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RSF calls for better media access to Tribal Areas

(RSF/IFEX) - Reporters Without Borders calls on the Pakistani authorities to allow the news media better access to the Tribal Areas in the northwest of the country, where the army has been waging an offensive against the Taliban in Waziristan for the past three weeks.

"We are aware of the risks for journalists, but the current lack of access to Waziristan for the Pakistani and foreign media is unsatisfactory," Reporters Without Borders said. "Although it has embarked on a major operation in the Tribal Areas, the Pakistani army is drastically restricting the media's access not only to combat areas but also to certain refugee camps. In practice, South Waziristan is closed to both the press and humanitarian agencies."

"With Pakistani TV stations agreeing to a good conduct code that includes coverage of the security situation, the federal government should display greater tolerance and allow groups of journalists to independently visit certain parts of Waziristan," the press freedom organisation continued. "The lack of independent coverage of the situation in the Tribal Areas, especially the fate of civilians in Waziristan, violates the requirement of transparency. It is unacceptable to allow the press into the area just to confirm the 'military victories'."

Independent reporting, including information about the situation of civilians, has been getting more and more infrequent since the offensive against the Taliban, called "Path of Salvation", began on 17 October.

Officers attached to the Pakistani military's information department, called the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR), have for weeks been pressuring news media to use only official information in their coverage of Waziristan. The ISPR has been giving news conferences every day about the operation's progress.

The army has organised at least two visits to the operational areas to allow the media to see its "victories" over the Taliban. The journalists who were helicoptered there from Islamabad and Peshawar were not allowed to move about freely in the areas visited.

A few journalists have been allowed to visit the biggest refugee camps near the city of Dera Ismail Khan (in neighbouring North-West Frontier Province). But the media do not have completely free access to the tens of thousands of displaced persons.

Last week, around 10 foreign journalists were turned back by the police when they arrived in nearby Mianwali, the last town on the road north from Punjab province into North-West Frontier Province. "I was held by the police for five hours in Mianwali," a European journalist told Reporters Without Borders.

A United Nations representative in Islamabad told Reporters Without Borders that the lack of access to Waziristan was a "major difficulty."

Access to the Tribal Areas was already very difficult before the offensive. Several reporters, including Associated Press journalists, were turned back from Dera Ismail Khan and Tank on 8 and 9 September. The army installed roadblocks around Tank.

Reporters Without Borders meanwhile also calls on the Pakistani authorities to quickly address the dangers to which journalists are exposed in Balochistan province. The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) has just issued a report about this serious problem.

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