A Normative Approach towards the Training Needs of Journalists in the Post-conflict Scenario in Swat, Pakistan

Authors: Khalid Sultan

A Normative Approach towards the Training Needs of Journalists in the Post-conflict Scenario in Swat, Pakistan


Pakistan's northern valley of Swat has witnessed an ensanguined and destructive battle that has affected every sphere of life in the region. During the period 2004-09, tensions escalated and the area turned into a site of fierce battles for territorial control between militants and the state. One of the effects of catastrophic conflict was the adverse fallout for the local media, including rampant violations of press freedom and a rise in threats to the physical security of media personnel. Journalists suffered frequent physical attacks, killings, and harassment, even as the militants established and ran illegal FM radio stations in the area. The post-conflict scenario in Swat therefore requires a rebuilding and reinforcement of professional local media, which have been left badly scarred by the conflict. The professional training of local journalists must form part of this effort. Against this background, this paper aims to present a normative approach towards meeting the training needs of journalists in post-conflict Swat, with a view to empowering them in performing their professional duties and ultimately enhancing the quality of media coverage in the area.

Keywords: Militants, Conflict, Terrorism, Media violations, Illegal radio, Militant media, Training


The post-conflict media environment and the overall professional capabilities of journalists working in the Swat area of Pakistan’s north-western Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) Province presents a picture of bewildering complexity. Memories of casualties, the continuing impact of life-threatening situations that journalists have endured, ongoing mental trauma, and widespread physical destruction form the mental world of Swat’s media personnel. Many are haunted by the memories of sacrifices rendered by colleagues such as Musa Khankhel of Geo and The News, Qari Shoaib of Azadi and Abdul Aziz of Khabarkar. Yet, amid these psychological challenges, there is an ever-more urgent need to boost journalistic activities in Swat, especially with a new vision as part of a larger rebuilding effort following the security operations in the area. For this, the nascent media institutions in the area, and the professionals who comprise them, require extensive training to strengthen their professional capabilities, especially in the areas of conflict reporting, personal safety awareness and human rights.

Literature review

Pakistan's northern valley of Swat witnessed a chain of upheavals from the period 2004 to 2009 as it suffered an escalating conflict between militants and the state (Sultan, Shehzaib, Ullah, & Khan, 2012). The media was caught in the crossfire between Taliban militancy and security operations, resulting in the emergence of militant media owned and controlled by the Taliban. The popularity of the FM radio channel run by Taliban commander Mullah Fazlullah, branded Mullah Radio, and the role of mainstream media in covering Taliban violence forced journalists to practise self-censorship as they came under immense pressure. Journalists lived in fear and some of them became victims of Taliban violence (Sultan, 2012). According to Brigitte Nacos, the militants made use of the media to further their own objectives, four of which can be framed as media-dependent aims whenever they threatened to commit violence. The first objective was to gain attention and create fear. Secondly, the militants aimed to build public acceptance of their stated motives behind the attacks they carried out. Thirdly, they sought to win the respect and sympathy of those in whose name they claimed to carry out their attacks. Fourthly and lastly, they aspired to attain a quasi-legitimate status and media treatment appropriate with such a status (Nacos, 2007). Media content is important to terrorists not just because of the information it carries. Like drama critics, militants seek to analyse and interpret its public impact as well. The tilt given by media – by determining which events to report and which to overlook, by deliberately or accidentally expressing support or censoring – can create a climate of public support, apathy, or anger (Hermann & Hermann, 1998). In order to create wider publicity and get the message across, there are instances available of terror groups creating their own media outlets. This raises the question as to what happens in the event of a disruptive organization such as the Taliban producing and disseminating its own content with the objective of establishing a new system of governance based on its ideology. This is precisely what happened in Swat as it witnessed a unique and unprecedented militant use of media for propaganda.

The media was muzzled

Newspaper editors, professional journalists, mass media educators, members of press clubs and owners of media organizations in Swat were interviewed in June-August 2009 by a team comprising a coordinator and field investigators[1]. Also, secondary data was collected mainly from documents, reports, articles in newspapers, and magazines. The interviews, and reports and articles that appeared in the mass media, suggest that it was a difficult time for the media as its voice was muzzled completely. This was the time when the Taliban leader in Swat, Maulana Fazlullah, gained global attention through his illegal FM radio broadcasts and earned the nickname “FM Mullah”.  Earlier, the use of illegal  radio stations in the region began in the Khyber Tribal Agency with Haji Namdar, leader of the organization Amr bil Maroof wa Nehi Anil Munkir (Suppression of Vice and Promotion of Virtue), who founded an FM radio station in December 2003 (Khan, 2009). Such illegal usage and heavy obsession with the media resulted in media violence and violations.

Media violence and violations

The Taliban militants in Swat tried to maintain a stranglehold over the media through murder, physical attacks, intimidation, harassment and destruction with an aim to silence alternative voices. Influence over the media was obtained through aggression, threats and other violent means, as well as inducements in the form of bribes and kickbacks given to media personnel. But this also brought media personnel into the sights of the state. The journalists thus found themselves at the receiving end of the state as well as the trigger-happy militants. These difficult years were marked by a real fear of the gun, as a large number of editors, reporters and their associates became prey to marauders in different garbs. The militants dictated their own terms for reporting which the journalists could only ignore at the risk of their lives (Abud, 2009).

Several journalists including those from media outlets such as Chand, Salam, Azadi and Shumal received threats from the Taliban to cease working in their offices, with Shumal closing its office at 5pm, seriously affecting work and productivity. Threats came via letters or the phone.  A threat to a single journalist would create anxiety and unrest in the entire media fraternity as militants and the tribal leaders considered media professionals to be “spies” of the state. The offices of Khyber TV in Swat and the office of the Express TV correspondent were attacked.  The Aaj TV channel and some other local newspapers were reportedly damaged due to their proximity to the Mingora city police station.  Pilferage of equipment was reported from the offices of Geo TV and The News.  The houses of Mujeebur Rehman, Reuters correspondent and Hameedullah of the Dawn newspaper were also blown up.


