Film challenges “official” narrative on military drone strikes

An edited version of this article was first published in The Express Tribune on Jan 12, 2014.

Islamabad  There is an apparent demand from human rights activists and some journalists to challenge the narrative pushed by officials on the military use of unmanned aerial vehicles or drones, especially the US drone strikes in Pakistan among other places.

It could perhaps be done by generating debate on the impact of drone strikes on innocent civilians living in the targeted areas and perhaps by overcoming the “invisibility” surrounding this technology through information gathering.

But generating that counter-narrative discourse and collecting information about drones and their victims is not an easy task. It might even seem impossible, given the secrecy surrounding the US drone campaign and the high level of inaccessibility of areas where these strikes are conducted, at least in Pakistan’s case.

Yet, there are some attempts to piece together information about drone strikes from disparate sources and make a case against the negative impact these strikes might be causing, as was obvious from the screening of the “Unseen War” and a subsequent panel discussion on the drone strikes in Pakistan on Saturday.

The film and panel discussion were organised by the Digital Rights Foundation, a Pakistani research-based advocacy organisation, at the ongoing third annual Cyber Secure Pakistan conference in Islamabad.

The film, produced by Tactical Technology Collective, an international nonprofit that aims to link rights activists with technology skills and tools, utilizes interviews with journalists, an academic and a technologist to give a basic understanding of Pakistan’s tribal areas and the drone technology that is being used by the US to target “militants” there.

Through the interviews, the film tries to establish that the “covert” use of drones for killing militants allows its users “political, military and moral invisibility”. This invisibility, coupled, in Pakistan’s case, with the historical unequal treatment of, and control of information in, the tribal areas leads to self-censorship and indifference in journalistic reporting of the strikes.

But the film puts through the important question of whether drone strikes are legitimizing targeted killings. It also sheds light on the way information and communications technology could be used to collect and understand information about the strikes and their impact.

In the subsequent discussion, Shahzad Akbar, a legal fellow for UK-based organisation, Reprieve, said drone strikes are killing human beings “without due process by state, by any state.”

The United Nations has condemned drone strikes, they are against international law and Pakistan’s own constitution gives every citizen an absolute right to life, said Akbar, whose organisation is fighting a case in the Peshawar High Court on behalf of civilians killed in drone attacks.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates at least 416 civilians have been killed in US drone strikes in Pakistan between 2004 and 2013, but the bureau also states that only 1.5 per cent of drone casualties can be confirmed as “high-value targets.” The vast majority of drone’s victims — around 76 per cent of the total — fall in the grey area of “alleged combatants.”

During the discussion, Taha Siddiqui, an independent journalist who also appears in the film, said the narrative around the drones in Pakistan is controlled and people are not asking crucial questions about the presence of militants in a given location in the first place.

Another panelist, Sadaf Baig, who also appeared in the film, said the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) were an “information black hole” even before 9/11. Baig, who is a researcher and development communications student, said the infrastructural issues in FATA were compounded when the multi-stakeholder drone strikes began.

The three panelists agreed that there was a lack of information in the press regarding drone strikes. Akbar said the Pakistani media’s role is especially problematic.

“Civilian deaths in drone attacks are not front page news, but when Hakimullah Mehsud is killed it is on the front page,” he said. “It seems the sanctity of human life is not part of our (Pakistani media’s) reporting.”

The film’s producer, Marek Tuszynski, who joined the discussion via Skype, said the short film is part of a series called “Exposing the Invisible,” which looks at two things: a new way of investigating hidden information through collaboration and use of technology, and shedding light on the concept of invisibility in situations, such as drone strikes, where the aggressor usually has access to all information but people outside see nothing.

Siddiqui agreed with Marek and said that in the case of drone strikes there are independent tools and independent information out there, if only local journalists look beyond the official narrative.

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