By: NAZIHA SYED ALI
THE first thing that strikes you upon speaking with journalists in Balochistan is the palpable sense of fear among them.
A few weeks ago, I met some of them while they were attending a workshop in Quetta. They came from all over the province, including some of the areas where the insurgency is at its height — Khuzdar, Awaran and Turbat. The common refrain was ‘don’t quote me by name or say anything that could indicate my identity’.
Journalists are a beleaguered community in the province. They face intimidation and worse from different quarters: the Frontier Corps, military intelligence agencies, pro-government anti-nationalist groups, sectarian and separatist militants as well as feuding tribes.
According to figures compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists, 13 deaths have occurred in Balochistan between 2006 and 2012. Journalists in Quetta say that the actual death toll exceeds 30 in the past five years alone. No one has been put on trial, let alone convicted, for any of these murders.
In May this year, owners and chief editors of six newspapers were issued show cause notices by the Balochistan High Court for violating an earlier order not to publish statements by extremist organisations.
The papers in question had printed the claim of responsibility by a sectarian group, Jaish Al-Islam, for the murder of a police official the month before. One of the editors said the court told him it was no excuse to say that if he did not follow the militants’ instructions he would be risking his life.
Sometimes militants even insist on newspapers printing names of individuals that are on their hit list, which gets the publications into further trouble with the law.
Press releases from extremist organisations, even political parties who champion press freedom, are common. They often arrive with a note saying “Publish without editing”.
This is generally followed up with instructions as to which page and in how many columns the release should be printed. There is no editorialising of news: making your opinions known in such circumstances would be highly reckless.
As far as possible, Balochistan journalists’ strategy is to report on the most innocuous happenings — the building of a new road, minor local government issues, a health seminar, and the like.
But that is difficult to pull off in a province with a raging insurgency, a state that resorts to unconstitutional and repressive measures to deal with it, and terrorists of all stripes wreaking havoc.
Working in such an environment can be like picking one’s way through a minefield. Journalists speak of having to be careful of every word they use, to the extent of counting how many words they use for each side so as not to seem partial.