To further control the information environment, journalists in the Provincially Administered Tribal Areas (PATA) have been killed for writing articles which the Taliban did not approve of.  The editors of each paper affirmed that the conflict had a severe impact on their operations. All of them described the pressures they faced and the accusations levelled at them by the warring parties. The family of one journalist, Hayatullah of Waziristan, continued to receive threats even a year after his killing (Sultan, 2012). Inter-media, a media research and development organization based in Pakistan, lists the abuses against the media during the period when extremist activity was at its peak. The report indicates that there were as many as 13 incidents of media violations from March 2007 to May 2009. These violations range from threatening letters and holding journalists hostage to suicide attacks and murder. Details of these violations have been compiled by Inter-media (Insight on Conflict , 2017). Some cases of the killings of journalists have also been cited by Reporters without Borders (World Press Freedom Index, 2011).

Rebuilding the media in Swat

In view of the circumstances described above, the media environment in Swat was left utterly devastated. This paper proposes that efforts to rebuild the information space in Swat have to rest on three pillars, namely the responsibilities borne by the state, the international community and media organizations, all three of which must together help in fostering an ethical and professional culture among the region’s journalists. Let us consider each of these aspects by turn.

The Pakistani state, including its civilian and security arms, has a strategic stake in helping to build a thriving media space in Swat, and more generally in the Pakistani tribal areas as well as the settled areas of the country’s northwest. This is because these areas are crucial with respect to the Pakistani state’s ongoing efforts in the field of counter-extremism and counterterrorism. The Pakistan Army’s Operation Rah-e-Rast was successful in finally turning the tide against militancy in Swat and the nearby areas. Since June 2014, the Pakistan Army has also been waging Operation Zarb-e-Azb in Waziristan and other tribal areas. “Zarb-e-Azb”, which means “the blow of the Prophet’s sword”, is an apt description for what is primarily an exercise in hard military force against militant outfits. But counter-extremism experts have long argued that what is also required is “Zarb-i-Fikr”, or “the blow of reason and thought” – an effort to reverse narratives that breed extremism, sectarianism and ultimately prepare the soil for a rise in militancy. Since January 2015, when the Pakistani civilian government adopted the National Action Plan (NAP) against terrorism, the state has also sought to develop strategies to counter extremist narratives. The reform of school textbooks in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province, for instance, is one such ongoing step. But harnessing the local media and encouraging the proliferation of local media outlets that reinforce the writ of the state is the need of the hour. As such, the state has made some efforts in this direction. A number of radio stations now operate in the area under the protection and patronage of the military. TV outlets such as AVT Khyber News, which broadcasts from Islamabad in Pashto, should receive active help from the government to promote socially constructive messages that counter pro-militant attitudes. Similarly, local radio networks such as Tribal News Network (TNN), should receive active help from the government.

The Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation, under whose auspices Pakistan Television and Radio Pakistan both function, can also play a crucial role in running special training programs and mentorship schemes for journalists from Swat.

Turning now to the role of the international community, organizations such as the British Broadcasting Corporation and Al-Jazeera can play a role in delivering world-class training to Swat’s journalists as far as media ethics, journalistic standards, editorial values, conflict reporting and personal safety are concerned. These global organizations already run well-funded training programs on these topics for their own journalists all over the world. The BBC has a particular advantage in this regard and can play a very constructive role in Swat. In this respect, it is worth noting the role of BBC Media Action, a trust run by the BBC which specializes in socially relevant programming for TV, radio and online outlets. BBC Media Action has already run successful projects in Pakistan. With respect to Swat, it can help further by delivering of socially relevant content to local and national media outlets, with a view to promoting healthy counter-narratives against extremism. BBC Media Action runs frequent training programs for journalists in developing countries all over the world, and can play a strong role in Swat. But for involving external players such as the BBC, the federal and provincial authorities will have to take the initiative.

The responsibility does not end with the PBC or BBC alone, as Pakistan’s burgeoning private media industry, comprising leading conglomerates such as the Jang Group, Nawa-e-Waqt Group and Express Group, can also play a hugely useful role in Swat. It is noteworthy that the flagship newspapers of each of these groups is in Urdu, but allocating resources towards Pashto-language content may be a step that these groups can play. By doing this, they can supply ideas and information for the local Swat population which can serve to fill the information gaps in the current levels of coverage offered by local Pashto media – papers such as Wahdat, Khpalwaak, and Khabaroona, which are widely read in the northwest of Pakistan, including Swat.


This paper is concerned with laying down a normative framework of suggestions, and it is by no means being suggested that these steps are easy or straightforward to implement. A holistic approach to rebuilding Swat’s media space requires the complex task of inviting, coordinating and implementing the joint contributions of state, external and media players, and the provincial or federal authorities are best placed to undertake such a task. The overall aim should be to foster and nurture an information space, amid an atmosphere of physical security supplied by the armed forces, which firstly upholds the writ of the state and thereafter promotes a socially progressive diversity in information and ideas.


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About the author(s)

Khalid Sultan is the Head of Mass Communication Department, College of Applied Sciences, Nizwa, Ministry of Higher Education, Sultanate of Oman. He can be contacted at Khalid_sultan.niz@cas.edu.om or Tel:+968-95350491   


[1]The author of this paper was a part of the Swat Media Assessment research team. The research for this assessment was carried out by Inter-news, Pakistan in difficult and fluctuating situations.