The thinking behind some post-conflict reporting at SAMAA Digital
“Uss ne straight fire kia.” She fired one straight at me. This is what a reporter from Dera Ismail Khan told me years ago. He was talking about how another journalist had asked him out on a date while he was on a foreign trip. She was American. I believe he was forced to use his weapon.
What stayed with me over the years, was his choice of language. I could not get over the militarisation of his romantic diction. He was a young man who had been reporting when the Taliban had been active in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and ‘Fata’. Conflict does strange things to people and places. How can I forget that sick, sick spoof newsroom headline one of my sub-editors came up with in Karachi (which we never used): ‘Tori bund laash’ when people died after flood waters broke the Tori bund or embankment in Sindh. The phrase, bori-band laash, had been introduced into our lexicon in the 1990s when Karachi’s urban conflict brought bodies in gunny sacks. I used to rag reporters: bring your bori if you don’t file on time…
A lot of excellent reflective academic work and journalism has been done on conflict zones and the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and Pakistan Peace Collective international conference on media and conflict next week promises to add to the discussions we should be having in Pakistan. (It is being held at Bahria University). Two of its agendas interest me: peace journalism and conflict reporting. One of its speakers is Dr Johan Galtung who invented peace journalism and studies and has worked on mediating conflicts worldwide. I am looking forward to hearing what he has to say and even more interested in seeing if we can apply it to Pakistan.
The media in Pakistan would be stupid not to ask itself how it should cover conflict and post-conflict scenarios in the years to come. An entire generation has grown up knowing only conflict and unless we figure out how to do good journalism, we will fail them. The new youth of Pakistan is digital savvy and a hard taskmaster. It will not spare the media if we don’t get this right.
My terrifying exposure to young news audiences in Pakistan started in earnest when I joined the national Urdu television channel, SAMAA TV, in March 2018 as editor for its digital properties (which is just a fancy way of saying web editor). By fluke, one of my fortunes was to be given a budget to get a small team of reporters to cover post-conflict KP and Fata. This was my first foray into this kind of ‘peace’ journalism and I had to dig deep and ask myself some hard questions because up until then, my only editorial focus had been covering conflict in Karachi. I had been in newsrooms since bomb blasts began to erupt in 2002 in the city. Then came the MQM target killings, the sectarian bloodshed, the street crime. Reporter after reporter wanted to take the crime beat because it was so sexy and catapulted them into the ranks of the mean, hardcore wannabe war reporter category with access to survival patronage from bureaucrats, police chiefs and politicians.
As desk editors, on the other hand, we also became blood-thirsty, trawling through AFP/Reuters wire photo feeds of shredded flesh after a bomb blast normalises an appetite for the gore. You dare yourself: can I take it? Am I tough enough? Over the years, I saw entire newsrooms become inured to violence. As an editor I had to come up with eternally fresh ways of getting our coverage. We experimented with the aestheticization of image and language to beat reader fatigue. By my 25th bomb blast edit, we had four reporters filing 3,000 words and I was writing headlines like this: Motorcycle. Bang. Screaming. Malir. Halt. And all along, I knew we would have to stop at some point and ask ourselves what we were doing.
Sixteen years later, I am in a very different Pakistan. We have since seen military operations unfold in the north among other places. People had been displaced, millions of them. ‘Fata’ was merged with KP—something I never thought I’d see in my lifetime (Congratulations). Down south, the authorities had used target killers to bump off other target killers in Karachi to clean it up. Its most violent party was kneecapped. No one was playing football with decapitated heads (gangs of Lyari). The ‘violence’ seems to have moved online. Hate now goes viral. It feels contained, impotent. And yet, with the rise of Pakhtun anger in post-conflict KP, I feel we were looking at another kind of reporting on ‘violence’. Are we heading into another cycle? How can the media do its job now?
And so I got to work trying to get granular coverage of post-conflict areas wherever possible. This long note is about the line of inquiry I have taken on covering extremism, extremist thought, terrorism, conflict, post-conflict. I wanted to see if we could do two things: provide some kind of counter-narrative to violent extremism and cover the aftermath of this violence.
We had covered enough of the violence and its perpetrators. Indeed, I had long felt that terrorists and the authorities had controlled the story and been the main agents of action we had reported on. Everything we reported emerged from an event in time that they had orchestrated: militants kill people, authorities go in to tackle the problem. Media just plays catch-up. We were reporting incidents post-fact in many cases. They were driving the storytelling. (I am referring here to what was the bulk of day-to-day frontline reportage; I am not referring to the many excellent investigations, features, opinion and analysis in print, online and on TV, that have been done locally and internationally since 9/11).
