Information darkness in FATA
In FATA, the theatre of conflict between Pakistani and international forces and militants of Taliban and Al Qaeda, conflict sound bites drown out news and information about development and public works.
says ADNAN REHMAT. The Hoot begins reprinting a regular column on media in Pakistan. Map from longwarjournal.org
Sunday, Jun 12 20:18:25, 2011
With the growth of media in Pakistan in recent years and the increase in numbers of journalists, the dynamics of how media accesses, processes, generates and distributes information and how people consume information have changed. Much information is being consumed in real time and as conflict and militancy has grown in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) the media is almost completely dominated by either conflict sound bites. This has drowned out news and information about development and public works and the government’s ongoing attention to resolving people’s problems both with local and international resources.
Part of the reason why there is little information available in FATA about development work and local community voices in the restive region is because the public sector’s capacities and response mechanisms to the changing media dynamics have not adequately adapted to the new information regime and the needs of the rapidly evolving media. FATA is the theatre of conflict between Pakistani and international forces and militants of Taliban and Al Qaeda. Military operations in the region since 2009 have displaced hundreds of thousands from the FATA agencies and added a major socio-economic dimension to the regional conflict.
The availability of local information in local languages for local communities – the FATA population is 4 million, three times that of Gilgit-Baltistan and more than that of AJK – is still woefully inadequate in terms of size, scope, frequency and relevance. This is largely due to the fact that there are no independent radio stations in FATA unlike the rest of Pakistan. This is a legal problem as the jurisdiction of the national broadcast law, PEMRA Ordinance, does not extend to FATA. This lacuna allows militants to run hate-spewing pirate stations and hijack the development narrative. The only legal Pakistani media available in the region is owned by the FATA Secretariat and the bureaucracies running the radio stations are neither trained to treat information as a fundamental right nor have the capacity to offer and package information even about the government’s development efforts in a way relevant to the citizens needs.
There are currently only three legal radio stations in FATA which function as AM and FM operations. One is in Khyber Agency, which is ahead of the pack by dint of its recent emphasis on increased community information. It has an operational newsroom and a group of reporters trained to produce daily bulletins and other information-based programming. Khyber Agency is strategically important as it is adjacent to Peshawar and, for administrative purposes, the gateway to FATA. The other two stations are both in North Waziristan Agency in the towns of Razmak and Miranshah. This agency is crawling with Al Qaeda. The two stations here are miles behind Khyber Radio for reason of remoteness and active conflict in the region. They are, however, encouraged by the big success of Khyber Radio and seek to develop similar capacities and re-brand the stations from virtual government-propaganda broadcasters to local community stations.
Radio is the primary and most consumed form of media in FATA. According to the FATA Communications Strategy report of 2009, over 80% adult men and over 70% adult women in FATA regularly listen to radio. No local print publication is produced in FATA due to a virtual ban. Literacy rates are extremely low so not even KP-produced print media is consumed in any significant quantity. Watching TV is an expensive proposition – both in terms of affordability and because militant groups discourage it. Severe power shortages also make this difficult. This leaves radio as the primary medium for information in FATA. There is a need, therefore to build on the limited media space and radio-based information for local communities to help them join the mainstream Pakistani media space and benefit from it.
The main challenges for radio stations in FATA include Content (currently only short-time broadcasts are available; serious shortage of news bulletins, like talk shows, interviews and features); Staff (currently there are few producers, presenters, recording engineers and reporters available, few news readers and even fewer editors); Access to radio stations (there are logistics problems; security forces and mechanisms buffet them and public access is limited); and Community information (this is almost absent – little reflection, for instance of North Waziristan’s lively business community in the little information on air, for instance).
There also needs to be an advocacy campaign to extend federal media regulatory jurisdiction to FATA; help set up more radio stations in FATA to increase legal media space; build operational capacity of local journalists and conduct thematic trainings for them and to help local media produce and distribute local information-based programming for radio.
If FATA is part of Pakistan then its residents have the same rights to access information guaranteed under Article 19A of the constitution to stay informed. Capacities should be created and consolidated on a priority basis to improve the quantity and quality of community information locally. For too long FATA residents have lived in information darkness and deserve to join the information age.
Adnan Rehmat is a media analyst based in Islamabad. He can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org
(Reprinted from Islamabad Dateline Jun 3, 2011)