Report highlights pathetic plight of the media in Balochistan -Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF)

Paksitan Press Foundtion

Report highlights pathetic plight of the media in Balochistan

Umar Cheema

ISLAMABAD: The Balochistan media has been sandwiched between the military and militants and has gone into a phase of dead silence, reveals a report bringing into sharp focus the unattended agony of journalists in the troubled province.

The report declares it ‘the most dangerous region of the most dangerous country for practising journalism’. A report compiled by Intermedia, an outcome of the assessment mission to Balochistan, paints the plight of journalists working in the conflict-hit province where repression is present in its worst form.

The reporters there have to either kill the news or be killed in a province which claimed 14 dead bodies of journalists in four years, said the report titled ‘Press in Stress — Media Under Threat in Balochistan’.

“There are a lot of stories in our pocket that we can’t report,” a journalist told his TV head office while attending the fact-finding mission that compiled the report on the media situation. The separatists target-kill the defying journalists and the FC mark as unforgivable ‘enemies’ those who publish militants’ claims without taking the official version, no matter whether getting the official word takes them days inwait, frustrating the media houses hungry for ‘breaking news’.

The Frontier Constabulary (FC) has been alleged of monitoring newspaper offices critical to the force’s activities as well as vetting the information and the civilian government blocks advertisement of those papers give space to the non-state actors.

The journalists operating from north-eastern districts — Dera Bugti, Kohlu, Naseerabad, Jaafarabad, Jhal Magsi, Bolan and Barkhan — face threats for reporting on military operations against the Bugti/Marri resistance, underground separatist groups and human rights violation such as the IDP crisis and target killings.

Compared to Dera Bugti and Kohlu, no-go areas for media, the districts of Naseerabad and Jaffarabad are where local media is subject to a feudal system. The journalists in Naseerabad when reported the case of women buried alive a couple of years back, were threatened and felt relieved only after reconciliation with the feudal brokered through the chief of Magsi tribe having provincial governor, Zulfiqar Magsi.

In the Pushtan belt comprising Pishin, Loralai, Qilla Abdullah, Qillah Saifullah, Mussakhel and Zhob where activities of Taliban and al-Qaeda are under media focus, the threat to journalists emanate from reporting on cross-border movement of Taliban, conflicting international interests, activities of shadowy groups and security agencies, smuggling and Nato supplies.

In the coastal belt comprising Gwader, Panjgur, Awaran and districts in the centre such as Khuzdar, the threat flows from conflict between the military and separatist groups. In Khuzdar, more journalists have been killed than elsewhere in Balochistan, according to the report.

What journalists do have to contend on a daily basis, said the Intermedia report, is the choice to be killed or carry the report. Narrating their ordeal, the report said, a photojournalist who took picture in 2010 of the Baloch leader Shahzain Bugti being dragged by men-in-uniform, was questioned by FC intelligence unit, for releasing this picture. “If I say civilians have been killed by FC in an operation aimed at militants or a blast targeting the FC, they both don’t like it,” told a journalist to Intermedia.

When the militants claim killing many FC soldiers, the journalist explained, the FC would try to downplay, saying only two or three have been killed. The militants are likewise. The TV reporters have to hold back stories of attacks on FC convoys until the casualties are confirmed by the FC. “I called the FC six times since morning but can’t get through,” said a journalist about an attack on an FC convoy in Turbat.

“It is difficult to report because the FC will contradict the figures even if the hospital has confirmed it. My channel is asking for the report but I don’t have the official version. If I report the figures in contradiction of the official figure, the FC will question me. If I don’t, my organisation wants to know why?” he said.

The journalists has to wrestle with the decision whether or not to report when Balochistan High Court issued arrest warrants for Pervez Musharraf for killing Nawab Akbar Bugti. In case of reporting it, we sensed trouble from the army and in case of otherwise, the Baloch insurgents would dub us as the army’s sympathizers, said a journalist.

A BBC Urdu journalist, Ayub Tareen, was questioned by the FC for interviewing Baloch leader Dr Allah Nazar in hiding. Journalism may be the fourth pillar of the state elsewhere but in Balochistan, said Ayub. “If the poor do something wrong, the media drags him through muck but the powerful and influential gets away with murder. You want to talk to the Hazaras (community) who are being killed, the Baloch IDPs, the relatives of missing persons but you cannot,” he told the Intermedia.

