Sadaf, the story of FATA

Sadaf Baig is a Research Fellow with the Centre for International Media Ethics (CIME) and a Chevening Scholar at the London School of Economics.

She talks here about the FCR (Frontier Crime Regulations) in the tribal regions of Pakistan, the unaccountability they produce and why, in her opinion, they have been allowed to stay in place for so many years. She also explains the role they may play in drone warfare in the country.

What was your background before you started this work?

I've been working as a broadcast journalist for the last eight to ten years. I started my journalistic career back in 2002 with a newspaper in Karachi. I worked with Geo News and Dunya News, primarily as a producer. I only moved to Islamabad a few years back and I have been one of the key people running the whole packaging system at Geo and at the Dunya Islamabad Bureau.

What are the conditions like for journalists working in FATA, and what is the work that you do on that issue?

The number of journalist casualties in Pakistan is very high and FATA is one of the key areas where these casualties have been happening. We started with a short monthly report on what is happening with journalists, on the state of the media. Less than 250 journalists were registered in total in the Tribal Union of Journalists. So the report essentially came about as a monthly set of bulletins on different aspects of the media in FATA. Not only on the dangers but about social media consumption, financial security, views on the development of journalism... But after ten months we felt that we had a good solid set of 250 journalists, and we were surveying and getting primary data from more than 12 percent of them, which is a very healthy research sample. We decided to compile everything and add a few additional resources comparing the state of the media in different Agencies across FATA. 

How would you explain FATA and the FCR to someone who hadn't encountered them before?

FATA stands for Federally Administered Tribal Areas. But the impression I have got, especially from Western journalists coming to Pakistan for the first time, is that they presume it's some kind of medieval tribal society. It gives them images of wild warriors who cannot be tamed and so need governing under a separate law... but it's nothing like that. It is the part of Pakistan's population which has been governed under the FCR (Frontier Crime Regulations) since 1901. Actually, the history dates back even further - in around 1849 when colonisation was still taking shape in the Indian subcontinent, the British introduced a separate law in FATA, which lies on the north-western border of Pakistan. These people were warriors and were the people resisting the British the most, so to make them more manageable administratively, they introduced a separate set of laws which gave them a semi-autonomous status. fatamap.png

In the 1870s they started experimenting with a series of laws and in 1901, the first Frontier Crime Regulations were introduced. That law has prevailed since 1901 until now, and has remained almost intact. What the FCR does is it gives judicial power to the administrative setup in FATA. That means that whatever criminal activities are going on there are governed by their own laws, their own people, and their own administrative structure. So it cuts the region off from the country's own legal systems and allows a certain level of impunity, because the region is not governed directly under the Constitution and by legislation decided in Parliament. 

The Frontier Crime Regulations continued for a very long time. 2011 was the first time we started to see some amendments being introduced. In 2002 a FATA Secretariat was set up, which was the beginning of what you could call political reforms. But the reforms have so far been very ineffective, in that they are not radical. 

So you can see that successive governments try to tread into the region, very cautiously making steps, but the FCR is still there and thus the whole judicial system lies with the administrative power.

How does the administrative system work in FATA?

It is governed directly under the President of Pakistan.  The Constitution of Pakistan defines Pakistan as the four provinces of Punjab, Balochistan, KP, and Sindh, plus the Federal Capital of Islamabad and the Frontier Region. So FATA it is not classified as a province or something that comes into the Federal region. Parliament is there and is supposed to be supreme, but the FATA region comes directly under the Presidency and it is governed federally through a proxy, which is the governor of the KP province.  There is a FATA Secretariat, which manages the administrative system, but the Parliament is not free to legislate anything for FATA.

How is it possible that the FCR has existed for over 100 years with no change?

Okay, that's a very complex question, since we don't really know what strategic decisions allowed it to exist. But on the surface of it, it looks like a strategic decision. When you look at the geographic location it lies right on the border with Afghanistan, a very porous border with a country with a long, unstable, volatile history. 

To have control over that porous border we have to deal with all the insurgency coming across from Afghanistan as well as a people who for centuries have been allowed to govern themselves through tribal traditions, plus the culture. That makes the area very difficult to rule. So it was just allowed to persist. It was a sort of backwater as well, which allowed some things to go on within Pakistan that would not be possible outside FATA.  For example, even now with the drone attacks, they have happened there because there is no Parliament, there is no legislature... who would be held accountable for what's happening there?

