British Journalism Review    
HomeCurrent EditionArchiveBlogSubscription & Back IssuesAbout the BJRLinksContact the BJR


Irfan Ashraf

We all share responsibility

British Journalism Review
Vol. 23, No. 4, 2012, pages 5-7

The writer is pursuing a doctorate in mass communications at South Illinois University in Carbondale, USA. A version of this piece first appeared on

Contents - Vol 23, No 4, 2012

Editorial - A question of trust 3

Not finally... Subjective views on matters journalistic 5
Irfan Ashraf, Mihir Bose, Andrew Gimson, Joy Johnson

Kevin Marsh - Why the BBC’s boss had to go 19

Phil Harding - It’s time to take ethics seriously 29

Tim Luckhurst - A sordid era, but the future’s bright 35

Jerome Taylor, Mark Neary and Romana Canneti - Opening up closed doors of justice 42

Andrew Gray - Military reporting needs new fronts 51

Graham Lord - Life with a Fleet Street monster 57

Arthur MacMillan - The sad decline of The Scotsman 64

Ann Leslie on Ryszard Kapuscinski 70
John Kampfner on Brian Winston 73
Damien McCrystal on Tim Burt 75
Donald Trelford on Miriam Gross 77
Bill Hagerty on Ian Mackay 79
Quotes of the Quarter – 18
Twitter Watch - 40
Leveson Blogs - 50


The attack on the life of the Pakistani schoolgirl, Malala Yousufzai, was shocking for people around the world, but I saw no reason to be surprised. For the past three years I had worried that this young, promising girl was being unnecessarily exposed to dreadful consequences. And I felt partly responsible.

By February 2009, the rule of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in the Swat valley was so entrenched that an early morning knock at somebody’s door would be followed by the macabre spectacle of the Taliban “arresting” their opponents to slaughter them at a public square. That site was later named Khooni Chowk – Bloody Square. Malala and her family lived a few minutes’ walk from Khooni Chowk. When I arrived at their home with a film crew, shortly before dawn, I clearly worried her father Ziauddin. We were putting him and his family at risk. He was visibly disturbed when he saw a movie camera in the crew’s hands, and I didn’t sense the usual warmth a Pakhtun exudes when receiving a guest at his door. I reminded Ziauddin about his previous night’s commitment to let the crew shoot a documentary with Malala as its central character. “But I thought you just wanted a short interview,” he said.

We spent the next 48 hours with Ziauddin’s family, documenting the approach of February 15, the deadline that the TTP had imposed for the closure of hundreds of girls’ schools in the Swat valley. Back then, the exercise was something of a thrill for all of us, so much so that it made me blind to journalistic ethics and to the security of my friend Ziauddin. It didn’t occur to me that there was a threat in this situation for the then pre-teen Malala. This was partly because the documentary was about education and making video packages was part of a daily routine. I realised the gravity of the situation only after The New York Times released the short documentary, Class Dismissed, a piece of work that was to inform and inspire foreign audiences. The piece, co-produced with Adam B. Ellick, was filmed in Ziauddin’s house and at the school where he taught. Malala was its lead character.

Suddenly I became fearful of having exposed Malala to an implacable enemy. The fear turned into guilt as I kept seeing her on television. Over the next three years, while I disassociated myself from such projects, the media helped turn Malala’s advocacy for education into a solid campaign against the TTP. Politicians jumped in to help the media take advantage of Malala’s youthful energies. A strong anti- TTP structure was erected on her frail shoulders. We the media had dragged a bright, young and innocent person into a dirty war in a way that was to have horrible consequences.

But Malala’s fate is not the full story, for the whole reporting of the conflict in the area requires close scrutiny. The civilian turf in Pakistan, especially in the north, has been turned into a site of resistance against militants. The way the media reports what is happening benefits the ruling elite, for their failures are not being properly publicised. For the last decade, the bravery of local people has become the story, obscuring the inadequacy of politicians. While attacks on the innocent make the news, the security play hide-and-seek with an elusive enemy. Security operations are barely effective, and a working formula allows the forces to reclaim 90 per cent of a given area and to leave the rest to the militants.

While people wait for the dénouement, the media helps create an atmosphere of hype. The military says it is not safe for journalists to go in on their own and media outlets and journalists have accepted that. They don’t need to pay to go because military choppers are there to serve the cause.

These are predatory politics that revolve around militancy in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the tribal belt. Since 2009, the official policy to set up peace committees and lashkars – militias – in the tribal belt has relieved security forces of the threat of militant attack. But the measures have turned civilians into sandbags. Recently, yet another attack on a peace committee office claimed 17 lives in Darra Adamkhel. Hundreds of people have been killed so far in attacks on civilian lashkars and peace committee members over the last three years. During a visit to Lower Dir last year I came across a heavily-armed lashkar commander who has survived many attacks but still fights the militants in the area bordering Afghanistan. I asked him how he managed such a risky existence. “Where should I go from here?” he asked in reply.

When the lashkars were first created, people were encouraged to come forward; when they did so, they were abandoned. Critical reporting from the media could have drawn attention to what was happening. But the urban nature of journalism in Pakistan means the media system is insensitive to the plight of the rural population. Journalists from urban centres visiting Swat and other peripheral parts of the north west of Pakistan do not look for reality; in the few hours they have, they search for handy people to provide a version of the situation. There’s a shortage of tribal leaders and committee members to mount a challenge against the Taliban and feed the appetite of journalists, so youthful energies such as Malala’s are required to illustrate the conflict.

Sadly, the politics of militancy has conditioned the majority of people to stay silent in the face of the enemy. Only a few remain ready to stand up to the challenge, people such as Ziauddin and Malala. Where the politicians, the military and the people have barely managed to make the TTP nervous, a young girl has stood tall – and suffered.

The world is condemning the attack on Malala, but in Pakistan the initial wave of condemnation is giving way to a disgustingly apologetic mood in some circles. Conspiracy theories abound, with some blaming Ziauddin. We all share some responsibility for her tragedy: letting Malala down further will be utter cruelty.