The Pakistani army has killed at least 71 civilians in an air strike in the Khyber Agency. As news gets around, people are slowly beginning to express their shock about this incident. But no one should be surprised, as I am sure 71 is just a tiny fraction of the total number of civilians who have been killed in Pakistan’s various wars against its people in Swat, Waziristan, Orakzai, Balochistan and other places.
The media rarely reports on the civilian deaths due to a combination of self-censorship, difficulties in accessing the conflict, and pressure from the military. The cover up of what is going on is systematic. The only reason why we are hearing about these 71 civilians is because an official confirmed it (anonymously).
When I was reporting on the war in Swat and the IDP crisis in May last year, we came across countless civilians whose family members or friends had been killed in the conflict. About two days after the army claimed it had “cleared” Buner of the Taliban, our team drove there to report on the situation. Along the way, we saw houses, shops and vehicles that had been bombed.
As we drove by the carcass of one burned out truck there was a revolting stench hanging in the air. We stopped at the petrol station a little further down to ask about it. The station owner and a few grey-bearded men gathered there insisted that the truck had been carrying several women and children who were fleeing the fighting when it was struck by a rocket.
We drove further into Buner and stopped at the Dagar Hospital to look around. Here we met several injured people and families from Swat who all told a similar story: they were trying to flee the fighting on foot, but they were unaware of a curfew that had been imposed by the military. The army fired at them. Those who survived had to walk with their injuries through the moutainous terrain to the hospital to receive treatment.
We interviewed some of these people on camera, and when I went back to the office I filed a report that tried to show both sides of the picture: On the one hand there were people who welcomed the army and the offensive against the Taliban, and on the other hand there were those who were angered about their family members being needlessly killed by the army while trying to flee the violence.
I made the package and sent it to our head office. The next morning, they were running my report in the news bulletin – but the editors at the head office had censored out any mention of civilian casualties caused by the army. I was angered and called the head office to find out how they could remove such an important aspect of the story. The producer apologized: “Sorry, the management has told us that we can only run pro-Army stories. These are orders from the top”.
I was ashamed, and protested – but not enough.
Stories like this were everywhere. At the start of the Swat military operation, the house of our reporter in Mingora came under fire, apparently from the military. It killed his sister. He was obviously incensed, but when he reported on television he still had to toe the official pro-Army editorial policy. He couldn’t risk his job, now more than ever, because he had to support his family who had just relocated from Mingora to Peshawar.
Another colleague based in Peshawar managed to get in to Mingora at a time when it was still off limits to journalists. He described horrific scenes of truckloads of dead bodies, and people carrying their loved ones away on thelas.
But these stories weren’t getting out because the management was censoring them. The ISPR on the other hand was very active in issuing press releases everyday, detailing the number of militants who had been killed and the military personnel who had been “martyred” (but never any mention of civilians). The military had restricted journalists’ access to the conflict zone (other than the occasional ISPR-chaperoned visit) so there was no way for journalists to independently verify any of the claims. So unfortunately, they just repeated the ISPR claims on television as if they were the truth.
That was my experience of reporting on the war in Swat last year, but I suspect reporters face more or less the same difficulties in covering the more recent wars in Waziristan, Orakzai and elsewere. It may seem like there is a great deal of news coming from the war zone each day, but in reality it is a great big sanitized black hole in the distance, and we may never know about the civilian casualties.
I wonder sometimes how things would change if the drone attacks and the air strikes in the northwest were covered live by the media with all of the same visuals of blood and gore and people screaming and crying that we see on our TV screen whenever there is a terrorist attack in Lahore or Islamabad.