A journalist has been expelled with his family from South Waziristan’s Wana for criticising the decision of a local jirga. Meraj Khalid’s expulsion has been reported in the media but he is not the only journalist to face the wrath of a jirga. Others have also experienced similar ordeal.
Jirga rulings have affected the work of journalists in the erstwhile tribal region of the country.
Meraj Khalid, who works for a local TV channel, criticised a decision of the local jirga in a post on Facebook, which irked the jirga leaders and they imposed a fine of Rs500,000 on him and threatened to demolish his house if he failed to do so.
The episode started with Khalid pinning a post regarding the decision of a jirga in Waziristan’s Wana which ordered the demolition of the house owned by one of the two persons embroiled in a dispute.
“Once again, if anyone has made a mistake, it is the job of the state to punish him, but where we are living there is a state within the state. Please do not demolish anyone’s house because it affects children and women the most. What is their fault?” the English translation of the post read.
Speaking to Aaj News, Khalid said that Zalikhel, a branch of the Wazir tribe, had formed a 9-member jirga (committee) whose task was to settle land and other territorial disputes in the area.
A member of Zalikhel put his dispute before the jirga which ordered the demolition of the house of the opposing party, he said, adding: “When I heard this, I considered it wrong. Because it is the state’s job to punish someone and after the FATA merger, it was not the jirga’s job.”
“I posted this message requesting that the house of anyone should not be demolished because we have seen the hardship faced by many people whose houses have been demolished,” Khalid added.
He went on to add that he was informed the next morning that he would be fined Rs500,000 for discussing the decision of the Jirga and that his house would be demolished if he did not pay the fine.
When asked by Aaj News, Khalid’s father Sher Ali said that he was informed by a malak (jirga leader) that his son was fined for criticising the decision of the jirga. “I told him that we did not have that much money to pay the fine. I said that if you want to demolish my house on a social media post then do it because you are powerful people. We were forced to vacate the house.”
According to Ali, police surrounded their house and saved it from being demolished by the lashkar (jirga force).
“It was then that the jirga decided to observe a social boycott until our house was demolished. Nobody was allowed to give water, or residence to us or keep any kind of relation with us. Whoever was found doing so, would also be fined Rs1 million or face demolition of their house,” he added.
Ali said that the family was forced to leave their house and now they were staying at a friend’s house in Islamabad.
Despite the country’s politicians, journalists, and human rights organisations condemning the actions of the jirga, police have failed to initiate any action against the local jirga.
Addressing a press conference a day earlier, the malaks said that the people have been facing difficulties as there were no courts or police to resolve the disputes of the locals after the FATA merger.
They added that the jirga was there to fill that vacuum and decide on disputes according to tribal traditions and nobody was allowed to criticise the dealings of the jirga.
Alam Jan, a malak said that Khalid’s punishment is an example for the people who criticise the verdicts of the jirga. He vowed to punish those criticising the decisions of the jirga the same way as Khalid.
South Waziristan, which is now divided into Upper and Lower South Waziristan, has two registered press clubs, including the Wana and Mehsud press clubs, both of which have more than thirty journalists working for national and international organisations.
However, there had been very little coverage of local issues involving health care, women, education, local land disputes, local Jirga, and honour killings.
Senior tribal journalist and editor-in-chief of Daily Global Post Anwar Mehsud said that it is true that journalists on occasions remain silent on important issues.
“When honour killings happen, we cannot report them because we face threats by both sides. They [families] go silent on the murder and if it is brought to the media, we have to accept personal enmity because then they say that you have hurt our honour in front of the world,” he added.
Mehsud went on to add that the customs and traditions in the tribal areas are still strong. “There have been several incidents in which journalists were subjected to mental, physical and financial violence.”
Recently, a local journalist Aatish Mehsud was beaten up after he criticised the use of poor materials in the construction of a road and was hospitalised for several days, he said.
Mehsud said that the judicial system is not fully functional and the locals are bound to sit with the opposition party in the jirga in case of a dispute. Failing to do so, everyone will consider the person as being in the wrong, he added.
On May 25, 2018, the federal government merged erstwhile FATA with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and abolished the British-era laws and traditions in the tribal areas. Under the new system, the rules applicable in other cities of the country are also applied in all the merged districts.
However, after more than five years, a series of extra-constitutional and legal incidents have happened in the merged districts.
In September, two tribes in the Shkai area of South Waziristan clashed over a land dispute which resulted in the killing of two, and several others were injured in the fight. Small and heavy weapons were used in the violent clash.
Shams Mohmand, president of the Pakhtunkhwa Union of Journalists, called for strict actions and a necessity for the rule of law in the area. “We are upholding the traditions, but such self-made traditions which cause oppression, violence, and injustice and lead to restrictions on journalism are never acceptable.”
The house of journalist Hafeez Wazir of Wana was demolished by the tribal forces in March 2019 on the charge of violating tribal traditions.
“If we put out a report stating only the facts, we will have to be accountable to one of the parties in the tribal traditions,” he said.
Wazir said that he had sold some family land, which was opposed by his tribe, the Khojal Khels because there was a ban on the sale of land to members of other tribes before the merger.
However, after the merger, all these local agreements were terminated and there were no such restrictions in the new system, he added.
Wazir said that a series of jirgas continued for about a year to solve the issue and he spent a huge sum of money on the jirgas.
He also filed a first information report, and a petition was also filed in the court for protection from his tribe elders, however, no action was taken by the government, he added.
Consequently, his family’s houses were torched and razed by the lashkar, and he suffered a loss of about Rs20 million.
For Wazir, not all tribal traditions are bad but there are some which do not fulfill the requirements of justice. In such circumstances, journalists have to be careful and they sometimes have to impose self-censorship, he said.
Journalist Khan Zeib said that the tribal people are not used to lengthy legal processes while the police system is also not good. Therefore, they consider jirga and tribal tradition as the best way to address their issues, he added.
Zeib says journalists are made to follow traditions, whether they are right or wrong, but it hurts their work.
He recalled an instance when he had to sit in a jirga after he reported on the slow pace and use of poor materials in a development project in the Ladha area of South Waziristan.
Legal expert Asad Aziz Mehsud blamed the hasty integration of FATA for the weak justice system in the merged districts.
The merger was done within a day without any groundwork, he said, adding that the tribal people will take time to get out of the old system.
Mehsud believed that the role of journalists was very important to bring issues to the fore regarding the justice system.
He called for the government to take action over the incidents where journalists faced violence under the tribal traditions. The journalists should also trust the police and should file the cases because so far no such cases have been filed by the journalists, he added.
DPO South Waziristan Farman Ullah said that the authorities were trying to stem illegal activities and had stopped the demolition of Khalid’s house.
Deputy commissioner of South Waziristan Lower Nisar Ahmad resolved that no illegal activities will be allowed after the FATA merger.
There are difficulties in changing the tribal system that has been going on for centuries, but with time, people will accept the change, he added.