Everyone in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the tribal area was surprised and almost jealous of the coverage that Malala Yusufzai got from the national and international media soon after her assassination attempt back in 2012. Some of them were quite critical of how the media played up the incident. They argued that there are examples of hundreds of other courageous youth who were targeted and killed by militants for raising their voice, who worked for peace, education and development. But nobody in the media cared for them. So Malala’s coverage raised doubts and questions about the role of the media in promoting different agendas and much was said over the social media about conspiracy theories.
I argued with many critics in defense of the media but I was told that a Karachi-based political party with influence over the electronic media and television networks was rallying public support to put pressure on the military for a major offensive in North Waziristan. This had happened earlier in Swat with the strategically timed release of a video where a young woman was seen being beaten by a group of alleged Islamists. I was with Syed Talat Hussain early the next day after the attack on Malala and we were discussing the incident. He too was surprised by the global media response but set aside all conspiracy theories and both of us focused on straight forward reporting of the tragic event.
We were shown documents warning the father of Malala, Ziauddin, of a possible attack and how an offer was made to provide police security to the family. So a lot of questions bubbled in my mind about how, who, why and what actually happened. How can a father be so careless or so cruel that, despite early warning, he declined security arrangements and put his daughter’s life in danger? These questions reminded me of another meeting when Adam B. Ellick visited my office in Peshawar while working on a report for New York Times on Malala Yusufzai. He filmed her in a professional and thematic way but there were discussions over BBC blogger Gul Makai, a young girl’s diary from the Taliban era in Swat. I don’t know why but it just struck me then to look for a deeper understanding of what was going on.
While travelling in Europe on a visit to Amsterdam, Netherland, I had a chance to learn about holocaust victims and the Diaries of Anne Frank (1929-1945), a Jewish girl trapped in a house when the city was under the command of Nazi Germans. She received international fame when her diary was published where she wrote about her feelings, life in confinement and the situation of the city. If someone has read Anne Frank’s Diary it may be easy to draw parallels with the diaries of Malala Yusufzai alias Gul Makai, since they bear a striking resemblance and give the impression that Anne Frank revisited the world under the guise of Malala Yusufzai.
Was this planned? Or did the girl from Swat read those diaries on her own and decide to write in a similar way? Abdul Hai Kakar revealed that the BBC was in search of a character that could talk about the ground situation in Swat. Since Ziauddin was an activist working for a non-government organization, he had good networking and a relationship with the media, so he was approached. There were other people too who had tales to tell, but Ziauddin offered his daughter Malala Yusufzai for the job. Abdul Hai Kakar also shared how her father was ready to use her real name but the BBC acted more professionally and, considering security threats, decided to give her the pseudonym of Gul Makai.
Long before that, we had seen how her father used to encourage her to speak to the media. It was more like when a child is asked to recite rhymes in front of guests in a display of their intelligence and ability. This is a regular custom in most households and children often recite such rehearsed presentations even before they understand the English rhymes they are reciting. Sometimes children are also inspired by dialogue and action in a movie and they try to copy those images. To me, Malala doesn’t seem any different from such children.
In a country where extremism is at its height and even politicians, professionals, and law enforcement personnel are not safe, schools are bombed and children are kidnapped to be used as suicide bombers, bringing a young girl to the forefront meant placing an innocent sheep in front of a wolf. Particularly when she was participating in meetings with high-level foreign delegates, her father was making her a party to the war. I felt much pity for that poor little girl and always discussed my fears with fellow journalists in Swat. But they always reassured me, as part of the traditional family set up in our society she was supposed to do whatever her parents told her.
To be fair, some of the critics call this a form of child abuse and ask for an examination of evidence about why security was declined by Ziauddin. Although a First Information Report was lodged by the police and the militants living in Kunar, Afghanistan, (incidentally the area is controlled by the NATO-led International Security Assistance Forces), accepted the responsibility for the attack on Malala, no action has been taken against these barbarians. No doubt, global response to her assassination attempt has been most commendable but it is striking how this has never happened before when so many other people were killed for raising a voice against extremism. There is a need to revisit the case and bring the culprit to book, and the global community must put pressure on Afghanistan to eliminate these terrorist sanctuaries from where militants are targeting children like Malala.
Coming back to the subject, the media also needs greater introspection of its role in reporting on events. It has become a culture to “make” issues, sell issues, promote ratings, become the champions of causes and try to make an entry into the First World. We should not blame the western media for its reporting because they at least have the excuse of not understanding the local context but we, as the locals, know ground realities and how often what appears to be the truth is carpeted by western money. Being journalists covering the war, each one of us should keep these things in mind since there is no greater goal than public interest.
The war has become what I term “glocal”; issues that are local but have global impact too. So responsibility is a must in reporting on events. I have seen the work of non-government organisations with their limited areas of focus and already identified objectives and outcomes covered in the jargon of research or development projects. Their proliferation and the kind of remuneration they offer has tempted many people to start talking about problems in that particular framework and elicit funds from foreign donor agencies. These projects ultimately mask ground realities by looking at issues like the education of girls in isolation.
Although, in her time, Anne Frank was criticised for her age, her schooling, and her class environment, the documents and the place I personally visited, made me feel for the child writing it. It was a heartfelt account by a young girl in trouble and sounds quite genuine while the context and political reality in the case of Malala supports those who see her as a child being used to further the ambitions of the father, a case some people say to be made for “child abuse” of a different kind. This too makes me feel very sad for the young child.
By: Syed Fakhar Kakakhel , an independent journalist based in Peshawar