However, a couple of things need to be corrected in the Five Rupees post. The original news, of the killing of villagers in the Kukikhel-dominated tribal area was actually carried by most Pakistani papers. The air force bombardment happened on Saturday, 10 April. The reports appeared in the papers on Sunday, 11 April. Here's Dawn's report, and here is The News' report. The reports also questioned the initial army claims that all those killed were militants. What since happened, however, is that the story disappeared, certainly off the front or back pages of both Dawn and The News and certainly on the electronic media. This was all the more surprising since the big news from yesterday was the announcement by the government of compensation to those killed and wounded, an almost-admission that non-combatants had been killed in the air strikes. (Officially, the government maintained that the compensation had been set aside to be paid, in case investigation of the case revealed innocent civilians had been killed).
Incidentally, The News' website also has a report today of the announcement of the compensation, a story that was not carried in the print edition of at least the Karachi paper (it may have appeared in the Pindi edition). The Nation too carried an AFP report but buried it deep inside. The only paper I came across to have followed up the developing story prominently today was the Express Tribune which had the story on its back page. Given the magnitude of the story, this is indeed shocking and inexplicable by journalistic standards and can only lead to a conclusion that the media has either buckled under external pressure or self-censored itself. As Five Rupees points out, BBC Urdu for its part had given the required prominence to the story and, in fact, led with it on Tuesday's evening Sairbeen bulletin.
What was clear from the BBC Urdu radio bulletin was also that a concerted effort was being made to keep the media from reporting on the story. As it is journalists' access to the remote Tirah Valley (or any conflict zone) is almost non-existent. But BBC's Dilawar Khan Wazir was, in fact, stopped from speaking even to the wounded brought into Peshawar's Hayatabad hospital and even the relatives interviewed seemed too hesitant to talk openly.
But all that seems to have changed this evening. Suddenly, Kamran Khan on Geo's flagship current affairs programme reversed Geo's seeming policy of ignoring the story, pointed out that a very apologetic Governor Owais Ghani had admitted that a tragic mistake had been made, and was even provided access to film and speak to the wounded.
Why this change of heart? For that, you may want to listen to Rahimullah Yusufzai's summation at the end of the clip above and read the Five Rupees post's last para again:
"...there's good ways to fight an insurgency and bad ways to fight an insurgency, and killing 70 innocent civilians who were on your side actually fighting the other side is definitely in the latter category."
Obviously the army / government has come to the conclusion that ham-handed attempts to cover up an obviously major mistake is not going to be fruitful and may, in fact, alienate the very people it needs on its side. It may be recalled that while Tirah has indeed become a haven for militants such as those of Mangal Bagh's Lashkar-e-Islam and Ansar-ul-Islam (a kidnapped Sikh was beheaded in the region in February), the area bombed on Saturday was home to the Kukikhel tribe, which has been supportive of the army against the militants and many of whose men serve in the army or paramilitary forces.
The tragic incident still has the potential to blow up in the government's / military's face. I have never been a fan of media sensationalism such as we saw initially in Swat or in the Lal Masjid episode. But it would be in the Pakistani media's interests not to be seen as standing too close to power.
: : : CORRECTION : : :
A commenter has rightly pointed out that I did not take into consideration Dawn's hard-hitting editorial on the strikes, which is absolutely correct. The editorial appeared on Tuesday, 13 April and I obviously missed it. It may still not explain why the subsequent news about the announcement of compensation was left out of Wednesday's paper but, obviously, Dawn did NOT ignore the story as I had earlier stated, and in fact, wrote pretty much what I and Five Rupees wrote later in our posts about the implications of such a strike. My sincerest apologies to Dawn.
Today's Express Tribune also carries a strong editorial on the issue. However, since Dawn's editorial actually appeared two days earlier, am reproducing it below:
Khyber air strikesDawn Editorial, Tuesday 13 April 2010
"SATURDAY’S bombings in Khyber Agency have shocked the nation and an official apology is in order, not just from the civilian administration but also the armed forces. It is clear from eyewitness accounts that the 60 or so people killed in aerial bombardments in Sra Vela were innocent tribesmen with no links to the militancy wracking the tribal belt. Even as the military establishment denied that civilians had been killed, it was reported that the victims would receive significant monetary compensation in addition to food supplies. In effect, it has been acknowledged that a huge blunder was made, one that has scarred the lives of dozens of families. The incident reflects poorly on the security apparatus’s intelligence-gathering capacity and has the potential to erode the support the government currently enjoys in its battle against Taliban-inspired militancy. A bomb dropped on the house of a serving army soldier was followed by another even more devastating attack when area residents rushed to the scene. Such actions defy description and an explanation is in order from those who ordered the assault.
It was realised quite some time ago that avoiding ‘collateral damage’ is a key factor when it comes to winning hearts and minds. This cannot be achieved when people who are most directly affected by the savagery of the Taliban also come under unintentional attack from the state. True, US drone strikes have become more precise in recent months, leading to fewer civilian casualties. Also, the military’s decision to confront the militants head-on by putting more boots on the ground has to some extent reduced the collateral damage caused by long-distance artillery assaults. But Saturday’s incident in Khyber Agency shows that dangerous intelligence gaps persist and that these need to be rectified forthwith. Damage control alone cannot suffice.
As we said at the outset, any repeat of the Sra Vela tragedy can undermine the fight against militancy. The heartbreak caused by such attacks strengthens the hands of the Taliban who want public opinion to turn against the state. Considerable gains have been made in recent months with the military going on the offensive and tribesmen raising their own antiTaliban fighting units. A reversal of fortunes is simply unaffordable. Then there are several ‘conservative’ and outright extremist players in the political arena who have much in common with the Taliban and want to see an end to the military operation. Civilian casualties in the battle arena give them more vitriol with which to embellish claims that this is America’s war, not Pakistan’s. They must be denied the chance to add fuel to the fire."