Internally that happens as well. Heavily illegal things can go on. Things that people could be held accountable for in the rest of the country, were possible in FATA. Perhaps it's the long history of military dictatorship in Pakistan, perhaps the lack of political will, perhaps it's even just the enormity of the change that is required. Everybody is averse to change and this would be a huge change even for the people of FATA, who have learned a certain way of life over generations.  There are used to the Jirga system. They are used to knowing the administrators who actually run the place for them. To bring them closer to a democratic setup is very difficult, a tough call.

In addition, when you see the rest of the Pakistan - our political history, the turmoil - hasn't left much space to allow political parties and the powers to even think about this kind of undertaking.  In 1947 there was the partition, then there was a war with India, then 1971 happened and the country broke, then there was the extended period of military dictatorship...  it has been very difficult.  We haven't really had a lengthy period of democratic government that would allow the time and space to actually intervene, and do something that would potentially be one of the biggest undertakings made since partition.

What were the biggest findings of your report?

Frankly I was surprised. I knew that there were financial restraints for journalists, I knew that there was financial insecurity. But to find out the journalists were being paid per-commission on bringing in ads, that was something I had never anticipated. I did not know that the financial insecurity extended to more than 70 percent of the journalists.

I link the whole question of freedom of expression to the financial stability of a journalist. If a journalist is getting money by bringing in ads for the paper, that right there kills the authenticity of anything he files. I was expecting to see financial insecurity, I was expecting that the journalists weren't being paid regularly, much or in line with market rates. But I had never thought that they would be asked to pay the rent for their own office, I never thought they would be asked to travel on their own without any kind of security or insurance, and obviously being encouraged to indulge in unethical practices like getting ads for the paper.

The other thing that really surprised me was the level of awareness about .  I know that the infrastructure systems are not so good, but we did a whole study on social media usage and it was surprisingly high - they were aware of Twitter, they were aware of Facebook. Perhaps they were not using them as much for dissemination, but it emerged as one of the key tools for getting information to journalists.

On the security side, we did some research comparing the threats that journalists in KP province faced versus the threats that journalists in FATA faced. In terms of the agents of threats, it was enlightening because I saw journalists saying that they were being threatened equally by the political administration, the militants, the military, security agencies, plus even the government officials (not those holding positions of power, but civil servants like people working in the telecoms agency PTCL). The threats did not end at physical threats against what journalists wrote, but bordered on blackmail. Let's say a journalist was reporting on a disruption of services, or bribery, in one of the institutions, they were being very openly threatened and even attacked. I had not anticipated finding so many layers of threats; I thought it will be pretty simple. I know it's difficult to report, but I did not know that so many other factors were involved in curbing non-conflict related news from FATA.

What influence did the drones have on this environment?

I'll tell you a story. We were doing this workshop on security for journalists, and we were basically trying to design modules for different provinces in Pakistan. We had a few journalists from FATA, a few from KP, a few from Sindh, Balochistan.... and what we wanted to do was to make customised modules catering to the threats that journalists faced. Obviously the FATA journalists were the only ones who said that if they go out to report, whether it is a press conference or a gathering or a Jirga, there might be a drone attack. I am sure that nowhere else in the world it is possible for a journalist to be a victim of a drone attack. That is a very real threat.

Then comes the type of threat which begins when you actually start reporting something. I think in 2005 or 2006, Hayatullah was one of the first journalists who actually photographed a US drone attack.  Before that the government narrative was that there are no drones coming in, there is no US intervention going on, but incidentally there was a journalist who photographs some rubble saying “Made in the US”, concrete proof. He was killed, but not just him... his wife went on air and gave an interview which angered a few people, and then she was killed as well.  To date he remains the only journalist whose family was also targeted.

So you are threatened if you go out in the field and report, because you might be a victim. You are threatened when reporting on the figures because you might get into the bad books of some people who are very dangerous, who have a very real capacity to target you. And then how do you even go there and report?  There are 250 journalists who are members of the Tribal Union of Journalists but not even half of them are actually living in FATA anymore. They've all moved to Peshawar because of very serious threats.

