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Commentary: Pakistan Government Missing Its Own Message?

Tayyeb Afridi is a journalist from the Federally Administered Tribal Area of Pakistan, a region that borders Afghanistan.
Tayyeb Afridi is a journalist from the Federally Administered Tribal Area of Pakistan, a region that borders Afghanistan.

Tayyeb Afridi is a Pakistani journalist from the Federally Administered Tribal Area of Pakistan. He visited KUT on a US Pakistan Journalism Exchange through the International Center for Journalists.

It was May 7, 2006 that, as a team, we started transmission of Radio Khyber. It was located within Khyber Agency, one among seven districts of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in the Northwestern part of the country. I started transmitting with a passion to empower local people and give them voices. Voices which had been kept silent since 1901, the day the colonial empire of India promulgated the Frontier Crime Regulation (FCR) in FATA. The FCR was designed by British, who used the region’s own tribal traditions and social psyche to rule ruthlessly over the territory. All of the sections of this law, which to this day are still intact in tribal areas, are authoritarian. One among them was a ban on freedom of expression.

It was ironic for me that even though the ban has never been repealed, the Pakistani government decided to establish four radio stations in FATA.  And we journalists were hired -- after years reporting for newspapers.

As the days passed I came to know that the Khyber radio was established to give voice to the government’s activities and developments – not to its people. There was no element of local empowerment. The government was more interested in using the airwaves to fight back against three Mullah Radios, which were at that time broadcasting in the Khyber Agency.

Although we tried to explain that without the buy-in of the local community, there wouldn’t be an audience for Radio Khyber, far less change a whole region’s mind. We argued that what was needed was a way to ensure the station’s credibility for the public – and that was not possible without news and opinion programming. The government was leery - news and views could bring about unrest - disturb law and order - and no local radio stations had been allowed to broadcast local news.

Once, a political agent of the Khyber Agency in FATA Secretariat (FATA Secretariat is a body which runs the affairs of tribal areas and appoint political agents to each district of FATA) criticized radio and questioned the outcome of this radio and proposed to shut it down. If a top executive of the tribal district, who has the power of policing and prosecution was not supporting legitimate airwaves and at the same time couldn’t stop illegal firebrand mullah radios, what one could expect other than that to shut it down.  

When the person responsible for the radio station tells you there’s no room for local news, how are you supposed to meet your mission of promoting a positive government image? It’s not enough to play music.  Also, the hate radio stations banned music, labeling music as Saytan (Devil) work.  So if music, in their opinion, is Saytan work and those radio stations still have a large audience, then it doesn’t make sense to fight back by playing music. This is a very basic issue that needs to be addressed.  

When those mullah radio stations reported for their followers that the government wanted to modernize tribal women and men on the tip fingers of west by playing music?  What happened, they started campaign against gov’t radio.  For example, the chief of Lashkar-e-Islam Mangal Bagh twice warned people not to call for radio station because they are promoting vulgarity.  But when we started local bulletins—brief news updates -- with the approval of high ranking officer, it went well enough that we had covered the whole military operation in Swat. And the hate radios didn’t have to offer news bulletin and opinion programing to community and therefore, the public turned on to the government station because it was giving fresh news bulletin and news programing.  No one threatened us because we were seen as non-biased reporters. Impartiality is the only security guarantee for a journalist in Pakistan. But news bulletins were closed down in March 2010, for security reasons.

The people in FATA are very used to radio broadcasting and they prefer Pashto news bulletins from VOA Pashtu Service, BBC Pashtu, Radio Azadi Afghanistan Pashtu Service, and Radio Mashaal Pashtu. The literate people of FATA also listens BBC Urdu Service, VOA Urdu Service, Voice of Germany Urdu Service, Radio Veritas Asia Urdu Service, Radio China Urdu Service, Radio Tehran Urdu Service and Delhi Radio Pashtu Service.

How could Radio Pakistan compete with that much news broadcasting? If you have a news service that only provides information about the government -- what the President said, what the Prime Minister said and what the Information Minister said – then you are just ignoring community problems.  You can’t compete in the tribal areas when there’s so much other, reputable, news broadcasting. The government has lost an important potential audience to Radio Deewa and Radio Mashaal. Those are funded by the US State Department.  When I asked Shandi Gul, an office boy who works at Radio Razmak, North Waziristan why he listened Radio Mashaal, his reply was simple: he just wanted to know what was going on in his surroundings. This proves that days of centralized information dissemination has been gone and people are now more concerned about local news.

The total estimated area of FATA is 27,220 km2 (10,509 sq mi). It has been almost covered by foreign radio broadcasters providing news and other programming in the Pashtu and Urdu languages. The expert staffs are drawn from Pakhtun areas, which were earlier neglected in mainstream media of Pakistan, has been putting their head into tribal affairs and also they enjoy respect in their respective communities.

The government is fighting a losing battle for the minds of the people in FATA with those four radio stations. One, in Wana, South Waziristan, was closed down in 2009. None of them will ever be successful until and unless local media is allowed to hold accountable the local administration, education, health, agriculture, sericulture, and forestry, public works departments and development projects.

Just talking about patriotism isn’t enough. That doesn’t solve the common man’s problems and if people’s wishes and hopes are not respected now in FATA than they were in the past, then those people will choose to change the dial – and listen to a radio broadcast that does. 

Tayyeb Afridi is a journalist from the Federally Administered Tribal Area of Pakistan, a region that borders Afghanistan. He visited KUT in May 2011 on a US Pakistan Journalism Exchange through the International Center for Journalists.