The crisis in western Pakistan has heavily dominated the news in the past week, and rightly so. But there’s a huge hole in the story–the media is not allowed to go to the wild Swat Valley region where much of this story is happening.
So, the media and people paying attention to this important story have been forced to rely on two major sources of information: the United Nations and the Pakistani government.
It’s hard to decide what the worst part of this scenario is–either that it’s close to impossible for journalists to independently verify the facts, or that the international media is becoming the defacto mouthpieces for the Pakistani government and the UN.
The UN’s slant is heavy-handed on refugee numbers, death, and the situation of civilians who have escaped the violence in Swat but are living on the edge of survival. The Pakistani government’s verbage (repeated by the media) is swaggering, kitchy, and sometimes downright bizarre, and there’s a heavy slant on military successes and the toll of militants killed.
Case in point is a story yesterday by the French newswire AFP:
“Ground forces shelled strongholds in the Swat valley, where around 4,000 Taliban are believed to be battling for control of the former ski resort in the northwest, once popular with Westerners but now devastated by violence.
Interior Minister Rehman Malik said more than 700 militants had been killed in the northwest region as the military announced Monday that 52 “miscreants” died in exchanges of fire over the last 24 hours in Swat.”
Journalists, particularly foreign correspondents, are used to being in the middle of dangerous situations. That’s their job–to be on the scene and report back what they are seeing firsthand. The situation in the Swat Valley is extraordinarly dangerous, and the region is often called “lawless” under normal circumstances. Swat, and the rather porous border region it shares with Afghanistan, is considered by some to be a haven for the Taliban. But that’ shouldn’t be accepted as a reason to bar journalists from going there to report the news.
Part of the story here could be that the Pakistani government is basically controlling the spin on the action side, and the UN is controlling the spin on the humanitarian crisis side. All we can know for certain is that until journalists are given more access, the public will be only getting a small piece of the picture.