So they are sitting in Peshawar, and what is the source of information?  It's obviously second hand sources. If there is a drone attack, do you think it is possible for even the local men to go there and confirm how many casualties there were?  We have no record of who is living in the region, which technically doesn't come under the KP government. There hasn't been a census in ages. The administrative structure is weakened, there is no real infrastructure and the administrative structure has the whole security situation to tackle.  We have an estimate of over five million but we don't know who those people are, or where their birth certificates and death certificates are. 

Even the information coming in about drone causalities is mostly hearsay or it's ISPR -mandated information. There is somebody else who is giving the journalist the information, and the journalist doesn't even have a primary source. He's not in the field reporting. He cannot ever say with complete authenticity that this is the number of people killed, this is the militant who was targeted, this many civilians perished.  So whatever we are seeing reported in the media, either in Pakistan or US or the UK or wherever, it is second-hand information. When that  second-hand information comes in and you do not have a second source to fall back upon, you always doubt the information to some extent. You cannot ever say that it is 100 percent precise, 100 percent proof.  That is one of the key factors which makes the drone reporting very shoddy.

What makes FATA so complicated?

Oh, you have to see FATA. It's like a theatre. There is not just one war being fought there, there are multiple wars being fought there. There is the al-Qaeda presence, there is the fact of Afghanistan, from where NATO is due to pull out very soon. There is the fact that for years we have had this insurgency. There is the fact that due to the discriminatory laws and the constantly worsening economic situation, we have had frustrations from inside the regions, which are breeding terrorists.  Then, there is the that people live with.

So the drone issue comes with all these different dynamics. From the Pakistani government's perspective, from the authorities' perspective... If I was controlling the information and I was a member of a Pakistani authority, I would want the figures low because that makes me accountable for a lower number of deaths.  If I was on the other side, I would what the numbers high because it gives me the legitimacy to counter it and to stage more terror attacks. In think in that battle we lose any chance of getting reliable figures.

How does the environment in FATA make these drone strikes possible?

You have to look at the legislative structure and the administrative structure.  If anything like drone attacks, r even the threat of attacks, existed for the capital or for the provinces, the governments would be accountable to the people who elected them. Imagine a drone attack happens in KP, would the party in power ever have the chance of being elected again? They wouldn't have the chance.

We have eleven representatives from FATA in the National Assembly and the Senate, but since they do not have the power to legislate for their own area, the people cannot hold them accountable. In the end, the people who are getting elected into the Assembly have nothing to lose, and the people do not have the power to influence political decisions.

There is the FATA Secretariat, but we all know it's a puppet. What powers does it have?  Does it have money? Does it have a separate budget?  No. So what are they going to do? They are not elected, they are appointed by the governor or something, so people do not directly have any influence over the people who are going to rule them. That gives everybody a lot of leeway to do whatever they want because, in the end,  what can you do? Maybe if I'm from Fata I'll hold a protest, or a rally. But in the end I myself will not have the power to effect the political outcome of the administrative structure. Whatever I do it's not really going to harm anybody in the long run. That's why I think this whole thing is possible.

Is there dissatisfaction among citizen journalists in Islamabad or other places, with the level of reporting coming out of FATA?

It is our problem, but Pakistan has been one of the most dangerous places for journalists for the last three years.  Since 2000 we have had 91 casualties. Journalists are targeted and not all of them were reporting on conflict, most were reporting on political matters. Even if a journalist is present in FATA, reporting on drones is difficult. If a journalist is sitting in Islamabad, it's even more difficult for him. Not just difficult, but dangerous. You are a target of so many different powers, so how do you even start to report it? 

Like the rest of the world, even Pakistanis are guilty of seeing FATA as the 'other'. In Urdu, we call it 'ilaka ghair', which means 'the place of the other'. And if you see them as the 'other', you cannot empathise with them. The problem is not limited to foreign journalists, the problem also extends to Pakistani journalists.  Even if I'm interested, what authentic information can I gather sitting in Islamabad? Not much. Am I willing to go to KP and put myself in further danger?  Not many have been willing to.

It is also about how media operates in Pakistan. The electronic media has grown tremendously over the last ten years or so. It has gone on under the PEMRA (Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority) law in 2002. But the law does not extend to FATA. It's a place of conflict, a place which needs information and breathes information. There is no legal way to survive, so what has happened is the mushrooming of illegal FM radio stations. However, even though we technically call them illegal, what law is stopping them from opening if the PEMRA law does not extend there? Not only is there a lack of information that is being generated from FATA illegally, there is all the misinformation. Since PEMRA cannot operate there, it cannot legally shut down those operations, so they have to be tackled by the security forces as well. 

