A Victim of Breaking News?
By Syed Irfan Ashraf
Wednesday, 04 Mar, 2009 | 07:36 AM PST
THE year was 2003 and four of us from the University of Peshawar had just finished a two-day training workshop on conflict journalism at the Swat press club. Suddenly, I heard someone calling me.
Looking around, I saw a sturdy man in his early twenties. It turned out to be an aggressive cub reporter seeking my help in obtaining a decent job in mainstream media. He said he was sick of working without pay for the local dailies.
That is how I met Musa Khankhel, who died last month — the fourth journalist to be killed in the Swat valley in the past one year. His death calls for reflection on the dangers that media people face in what can only be called the valley of death.
I met Musa again in early 2007 when I started reporting from Swat for the newly launched TV channel DawnNews. By now Musa was a well-connected reporter working for Geo TV. He was always eager to do something different, even in the face of danger. In mid-2007, flash floods wiped out a small village in Lower Dir killing scores of people. To be first with the news, I left Swat before dawn to reach the largely inaccessible mountainous area in Lower Dir. To my utter surprise, I was told by rescue workers that a reporter from Geo had already covered the catastrophe.
Disgusted and tired, I came back to Swat after a seven-hour journey and sent a report for the night bulletin. The next day, I found a disappointed and exhausted Musa waiting downstairs in my hotel with tears welling in his eyes. “Your story got me into trouble,” he said, “I was sent again to get visuals of the six-year-old girl under the rubble.” He was referring to the rescue operation in which a young girl was found alive under tons of rubble after 17 hours, an event that he had missed. Musa showed me his bruised limbs. He had to run for three miles in the dark to reach the spot in that unfriendly hilly area. Following this incident, we both agreed to share visuals in times of acute need.
We both shared the first scoop of my life. In October 2007, Salanda emerged as the first battleground for the Swat operation. While both the security forces and the Taliban were giving exaggerated statements about the number of dead and wounded, the terrified civilians were telling us that the orchards and fields were strewn with dead bodies that had been lying about for three days. Reporting was too risky as the rivals were entrenched in the mountains.
But I thought a scoop was worth dying for. After convincing my news director and the Taliban spokesman Sirajuddin, I moved into the area accompanied by two Taliban. However, I was stunned to find Musa running in the nearby fields to join us in the (mis)adventure. The story was no more an exclusive, but it was equally hard for me to go back. While moving ahead on the irregular route for about two hours, Musa amazed me with the risk he took in cracking jokes at the expense of the heavily armed though seemingly exhausted Taliban, who were crossing us in groups on the way to their camps after completing night shifts in the nearby mountains.
When I (politely) tried to adopt a light tone, asking the accompanying Taliban,
“Why are you being so economical with chitchat? Is it prohibited in the Sharia?”, Musa interrupted, “Look, we belong to the same area so don’t pretend to be different from us.” All this was quite upsetting and I told Musa to be cautious as the situation was not normal.
But he was too bold for my advice. When two gunship helicopters moved into the Salanda area, I started running back with shaky legs. But Musa was cool and shouted at me to stay calm. How could I do so under the circumstances? Gunships were hovering overhead; the warring sides were entrenched in the nearby mountains; the dead were lying a few yards away in the fields; and scores of militants were hiding, their fingers ready to pull the trigger or fire rocket launchers.
Two years on, I still remember Salanda as a major blunder. Whenever I met Musa after that, he would laugh at me, as if saying, “And you cowered”. This was my last joint venture with Musa as I started avoiding him. However, Musa was very tolerant and cordial calling me off and on from Swat. Reckless at times, Musa always wore a smile on his face. There was tons of warmth inside him — enough to melt anyone coming his way.
It always hurt whenever I heard about Musa’s receiving threats. However, despite the fact that his actions meant signing his own death warrant every single day, Musa preferred to stay in the valley of death. It is criminal that, obsessed with the idea of breaking news, most TV channels with correspondents in the conflict zones don’t take threats to their reporters’ lives very seriously.
On Feb 18, scores of outstation journalists thronged to the Continental Hotel in Swat to cover the Tehrik Nizam-i-Shariat Muhammadi peace rally. As a local journalist, Musa remained busy throughout the day with his guests. At about two in the afternoon, we left for Matta tehsil for TNSM chief Sufi Mohammad’s address. Some of the local journalists preferred to stay in Mingora to cover another event.
Moving on, I saw Musa standing alone near the roadside in Matta tehsil while the peace rally went ahead towards Khwazakheila for another brief stopover. Was he looking for breaking news, possibly something about the location of peace negotiations involving Maulana Fazlullah’s Taliban and scheduled to begin somewhere in the dangerous terrain of Gutpeuchar, the epicentre of militancy? That was the last I saw him alive. We later got the tragic news that the bullet-riddled body of Musa Khankhel had been recovered from a roadside. It has not been confirmed who killed him.
In an area where the government enjoys no writ and where militants are comprised of diverse interest groups, it is up to journalists themselves, as the main stakeholders in their own welfare, to take all precautionary measures to minimise risks to their lives. This observation takes on new urgency in light of the indifference of many media bosses. This is the lesson we draw from reporting in Pakistan’s dangerous conflict zones. Goodbye Musa Khan. May your soul rest in peace.