When journalists and analysts talk counter-narrative to violent extremism (CVE), they often see it through the lens of that very thing which created extremism in the first place: fear and violence. Preaching peace isn’t counter-narrative. Developing a counter-narrative doesn’t mean you pick the position of a binary opposite. Then you are just a part of the polarised debate, having taken a position at the other end. You cannot chide the suicide bomber into taking her vest off. Proposed solution: Change the focus to disrupt, own the terrain, own the conversation. Counter-narrative is not just about militancy and terrorism; it is about society and how it perceives itself.
Emotional v. factual
One of the first papers I read was a special report by Amil Khan for the United States Institute of Peace on ‘Pakistan and the Narratives of Extremism’. It helped me get my bearings. Other academic work on countering extremism pointed to one lesson: “Very little successful counter-narrative material exists and most of it is cognitive versus emotionally impactful.” I found this nugget in a paper: ‘Beating ISIS in the Digital Space’ in the Journal for Deradicalisation (Spring 2017). The mistake was to try to beat the emotive lure of radical thought with a fact-check. You had to use emotion as well. This led me to one of our most successful stories (and we were not the only or first ones to cover him): Inayat Tiger, the bomb disposal unit hero. Indeed, the ‘hero’ story is a powerful one and journalists can very easily keep telling these stories as there are hundreds of people who have achieved extraordinary things in conflict zones.
We similarly covered a vet in Lakki Marwat who pitched a tent to continue working to save the animals the day after he was injured in a bomb blast (Watch: How Lakki Marwat’s hero vet fought terrorists: by going back to work). The everyday folk who soldier on despite hardship, in unremarkable settings, but in extraordinary circumstance provide subjects for stories other than those who perform spectacular feats of violence that garner much more attention. The suicide bomber’s impact is different, more tangible. The vet, Dr Mubarak Khan, has a very different kind of impact in his community. His impact is intangible.
Young people reporting
I also learnt that radicalisation happens in the echo chamber. It is important to extract ourselves from it to be heard. If we are subsumed by it, we will just parrot it out. For eg. while Twitter is a great resource, we assume all the conversations of merit are happening there. They aren’t.
Self-radicalisation is a part of this picture. Most susceptible young people don’t realise, and neither do their parents, that their teen angst is normal. The teenager sees a broken world because they are not aware of anything else. They seek belonging, a sense of identity, resolution to their internal conflicts and paradoxes. In the mid-1990s, the Globe and Mail printed a study in which scientists found that civil war in Africa appeared to be linked to the disproportionately large male population of teens to early 30s. That was a lot of testosterone fuelling violence. In 2017, the Economist did a piece on how polygamy fuelled war in Sudan. Young men who could not afford multiple wives were frustrated.
By that count it is worthwhile to include coverage of young people, what they want and their lives—and especially in post-conflict zones. If young men in Karak aren’t getting the jobs they dream of, that is worth reporting. What are the solutions out there? Surely it is the media’s job to provide actionable information that helps people make better decisions for their lives. My lament is that I have not had the resources to get reporting done on the census and demographics in Pakistan. Did you know that fewer women are marrying early in Karachi, for example. Income levels have gone up. Why are more stories not being done on the children who were born outside their hometowns as IDPs in Peshawar or Islamabad and are now going back to ‘Fata’? Did they get used to the McDonalds in Peshawar and worry about nuggets in Ghalanai?
One of the most difficult and moving stories was about Khpal Kor, the school where the orphan children of militants and the forces who had engaged in the fighting, studied together in one school. The reporter told me that the widows of the militants who were killed often had to resort to sex work to keep food on the table. But in some cases, and it was difficult to include this in the story, once their children started going to school, they had abandoned that line of work. More importantly, one of the teachers clearly told us that it was a challenge to answer the questions that these orphans had when it came to Islam and jihad, the state and its response to violence and how extremists perpetrate it. (Watch: A Swat school where war orphans unlearn hatred)
The new normal
Extremists push a narrative of a dystopian image of life. They peddle their wares, in part, by telling disillusioned young people that the system is broken. I would wager that if you wanted to target a young person in a disadvantaged part of Pakistan, you wouldn’t have to work too hard to convince them of this. So many young women and men in Pakistan have only known the bad times post-9/11. How do we tell them what normal is, when they wouldn’t know normal if it hit them on the head?
So many of the stories we tried to dig out were about the return to normal, or reminders of normalcy.
Take, for example, a story on how women would be able to inherit property if the FCR law was done away with. This would allow them to be part of a ‘normal’ legal system that worked in the rest of the country. Another story was about how young men and women were learning how to play the guitar in Peshawar at a rabab shop that was keeping this culture alive. (Watch: This Peshawar rabab music shop doesn’t like making a noise).
