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Last Updated: Sunday, 17 July 2005, 13:57 GMT 14:57 UK
Battling the foreign legion of media
Aamer Khan
By Aamer Ahmed Khan
BBC News, Lahore

Lahore is still reeling from the impact of the horde of foreign journalists who descended upon the city in search of the madrassa, or religious school, supposedly attended by Shezhad Tanweer, one of the four London bombers.

Jamia Manzurul Islamia madrassa in Lahore
Lahore's Jamia Manzurul Islamia had to deal with the media scrum
Local journalists - many of whom signed up as fixers for the foreign legion - say they have rarely had a more hectic time.

"You won't believe some of the crazy requests that they made," said Qaddafi Butt, the correspondent for a local TV station.

Another local fixer said: "One journalist called me from the airport to ask if he could be taken straight away to the nearest militant camp."

The fixer did not want to be named because he did not want to "ruin his relations with the foreign media".

'No clue'

A local fixer gets at least $100 a day - about half a month's salary for reporters.

Locals say the pressure on them to take foreign journalists to the "right madrassa" was intense.

Shezhad Tanweer. Photo: Ross Parry
Shezhad Tanweer is thought to have attended a madrassa

"Most of them probably had no clue what they were dealing with," said one.

Lahore has at least 21 major madrassas and well over 100 smaller ones.

None of the city's larger schools - all of which are registered with the government - has been implicated in any kind of militant activity.

But most of them became secretive, even about their regular activities, after the 11 September attacks in the US.

One senior madrassa leader says in the days immediately after 11 September 2001, some of the mainstream madrassas made a genuine attempt at opening themselves to the Western media.

"They wanted to be understood by the West as centres of learning," he said.

But they say they became disenchanted with the foreign media because of the bad press they got despite their co-operation.

Alma mater

Shortly after the December 2001 attack on the Indian parliament - which nearly brought Pakistan and India to war - the Wafaqul Madaris, a federation that regulates madrassas belonging to various schools of thought, took a unanimous decision not to accommodate the foreign media at all.

Best of luck to my colleagues in Faisalabad now
Lahore media "fixer"

This mystique generated by the new policy of secrecy was what greeted the legion of foreign journalists visiting Lahore this weekend.

Renewed investigations by Lahore police following presidential directives of a fresh crackdown on extremist organisations also fed the frenzied hunt for Shezhad Tanweer's alma mater.

On Friday, journalists learned that a madrassa - Jamia Manzurul Islamia - had been "raided" by the police.

The managing staff of the Jamia were so hassled by the media over the next few hours they decided to hold a press conference on Saturday to declare they were not under any kind of scrutiny.

Tea and cakes

Barely had the press conference ended when a rumour spread that a British journalist visiting the headquarters of Lashkar-e-Toiba, one of Pakistan's largest militant outfits, had gone missing.

Madrassa in Faisalabad
The foreign journalists have turned their sights on Faisalabad

Lashkar's headquarters are about 40km north of Lahore and the stories associated with it are the stuff of jihadi legend.

Members of the organisation generated worldwide revulsion in the early 1990s when they brought back severed heads of Indian soldiers in Kashmir.

Such stories proved too alluring for some foreign journalists, despite the fact that Lashkar has never had a global agenda and has always remained focused on Kashmir since its emergence in the late 1980s.

But rumours of the disappearance were enough to throw a massive scare into the Punjab government.

One senior police official told the BBC News website they had already started questioning some of the mosques associated with Lashkar in Lahore by the time they learned the missing journalist had safely returned to the city.

He had been admitted into Lashkar headquarters, briefed about its current activities, given tea and cakes and sent off cordially with all his questions answered.

By Saturday evening, the bulk of the foreign legion had apparently been convinced there was nothing more for them in Lahore.

Then came news that four people had been picked up by military intelligence agencies near Faisalabad - a bustling industrial town about two hours' drive west of Lahore.

The exodus started on Sunday morning.

"Thank God," said one local fixer. "Best of luck to my colleagues in Faisalabad now."




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