According to estimates (we haven't had a proper census in ages) made in 2008, there are 5.3 million people living in FATA right now.  To cater to them, there are three radio stations run by the FATA Secretariat, airing only what the state mandates it to air.  So there is this huge information blackout.  How do journalists gather information? They make connections. But this is a society which has been systematically isolated from the rest of the country.  Now it's a hub of terrorism, a hub of crime. There has been a lack of interest, but it's also a lack of ways to safely report on issues pertaining to drones.

How did 9/11 change FATA? And how did it change journalism in FATA?

9/11 didn't just change FATA. In my opinion it changed the whole world, in terms of military engagement and what is legitimate and what is not. We saw all these invasions happening in Iraq, then Afghanistan, and then the drones... many people felt, to an extent, that this was not only a physical invasion. There were so many physical invasions going on. In Afghanistan there were actually boots on the ground, at least we didn't have that here.

Plus the whole narrative - we didn't initially even know that there were American drones coming in.  So 9/11 in my opinion created a kind of legitimacy for these kind of operations, which before 9/11 would have been impossible to pull off, even for the US. We saw the UN take a back foot. We knew that American agencies were involved in extra-judicial detentions. We knew Guantanamo happened, perhaps not in the start, but we knew it was happening. We knew that there were all these people being picked up on the basis of sheer doubt and no proof.  I think not just in Pakistan, not just in FATA, but all over the world there was this state of doubt. There was this state of fear, in which a lot of very dangerous trends started. I don't think you would have seen the kind of discussion of Syria that's happening now if it was pre-9/11, because you wouldn't have the precedent of an overt US military presence without the full backing of the UN Security Council. I think it created a lot of dangerous precedence around the world. 

What happened in FATA, given these special structure of administration it has (the Jirgas, the weak administrative structure, a constantly weakening economic structure, and the number of people who nobody actually cares about),  has allowed the whole region to become a safe haven for people who were trying to exploit it.  They were allowed to do so because of all the systematic laws there.  I'm not saying it was a deliberate thing. It is something that came out of the turmoil that was happening around us. 

How it affected the journalism in FATA is something else altogether. Before 9/11, before this whole so-called war on terror began, it was not unusual what was happening in the area. Yes, politically, it might have been an interesting case study, but who was interested in that?  Suddenly this area which nobody was initially interested in, except as an exotic case study, became the hub of a global conflict. So the information needs, the information interest, the news interest and the news value rocketed, and there was this vacuum to fill. There was no media presence already there.  So how do you fill the vacuum?  Indigenous journalists were suddenly born out of the sheer information need.

Reporting from a conflict area is one of the most dangerous, most complicated kinds of reporting, and that's why I think we have seen a continuous influx of misinformation. I don't blame the journalists for that, definitely not. They didn't know any better; perhaps they were doing the best they could. It's just how media and the number of journalists mushroomed there. They were not trained in conflict - they were not even trained in basic journalism, let alone conflict journalism. How would you expect a group of journalists who have grown out of the conflict, who obviously have very deep rooted interests and emotional bonds to that area, to report on that conflict with neutrality? And to present an analysis which would allow the world to see it with more clarity? 

What has been the impact of the coming together of very high-end technology with the very low ability of reporters themselves?

I think technology has made it easier for foreign journalists to report on the drones. There is an information black hole here, and due to all these threats and the environment of insecurity, Pakistani journalists are unable to report on what happens, and access the databases. I think foreign journalists are in a much better position to get the data that has to be gotten. 

If a US drone is coming into Pakistan and choosing a target, there have to be deliberations on who the target is. There has to be a record of who gives the order.  There has to be a record on that militant, right? There has to be some kind of data somewhere and if it's not here, it's with the US. For American journalists I think it would be easier than a Pakistani journalist sitting here, without putting himself in too much danger. At least for them it's easier to try and get access to that kind of information. In Afghanistan too, we have this whole influx of journalists who work in Afghanistan with very good connections by now. We have seen books coming out literally every month.  So I think the technology, and the fact that so many nations are involved in this drone fiasco, has its disadvantages but also gives us the small possibility that someone, somewhere can request or get that information through a source.