Militant narrative builds up in that gap that is created by chronologically historic events that have been wiped out because we don’t talk about them enough. It is, for now, perhaps too dangerous to report on the aspects of the conflict that people want to talk about. I remember pulling my hair out to edit a piece on how a new way of gravedigging had emerged in Shangla (Watch: A Case of Shangla’s Exploding Mountains) because of the way they had to bury militants in the mountaintops. There was so much we could not say in such a powerful story. It’s opening line was: There is one place in Pakistan where people hire men to do blasts—but not for terrorism.
Other limitations on reporting on the conflict that Pakistan has been through (and indeed cover ongoing ones) is that not only will the authorities be unhappy but your average audiences will be too. (Watch: Shangla’s boat taxis weather terror’s storm). This has been a tricky one for me, because I have always wanted reporters to just tell the “truth”. For example, at one point, if you asked anyone who read the papers, they would say that there was an ongoing sectarian conflict in Gilgit Baltistan. One sect could not cross over into the territory of the other. But, miraculously, there was also a mechanism by which one sect provided shelter to the other and formed a human chain to protect them during one time of the year. There was no question of covering it on TV. And even elsewhere, it is extremely fraught to venture into that terrain. You can be accused of fuelling sectarian differences by merely trying to cover them. The tragedy is that these very real changes in society go unreported.
Nevertheless, we managed to tell the moving story of ‘What Daish taught Orakzai’s Hindus and Muslims about themselves’. Its opening two lines were: Tiny communities tend to understand powerlessness. So when three dirt poor Hindu families arrived in lower Orakzai nearly two decades ago because they couldn’t make ends meet in Peshawar, the Shias decided to provide some shelter.
It appeared to also be worth trying to take jabs at our Grand Theory of Terrorism. Could stories challenge the average Pakistani’s big ideas of terrorism being permanent, their hopelessness, the fixity? Perhaps that could be done by going to see where things had surprisingly enduringly changed.
It was clear to me that the answer to Big Metanarrative stories were hyperlocal small stories. How had people lived after the fighting ended? One of my absolute favourites is The Dead Poets Society of Lakki Marwat because “Not all jirgas make decisions, some have post-militancy poems.” And since I had been to Parachinar, I was moved that now the Shia families were asking the Sunnis to come back (even though there were many sensitive tribal aspects we could mention in this story, it is worth knowing that some form of reconciliation might be taking place).
And of course, a lot of basic reporting on government response to post-conflict neighbourhoods was important. When the former political agent of Mohmand, Wasif Saeed, decided to do away with a tax on grocery items entering the agency/district, it was big news. When he wooed cellular phone operators into doing CSR so he could do away with checkposts, I saw a silver lining to Capitalism. When he opened up a playground for kids at the agency headquarters, we asked him to send video.
Much to my delight we also were able to find stories of how conflict had inadvertently changed communities for the better. For example, exposure to the outside world, even though it was through painful displacement, had some strange effects on the IDPs. For example, one community returned to Shangla to insist that the local mosque give space to a school because there was no government one. Exposure to markets had the silver lining of alerting the district’s residents of the value of the morel mushrooms they had in their area. (Watch: How Shangla discovered its magic mushrooms)
The danger of peace journalism is trying to force a happy story in desperation. I was forced to kill stories that gave the impression that a place had gone back to normal, when it had not (and indeed it is the challenge of reporting language to provide this nuance). Reporting on people who have been through inexplicable trauma is a heavy responsibility. You cannot re-open their wounds. They are not something to be picked apart. I often re-read Susan Sontag’s ‘Regarding the Pain of Others’ to remind myself of how journalists can pick at the bones of the dead.
I am also aware of the responsibility Pakistani newsroom editors and managers have to reporters who are from conflict zones. Most newsrooms are located in our big urban cities, far away from the conflicts. Most newsroom managers do not speak the language of the people who are the subject of these stories we should tell. For example, it took a lot of hard work to do justice and be respectful while doing stories when non-Pashto-speaking video editors handled material our reporters sent from Swat. As an editor, I also had to be mindful that the reporters themselves from the conflict zones had a strange relationship to the content we were asking them to provide. They themselves had been through so much. Many of my questions irritated them.
This much is clear: whatever the government, the authorities, the State, seeks to achieve through NAP and Nacta, the media has to examine its way of covering extremism. Of late, this has been a minefield. It is dangerous work. But something tells me that if we don’t do it justice, independently, we will be forced to tell the same stories perhaps all over again.
Note: An earlier version of this article inadvertently said that it was being organised by Bahria University. It is being held there. The conference is the work of the MoIB and PPC.