etc. When that happened, there was a lot of hue and cry.

It came down to the fact that the military is being spied upon by the US. The local media raised another hue and cry, saying “the United States is our friend, and if it is a friend why are they spying on our military?”  These are privacy rights and internet rights that anybody should have, but people are not very aware of them and often censorship is accepted as a routine thing. The Washington Post article was the first time in Pakistan we saw the local media covering this issue, bringing on security analysts and defence analysts, and discussing the US-Pakistan relationship. Which is something that the right-wing conservative Islamists in this country love to bash.

What is your methodology for finding information in Pakistan? How much do you rely on personal sources? How much is from the public domain? How much is leaked?

Firstly, the majority of Pakistani reporters or journalists resort to self-censorship. They know there are taboo topics, and because of that they do not talk about military issues, the Taliban... unknown people are mentioned. Even though they might know who it is, they will not name them. There is also a lot of restriction of access. In the tribal belt, in the Kashmir area, in Balochistan, journalists regularly get killed, injured, picked up, abducted, kidnapped or threatened. So most people want to just stay in Islamabad or in main cities, and report from here. Even if they get to know something from the stringers, they might report on it but there is no naming, no pointing fingers at anyone, just broadly talking about this. There might be terrorists involved, but who the terrorists are nobody knows. There might be security forces involved. 

For example, for a long time in the tribal belt, most of the news channels and newspapers would say that 'security forces are operating', even though it is the Pakistan military operating.  Why don't they say 'Pakistani military'? Because the Pakistani military will then come and question you as to why you are referring to them using their name. 

As far as the methodology is concerned, when you go to the government offices, there is a

Right to Information Act

In a video sketch filmed for Exposing the Invisible, transparency activist Lydia Medland talks about how to access official information, and how to benefit even when that information is not easily accessible.


Right to Information Act. But the procedure is lengthy, one which nobody wants to go through because it will require a lot of paperwork and delays. You might wait three to four weeks and, as journalists, we have deadlines so we cannot wait three to four weeks. So we usually rely on whistle-blowers within organisations, or people who are disgruntled within organisations who want to talk about the organisation itself,  supplying us with information for their own interests. That is one way we get information out of governmental organisations. But usually when you go to a governmental organisation there is so much bureaucracy, so much red tape, that you do not go through the proper channels defined by the Right to Information Act. Usually you go through underhand dealings, meeting with sources who will never come out in front.

Is there a big difference between English and Urdu media in the country?

Yes. We have to understand the difference between the English and the Urdu media. Urdu media is not yet digitalised in the country.  Urdu is the native language of Pakistan but very few online digital Urdu platforms exist for people to express themselves or to read in Urdu. Most people here in Pakistan do not know English. When you read the digital media in English it is at least sort of open, and it does give you a window into Pakistan, which might suggest that these guys are actually talking about these issues. But that is just for the 5-10% of the English-speaking elites that are talking about these issues.  The rest of the country, more than 70-80% , does not communicate in English, does not read English, and does not read English media. 

Urdu media is very right-wing, very conservative, and very old-fashioned. They follow the government line, the military line, and they keep themselves within the frameworks defined by the state that they need to operate in. The Urdu media is controlled, because it is the rural Urdu-speaking people who would probably disrupt the government's actions, its aims or objectives. 

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