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Published:March 19th, 2011 13:29 EST
Sectarian Killings of Shia Passengers and Media Ethics

Sectarian Killings of Shia Passengers and Media Ethics

By Ernest Dempsey

Earlier this week, militants made yet another brutal attack on a passenger vehicle which was traveling between Kurram Agency and Kohat. At least 11 people were killed in the attack. In Pakistan`s volatile environment, this figure may not sound very startling since dozens of people have died in a single suicide blast so frequently made over the past few years throughout the country. However, this particular incident, a repetition of identical attacks in the near past, has something that mainstream media is still reluctant to highlight: it was an attack on people of Shia sect and all casualties belonged to this sub-religion of Islam that is considered infidels by some fanatic Islamic groups.


Kurram Agency, with Parachinar as the main town, is a tribal area inhabited mainly by people of Shia (Jaffria) sect " one of the few places in Pakistan that are dominantly Shia in terms of their population. Due to its border with Afghanistan, Kurram has been through the threat of militants and insurgency of Talibanization. By 2007, Taliban had already infiltrated in a significant proportion to target Shia community because they wanted free passage between Afghanistan and Kurram. But the local Shia population won`t let them use their land and thus started a series of armed clashes stretching over more 3 years. Finally, Taliban had to retreat, vindictive and determined to retaliate.      


During the warring years, Shia people could not safely travel to and from Kurram Agency. The main road between Parachinar and Thall (Hangu) remained closed for over 3 years. Convoys that escorted passengers along the road were attacked by militants; Shia passengers were killed and non-Shia usually just looted while vehicles were set on fire after plundering. As the security situation got somewhat better, the Thall-Parachinar road was opened in February 2011. Since then more than one attack has targeted vehicles carrying Shia passengers to/out of Kurram along the road, resulting in civilian causalities and injuries.       


Let`s not talk of the security situation as it`s common knowledge now how successful the security personnel have been in preventing militancy (not to discredit those few who lost their lives in the line of duty). The question to consider, and one not paid due attention heretofore, is whether our media should highlight the fact that passengers of Shia sect are being targeted en route. Two angles maybe are taken on this question. Media ethics and the public`s right to know the truth.


From media`s viewpoint, sectarian violence is a sensitive issue and headlines of attacks on a particular sect (which in Pakistan almost always happens to be Shias) can spark sectarian violence in other places in the county. Therefore, it is unethical to highlight sectarian attacks as such; instead the headlines in media tell that the attack killed this and this number of passengers. The policy of preventing sectarian violence sounds reasonable. However, the Shia population is certainly not satisfied. They feel neglected and under-represented in such a serious issue wherein they are the target of deadly militant attacks.


At some online newspapers where readers are allowed comments on posts, some readers have commented bitterly against the media`s policy of veiling the truth by removing the word Shia and using the common passengers ", stripping the incidents of the sectarian element that is at the core of the issue. They believe that the world should know that they are being targeted, hoping that it would bring some serious attention to the problem and their lives in future would be more secure.


Personally, I have always found it more convincing to stop the aggressor rather than sheltering the target and I believe that calling a spade a spade has its force against evil and oppression. Media channels must highlight the fact that a particular sect is being targeted because word of mouth through phones is faster than news in communities and it gives a deep sense of betrayal and victimization when the truth you know from your trusted kin/friend is hidden in the news " putting media`s neutrality to question.