“No photograph please,” was the reply of the Jamaatud Dawa (JuD)spokesman, Yahya Mujahid, when I went to interview Hafiz Muhammad Saeed soon after 9/11, while working for the international wire service AFP. For years, views of many veteran Islamist leaders remained the same, something which now appears to have changed to some extent with the growing power of media.
After almost 10 years of my first interview, Yahya, one of the highly committed mujahids of the JuD visited my previous employer, Ary News, along with other leaders of the Defence Of Pakistan Council, and requested for TV coverage. “I hope you will show live the address of Hafiz sahab,” he said.
“Yahya, do you remember when you refused to allow photographs of Hafiz sahib?,” I asked. “Yes, but things have changed over the years and the media has become very powerful. We can’t ignore the electronic media,” he said.
While it is true that the 9/11 attacks may have changed the world to some extent, it has changed Pakistan a lot, particularly after the US-led coalition’s attack on Afghanistan and the crossing over of thousands of Taliban and al Qaeda activists into Pakistani territory. Within no time, the country became the centre of attraction for the world media with hundreds of foreign journalists and media teams storming Pakistan. Suddenly religious leaders, particularly the pro-Taliban and indirect supporters of Osama bin Laden, became the centre of the media’s attention.
During this period, the media was confronted with the situation where some leading religious scholars like Mufti Shamzai — a fatherly figure for the Taliban — when approached by many foreign and local journalists to find out details of Mullah Omar’s early days, refused to have his visuals or photographs taken. Shamzai and Maulana Mufti Jamil accompanied former ISI chief General Mahmood Ahmed on the directives of then army chief General Pervez Musharraf to meet the Taliban leader and ask him to direct Osama bin Laden to leave Afghanistan.
In a rare interview that he gave to a leading TV anchor of a private channel, former ISI chief Lt.-Gen (retd) Javed Nasir’s face wasn’t shown for the entire 40 minutes’ duration of the programme. Another interview in which the person’s face was obscured was that of Islamic scholar Maulana Taqi Usmani. However, after many years he gave another interview and this time he did not impose this condition.
Despite this change, in the last few years, members of the media, particularly camera persons, have faced threats by those who do not want to be photographed — and this has happened particularly in Fata and Swat. In 2007, many photojournalists and camera persons allegedly faced life threats when they released photograph of Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan Swat leader Maulvi Fazlullah addressing a press conference. However, al Qaeda’s philosophy has been different. In the post 9/11 era, they used television as their main weapon by releasing video and audio messages. Prior to Osama’s death, it often released his visuals just to show to the West and the Americans that he was alive and well.
The issue of photographs and TV visuals remains disputed even today, but many Islamic scholars have now realised the importance of electronic media and are of the considered opinion that it can be used for passing their messages to much larger viewership.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 4th, 2012.