Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans frontières) protested today at Pakistan’s concerted efforts to stop foreign and local journalists freely covering the army’s offensive against armed Taliban and Al-Qaeda supporters in the Wana region of South Waziristan. At least four journalists have been arrested and a dozen more barred entering from the area.
The press freedom organisation said the government’s duty to ensure basic security for journalists must not be used as an excuse to prevent them independently reporting on this major operation in the fight against terrorism by arresting them, keeping them out of the area and seizing their equipment. It called on armed forces spokesman Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan to guarantee better media access to the region by giving journalists special passes.
The government has barred nearly all Pakistani and foreign journalists from the South Waziristan tribal area, where the combat zone has been tightly sealed off by the military, which did however put on a helicopter tour for foreign journalists on 20 March, though not to the area of the fighting itself.
Mujeebur Rehman, correspondent for the Urdu-language daily Khabrian and stringer for several foreign TV stations, was arrested on 16 March while filming military operations near Wana and held for several hours. His digital camera was confiscated and has not been returned to him.
Shaukat Khattak, a reporter with the privately-owned Pakistani TV station Geo TV, was arrested on 18 March in Dabkot while filming army activity. Despite having the right documents, he was detained for four hours, during which he said soldiers threatened and insulted him "as if I was a terrorist."
A reporter and a photographer for the Associated Press news agency were turned back by troops at a roadblock about an hour’s drive from Wana on 19 March. Half a dozen other journalists, including two Pakistani photographers, were not allowed into South Waziristan, which is more than 10 hours by road south of Peshawar, in northwestern Pakistan.
Haroon Rashid, correspondent of the British BBC World Service radio in Peshawar, and Saiful Islam, of the Urdu-language daily Surkhab and correspondent for the pan-Arab TV station Al-Jazeera, were arrested at Peshawar military hospital on 21 March. They were trying to interview soldiers wounded in the South Waziristan fighting. After waiting three hours, Pakistani intelligence officials interrogated them about why they were there. All their film was destroyed and their minidisc recorders confiscated.
More than a dozen journalists in Wana currently work as stringers for Pakistani and foreign media but their employers say they are not allowed to work freely. They cannot enter the combat zone and have to be very careful what they report, said one Islamabad-based foreign journalist, who said they were under pressure and sometimes reacted according to their tribal origin.
Reporters Without Borders has deplored working conditions for journalists in the tribal areas for several years. In its 2002 Annual Report, it said their "safety and freedom are limited" and that "local authorities and traditional leaders threaten correspondents who denounce their abuses, often committed in the name of Frontier crimes regulation."
Journalists in Peshawar have had no response to their request to officials of the tribal areas for the media to be issued with special passes.