Any FC operation or insurgents attack in Dera Bugti or Kohlu cannot be verified as journalists have already fled the area, living with other IDPs and the local administration does not know what’s going on, said Ayub who also faced threats from a Baloch organisation if the group does not receive proper coverage.

Sometimes rival insurgent groups, say Baloch Liberation Army and Baloch Republican Army, not only coerce for more space, they also vie for blocking the coverage of the rival militant group.

Again, the agenda setting of media groups expose their journalists to varied kind of threats as for international media is concerned. The Voice of America (VOA) focuses more on Talibanisation especially in Quetta, Ayub explained, and don’t follow the Balochistan story all that much but the BBC concentrate on the latter. The VOA correspondent, Naseer Kakar, has relocated in US after receiving threats from Taliban.

The local media finds itself caught between the devil and deep sea in form of threats and ban on advertisement. A newspaper, for instance, has anti-establishment stance, nevertheless its widely respected editor, Anwar Sajidi, was named in the hit list of militant organization, Baloch Tehreek-e-Nifaz-e-Aman. The newspaper’s correspondent in Gwader has received threats for being ‘pro-Pakistan’ and simultaneously its Turbat correspondent Manzoor Baloch has been dubbed as ‘spy of the intelligence agencies’.

The paper has been ranked in top-10 in the list furnished by the information ministry, nevertheless it receives no advertisement from the government.

The FC is not behind in employing intimidating tactics. In September 2011, the paramilitary force stopped the newspaper from distribution on the Balochistan University campus, terming the paper anti-government, also posting FC soldier outside the newspaper’s office for ‘the security of the newspaper’ without being requested so.

In 2010, the FC men monitored the two other dailies, whose management went to Chief Minister for help. Another pro-Balochistan and anti-establishment paper, closed its publication in protest against FC monitoring.

Reporters in Chaman can’t report on incursions from across the border due to problems with sovereignty, activities of Taliban or attacks on Nato supplies without checking with the FC. “The security agencies want control over information,” said a journalist Noor Zaman. “If they see a ticker on a channel about Chaman, they call the reporter to ask why he hasn’t called them first (for version).”

In districts of Jaffarabad and Naseerabad, there are thousands of IDPs from Dera Bugti and Kohlu, journalists among them, still living there despite the military’s claim that they have returned. Bomb blasts; attack on government installations happen routinely, said the report. The journalists cannot report the attacks such as August 14, 2011 attacks on railway tracks and other installations in Jaffarabad, Dera Bugti, Sibi and Bolan without ‘invoking the wrath of authorities even when they are under pressure from insurgents to report them.’

Narrating an incident of rocket-hit residential area in Dera Bugti, Shahid Ali Abro, a TV cameraman, said the relatives brought dead bodies at national highway and he was filming the protest when armed men approached him. They said film the children under the shroud. Shahid said he couldn’t do that because the channels would not carry the images. “But I was forced to film them. The man said he would watch the news for the footage and if it wasn’t there, I should know that he would come for me,” Shahid recounted. As he couldn’t comply with the armed men’s order, he was called at a place to face three face-covered men who broke his nose and fingers.

The journalists in Balochistan feel that the mainstream media is not sympathetic to the province and its issues. “The national media doesn’t give proper coverage to Balochistan news,” said Saleem Shahid, President Quetta Press Club. “If the prime minister visits, they give blow by blow details of the event. Balochistan (they consider) is not a province but a tehsil. A man trapped in a lift in Karachi makes bigger splash than three men target-killed in Balochistan.”

In absence of proper coverage of national media, there is a big audience for international media such as BBC and VOA in Balochistan, notes the report. With the international media like BBC’s focus on human rights, people look to them for their voices to be heard that also serve the interest of pro-independence groups that want to gain international sympathy.

As for the banned sectarian organisations are concerned, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi’s statement inciting hatreds against Shias calling them infidel, was forced to be carried in papers, however, the media was directed in October 2011 not to print any propaganda by banned outfits.

The directive not only put to test the media facing death threats in case the statements are not published. At least in one case that of Akhtar Mirza, the 46-year old news editor, the decision created so much stress that in internal meeting with staff after the order the editor clearly betrayed signs of stress telling the staff, “one of us will have to go given the circumstances”. He died of heart attack soon after the directive. “The media in Quetta and his colleagues insist that it was due to the immense stress due to pressure on him from all sides,” said the report.

Akhtar Mirza was part of a committee that journalists formed to minimize the incident of media becoming a pawn in multi-faceted conflict.

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