When thousands gathered in a former Taliban stronghold in Pakistan’s South Waziristan region to denounce the militants’ actions in Afghanistan, the mass rally attracted little attention among Pakistani news networks.
Journalists and rights associations say the lack of coverage of last month’s rally is a result of a long-running government campaign to deprive the organizing group of attention, and a sign of the government pressures Pakistani media endure.
The group behind the rally — a broad-based civil rights movement known as Pashtun Tahafuz (protection) Movement (PTM) — is popular among young ethnic Pashtuns in Pakistan’s northwest, where for years people have borne the brunt of the Taliban’s battle with the Pakistani military.
The group’s leaders are highly critical of the Taliban as well as the military’s leadership, saying their communities have suffered from state-sponsored terrorism because of Islamabad’s longtime ties to the Taliban.
Pakistan’s military rejects such allegations and points to thousands of its soldiers who have died fighting the militants over the last decade.
Several senior Pakistani officials have accused PTM of being a foreign-funded political movement with connections to Afghan and Indian intelligence services. And a PTM leader is currently in prison on conspiracy charges. But the group, which calls itself a non-violent movement, denies accusations it receives foreign funding.
Grass-roots opposition to the Taliban
PTM leader Manzoor Pashteen said that Pashtuns would not support the war on their land, apparently referring to the Pashtun regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan which straddle their shared border.
“War can’t resolve the Afghan issue. Only a democratic approach and respect to peoples’ vote can resolve the Afghan issue,” Manzoor Pashteen told last month’s rally near the Afghan border at Makeen, a major town in the South Waziristan.
But outside of social media and a few local journalists who post content on YouTube, no mention of PTM’s pro-peace narrative was made in Pakistan’s bigger news outlets.
The gap in coverage was noticed by some politicians and activists on social media. Farhatullah Babar, a retired senator and former spokesperson for Pakistan’s president, wrote, “Those who say there is no censorship and media in Pakistan is freer than UK’s should watch videos of PTM Jalsa in Makeen South Waziristan today. Then search for a line about it in mainstream media.”
A former head of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, Afrasiab Khattak, also expressed his frustration, tweeting: “A demonstration of solidarity with Afghan people/peace/republic. No coverage in Pak media.
Despite the major media blackout, the PTM group gets its message out through social media and YouTube, keeping it a potent political force that is now more directly opposing the Taliban’s violence in Afghanistan.
Pakistan’s government has announced no official policy censoring PTM, but Freedom House and other media monitors reported that many outlets stopped reporting on the group in April 2019, when a Pakistani military spokesperson 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 "the state continued to enforce a media blackout on the PTM and its members during the year."
Two Pakistani journalists who spoke with VOA said reporters try to cover events and PTM rallies in their region but doing so comes with risks.
Allah Khan, a journalist in Wanna, South Waziristan, streams PTM events, political demonstrations and human interest stories on his Zhagh News (Voice News) YouTube and Facebook accounts.
“We journalists send stories on PTM to mainstream news outlets but they don’t publish it,” he told VOA. “I was arrested and put in jail for 12 days for streaming the PTM protest before this last Ramadan [April 2021].”
Matiullah Jan, an Islamabad-based journalist and Vlogger, told VOA, “You can see here that Taliban and their spokesmen are interviewed here in the media but when you talk of PTM, even the social media platforms are under pressure (for covering it).”
Jan said that in areas like Waziristan, people can stream events but they “face threats and pressures from local authorities and police.”
He added, “It explains the contradiction in state policy—people who want peace here and in Afghanistan, they are not given coverage in media.”
Shahzada Zulfiqar, the head of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, told VOA Deewa that media in Pakistan face many restrictions.
“Media houses surrendered (to pressures). PEMRA, a government media regulatory body, is being used as a tool to put lock to people’s mouths,” he said, adding that the country has a poor 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 media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
In its 2021 report, RSF says the Pakistani media have become a priority target for the country’s “deep state,” a reference to the military and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
North and South Waziristan border Afghanistan’s Khost and Paktika provinces, which after the September 2001 terror attacks on the U.S. became an international terrorism hub. After 20 years of war and drone strikes, international fighters still operate in the mountainous region.
Reporting in the area remains an enormous challenge. Journalists who are not residents of Waziristan are officially not allowed to enter Waziristan unless they are embedded with Pakistani security agencies. To reach the main town of Makeen in South Waziristan from Dabara, a town some 70 kilometers away, locals must pass through about a dozen army check posts.
The venue for last month’s rally 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 Pakistan’s military, the area now is under its control. But the PTM has accused it of gross human rights violations — allegations the army rejects.
VOA's Pashto-language Deewa service reporters Adnan Khan and Pir Z Shah also contributed to this report.