When thousands of people gathered in a former Taliban stronghold in Pakistan’s South Waziristan region to denounce the actions of militants in Afghanistan, the mass rally drew little attention among Pakistani news networks.
Journalists and rights groups say the lack of coverage of last month’s rally was the result of a long government campaign to deprive the organizing group of attention, and a sign of government pressure on them. Pakistani media.
The group behind the rally – a large-scale civil rights movement known as the Pashtun Tahafuz (Protection) Movement (PTM) – is popular among Pashtun youth in northwestern Pakistan, where, during for years, people have borne the brunt of the Taliban’s battle against the Pakistanis. military.
The group’s leaders are very critical of the Taliban as well as the military rulers, saying their communities have suffered from state-sponsored terrorism due to Islamabad’s long-standing ties to the Taliban.
The Pakistani military rejects such allegations and reports that thousands of its soldiers have died fighting the militants over the past decade.
Several senior Pakistani officials accused the PTM of being a foreign-funded political movement with links to Afghan and Indian intelligence services. And a PTM leader is currently in jail for conspiracy. But the group, which calls itself a non-violent movement, denies accusations that it receives foreign funding.
Popular opposition to the Taliban
PTM leader Manzoor Pashteen said the Pashtuns would not support war on their land, apparently referring to the Pashtun regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan that straddle their common border.
âWar cannot solve the Afghan problem. Only a democratic approach and respect for the people’s vote can solve the Afghan problem, âManzoor Pashteen said at a rally last month near the Afghan border in Makeen, a large city in South Waziristan.
But outside of social media and a few local journalists posting content on YouTube, no mention of PTM’s pro-peace narrative has been made in the larger Pakistani media.
The coverage gap has been noticed by some politicians and activists on social media. Farhatullah Babar, retired senator and former spokesman for the Pakistani president, wrote: âThose who say there is no censorship and the media in Pakistan are freer than in the UK should watch videos from PTM Jalsa in Makeen South Waziristan today. Then look for a line about it in the mainstream media.
A former head of Pakistan’s Human Rights Commission, Afrasiab Khattak, also expressed his frustration, tweeting: âA demonstration of solidarity with the people / peace / the Republic of Afghanistan. No media coverage in Pak.
Despite the major media blackout, the PTM group is spreading its message through social media and YouTube, making it a powerful political force that now opposes Taliban violence more directly in Afghanistan.
The Pakistani government has not announced any official censorship policy for PTM, but Freedom House and other media watchers reported that many media outlets stopped covering the group in April 2019, when a spokesman for the Pakistani army announced that PTM’s grievances would no longer be tolerated and accused the group of receiving funds from Afghan and Indian intelligence agencies.
In its 2021 report, Freedom House criticized Pakistan, saying that “the state continued to impose a media blackout on the PTM and its members during the year.”
Two Pakistani journalists who spoke to VOA said journalists try to cover PTM events and gatherings in their area, but that comes with risks.
Allah Khan, a journalist in Wanna, South Waziristan, broadcasts PTM events, political protests and human interest stories on his YouTube and Facebook accounts Zhagh News (Voice News).
âWe journalists send stories about PTM to the mainstream media, but they don’t publish them,â he told VOA. “I was arrested and put in jail for 12 days for broadcasting the PTM protest before this last Ramadan [April 2021]. “
Matiullah Jan, an Islamabad-based journalist and Vlogger, told VOA: âYou can see here that the Taliban and their spokespersons are being interviewed here in the media, but when you talk about PTM, even the social media platforms are under pressure (to cover it). “
Jan said that in areas like Waziristan, people can broadcast events but they “face threats and pressure from local authorities and the police.”
He added: âThis explains the contradiction in state policy – people who want peace here and in Afghanistan, they are not covered by the media. “
Shahzada Zulfiqar, head of the Federal Union of Journalists of Pakistan, told VOA Deewa that Pakistani media face many restrictions.
âThe media have surrendered (to the pressures). PEMRA, a government media regulator, is being used as a tool to lock people’s mouths, âhe said, adding that the country had a low ranking on press freedom watch lists.
Pakistan ranks 145 out of 180 countries, where 1 is the freest, on the press freedom index compiled by the media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
In its 2021 report, RSF says the Pakistani media has become a priority target for the country’s âdeep stateâ, a reference to the military and inter-service intelligence (ISI).
Northern and southern Waziristan border the Afghan provinces of Khost and Paktika, which after the September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States became a hub of international terrorism. After 20 years of war and drone strikes, international fighters are still operating in the mountainous region.
Reporting in the region remains a huge challenge. Journalists who are not residents of Waziristan are officially not allowed to enter Waziristan unless they are integrated with Pakistani security agencies. To reach the main town of Makeen in South Waziristan from Dabara, a town about 70 kilometers away, residents must pass through a dozen army checkpoints.
The location of last month’s gathering was once a no-go area for residents themselves. The Taliban and their allies had converted schools and cement block buildings into bases for their operations.
After a long campaign by the Pakistani army, the region is now under its control. But the PTM accused him of gross human rights violations – allegations the military rejects.
Adnan Khan and Pir Z Shah, reporters from VOA’s Deewa Pashto language service, also contributed to this report.