Pakistan's airwaves: On militant turf, Radio Khyber offers a softer voice

In tribal areas, it provides an alternative to hard-line clerics with a medley of local news, talk shows, and music.

By , Correspondent

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    Hard-line Version: The leader of Lashkar-e-Islam, Mangal Bagh, often addresses followers via FM radio. In the remote tribal areas, those who 'rule the airwaves are the winners,' an official says.
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Kishwar yanks at her veil, caught in the sound equipment of a cramped radio production studio, and pins it back. "It's hard to be the voice of anything with all this cloth on my face," she jokes, alluding to her station's tag line, "The Voice of Khyber."

Kishwar, who, like others in this story, asked to have her last name withheld for security, is one of 15 reporters for Radio Khyber, a rare nonextremist station broadcasting in the town of Jamrud, in the militant stronghold of Pakistan's northwestern tribal areas. Airwaves in this region are filled with the illegal broadcasts of "FM mullahs" preaching about "holy war" and recruiting fighters.

Radio Khyber, launched in 2006 with government support, provides an alternative to the hard-line clerics with its medley of local news, talk shows, and music. But it treads carefully, trying to avoid backlash from either the militants – who criticize the playing of music – or the Pakistani government, which dislikes its news coverage in this sensitive region.

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"Until Radio Khyber started news reporting, the FM mullahs were winning the dial wars," says Aurangzaib Khan, the manager of Media Development at Internews Pakistan in Peshawar, an international nonprofit that trains radio journalists and lobbies for free media.

Radio Khyber broadcasts for three hours each in the morning and evening. When it first started, the government – represented in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas by the FATA Secretariat – mandated that Radio Khyber simply broadcast Pakistani pop songs and use news reports from the state-owned Radio Pakistan.

But the station's staff soon found that mix insufficient. "We were only allowed to do entertainment programming, but ... the mood here was not for fun shows. We knew we had to do something more – we had to get news out and we had to hear what people needed to say," says Tayyab, Radio Khyber's news editor.

These days, the station offers call-in talk shows, news bulletins phoned in from reporters across Khyber, and feature programs on health, education, women's rights, and security – all in local dialects of the Pashto language. Sandwiched in between are short bursts of religious programming – sermons and Korranic recitations. Occasional songs by tribal musicians and the verses of local poets also liven up the mix.

"We have to promote our local culture," says Nazir, a station director. But news bulletins, which began last September while the Army was conducting operations against militants in the area, are the most popular items, he says. "In times of crisis, people want to hear what's happening down the road, not what's happening in Peshawar, Islamabad, Mumbai [formerly Bombay], or Washington."

Radio Khyber's local programming is helping to fill an information vacuum, says Mr. Khan, of Internews Pakistan. "People in FATA are a captive radio audience. The cable television infrastructure here is poorly developed and shunned for being un-Islamic." As a result, those who "rule the airwaves are the winners," he explains.

The Pashto-language broadcasts of Radio Pakistan are not transmitted throughout FATA, Khan adds. In any case, "where they are heard, they're viewed with suspicion because they promote the national viewpoint without acknowledging the diversity of listenership."

Residents of FATA are thus forced to choose between Radio Azadi, the Afghan Service of Radio Free Europe that broadcasts from Afghanistan, and the illegal transmissions of FM mullahs. In Khyber, Kurram, and Orakzai agencies these include: Mangal Bagh, the leader of the militant organization Lashkar-e-Islam; Mufti Muneer Shakir, the "fiery speaker" who preaches on behalf of the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice group; and Tamachi ("Pistol") Mullah, an independent cleric who rails against the West and against Pakistanis who transport NATO supplies heading for Afghanistan.

Not surprisingly, many are calling in to Radio Khyber instead. In January, when an Army operation led to the closure of the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan, people called in from the tribal areas to discuss security along major highways. In less trying times, people call to compare dialects, describe recent trips to Peshawar or Swat, and wax nostalgic about the tribal areas before the Taliban.

These days, Radio Khyber regularly receives calls asking about developments in the standoff between militants and the military. Displaced FATA residents call from Peshawar to ask about happenings in their home villages.

Women also call to request songs and ask security-related questions, but prefer not to be named on the air. "We run women's requests under men's names," says Tayyab. "But in a place where women can't be seen, it's important that they're trying to be heard." Radio Khyber's three female reporters are on the air frequently. Kishwar says that while her parents and brother disapprove of strange men hearing her voice, she tries to broadcast daily reports "so that we can get more women's voices on air."

The FM mullahs have, for the most part, left Radio Khyber alone. Their programs are so dominant – in broadcasting hours and audience – that they haven't shown much concern.

But they are starting to push back, even though they are emboldened by the recent gains of the original "Radio Mullah," hosted by Taliban-linked leader Maulana Fazlullah, whose militant activities led to enforcement of Islamic law in the Swat Valley. Station director Nazir recently was warned by the leader of militant group Lashkar-e-Islam that playing music directly after Islamic programming is inappropriate. "I told him, radio is like the world. Right next to the cinema, there is a mosque," says Nazir.

Indeed, the station seems more concerned with not offending the government. Since the tribal areas are governed by the frontier crimes regulation, rather than the Pakistani Constitution, free speech is not guaranteed or protected.

"Every day, we're scared that a political agent [of the FATA Secretariat] will arbitrarily shut us down for doing more than entertainment programming," says Tayyab. "The last thing the [Pakistani] government needs is for us to have a voice of our own."

Despite their worries about both the FATA Secretariat and FM mullahs, Radio Khyber's journalists are pushing on. "When we were doing entertainment programming, the people called us singers [which is derogatory in Pashto]," says Nazir. "Now they call us journalists. First, only the mullahs and militant commanders would command respect. But now I do, too."

For her part, Kishwar is mustering up the courage to report on militant activities in the area.

"I want to face the danger," she says, "so that my people can know the truth."

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