The tragedy of journalists in Balochistan
By: Hamid Mir
ISLAMABAD: Although journalism is considered to be a risky profession across the globe now, in countries like Pakistan it is turning into a deadly profession.
The September 29th target killing of a TV reporter Abdul Haq Baloch in the Khuzdar district of the trouble-stricken Balochistan has compelled his fellow journalists to stop performing their professional duties and lock the Khuzdar Press Club. Khuzdar has turned into one of the most perilous areas for the media in Pakistan.
The Khuzdar Press Club was attacked with a bomb by a separatist militant organisation — Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) – way back in 2008, injuring three senior journalists. Five other journalists from Khuzdar have already lost their lives in the last two years, including the President of the Khuzdar Press Club, Muhammad Khan Sasoli, who was killed on December 14th, 2010.
The latest victim of the violence against independent media in the area – Abdul Haq Bloch – was the Secretary General of the Khuzdar Press Club. He was a great source of inspiration for his colleagues and his violent murder has affected his community members quite deeply. The intensity of the panic amongst local journalists can be gauged from the fact that many of them decided to leave Khuzdar along with their families soon after the burial of their friend, Abdul Haq Baloch, in the evening of September 30th.
Available statistics show that over 80 journalists have been killed all over Pakistan in the last decade. Of them, 35 were shot dead by target killers, 12 lost their lives in suicide bombings while eight of them were killed after being abducted. Of the 80 journalists who lost their lives between 2002 and 2012, 16 were killed in 2011 alone while another six have perished in 2012. And four of them belonged to Balochistan.
To tell the truth, Pakistan has become the most dangerous country for journalists after Syria and Somalia; Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and as well as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) of Pakistan are three major trouble spots for Pakistani journalists. These areas actually became unsafe after Pakistan joined hands with the US in its so-called war against terror in 2001. Most journalists in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Fata usually face threats either by the Taliban militants or security forces. However, the situation in Balochistan is much more complicated.
Journalists in Balochistan are threatened not only by the pro-Taliban Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) and Pakistani security forces but also by Baloch separatists and state-sponsored anti-separatist militant outfits. Resultantly, many journalists of Balochistan deemed it fit to either go underground or migrate from the province.
The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) correspondent in Quetta, Ayub Tarin, was asked by his company last year to move to Islamabad in the wake of increasing threats from the Baloch separatists. Another Quetta-based journalist, Naseer Kakar, who was working for Voice of America (VOA), left Balochistan when he was threatened by security forces. A TV reporter in the border area of Chaman, Noor Zaman Achakzai, has also faced multiple threats in the recent past while discharging his professional responsibilities. Pakistani security forces had in fact lodged a case against him by tagging him an anti-state element and that too for reporting on a border dispute between the Pakistan and Afghan authorities. Yet another attempt was allegedly made by security forces to falsely implicate him in gun running and terrorist activities. At the same time, he was constantly being threatened by the Taliban militants.
As a matter of fact, troubles for media persons in Balochistan have intensified since October 2011 when the Balochistan High Court barred media coverage of banned groups. Most of the banned outfits started threatening local media persons, seeking coverage which was banned in the wake of the court orders. However, as journalists were never provided any security by the government, many local newspapers were left with no option but to violate the court orders in a bid to save the lives of their reporters.
As far as Abdul Haq Baloch is concerned, he was first threatened by a state-sponsored militant outfit — Baloch Musalah Diffa Army (BMDA or The Armed Baloch Defence) on November 26, 2011 when an SMS was sent to his mobile phone. A BMDA spokesman Mir Jang Baloch then released a hit list carrying the names of journalists, which also included that of Abdul Haq Baloch, who used to work for a TV channel.
A few others on the hit list included TV journalists Abdullah Shahwani, Munir Noor and Abdullah Khidrani. Mir Jang Baloch was actually furious over the media coverage of several Baloch nationalist political parties.
But the journalist community of Khuzdar decided not to publish the hit list issued by the Baloch Musalah Diffa Army, which is allegedly being run under the patronage of a government-backed senator from Balochistan. The BMDA subsequently threatened the Noshki Press Club and warned that the Noshki-based journalists could be attacked if the hit list was not published by local newspapers.
The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) reacted sharply and condemned the threats hurled by the BMDA in the form of letters, phone calls and the persistent presence of armed men in and around the club premises.
The office-bearers of the Khuzdar Press Club eventually convened a meeting on November 27, 2011 and discussed ways and means to counter the growing threats from the BMDA, especially after local authorities had already expressed their inability to protect the lives of journalists. The office-bearers of the club also made phone calls to their colleagues in big cities like Quetta, Karachi and Islamabad, seeking help.
However, as the local authorities simply failed to address their concerns, members of the Khuzdar Press Club unanimously decided to suspend all journalistic activities in protest. This further infuriated the BMDA, prompting them to issue yet another hit list carrying the names of Khuzdar Press Club President TV journalist Nadeem Gorgnari and newspaper journalists Khurshid Baloch and Munir Zehri. These journalists were accused of spying for the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA). As most journalist bodies condemned the threats hurled at their colleagues in Khuzdar, the BMDA withdrew the hit list a few days later.
Abdul Haq Baloch and his colleagues subsequently resumed their professional duties, not knowing that the withdrawal of the hit list was only a trick.
The family members of Abdul Haq Baloch are tight lipped about his killers belonging to a death squad working with the open support of state agencies, but some of his colleagues accepted that elements in security forces were not happy with Abdul Haq Baloch because he was in contact with some families of the missing Baloch and had guided them on how to approach the Quetta bench of the Supreme Court of Pakistan. The Supreme Court is hearing a case of more than 100 missing persons of Balochistan out of which 19 belong to Khuzdar.
Under these circumstances, journalists in Balochistan continue to face threats everyday from Khuzdar to Quetta and from Gwadar to Turbat. They are caught in the middle of a crossfire between pro-state and anti-state elements, which has already led to the killing of Abdul Haq Baloch.
On the other hand, the government has failed to provide them security against these elements, with many in the media feeling that the brutal murder of Baloch was in fact a crude message from the security forces and their political allies which are against giving coverage to the activities of Baloch nationalist parties. As Pakistan is set for another general election in the first quarter of 2013, the journalist community in Balochistan is feeling increasingly vulnerable. This is despite the fact that there could be no fair and free elections without the presence of an independent media. There is a general perception that the Pakistani media has become stronger in recent years. No doubt that the number of television channels in Pakistan has multiplied from one in 2002 to more than 100 in 2012, and the number of radio stations has gone from one to 150.
However, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) ranked Pakistan as one of the most dangerous countries for the media in 2012, while the Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF) ranked Pakistan at 151 out of 179 countries in its 2012 Press Freedom Index and the Freedom House ranked Pakistan at 144 out of 197 countries in its freedom of press ranking in 2012.
Keeping in view these alarming facts and figures, it is high time for the Government of Pakistan to ensure the safety of the journalist community, especially in the remote areas of the country. It is unfortunate that while terrorists have punished those who revealed their atrocities, the state agencies too have kidnapped and killed many upright journalists to hide their derelictions.
Journalists reporting from trouble-stricken areas like Balochistan have faced this two-pronged danger and many have lost their lives because it was humanly impossible for them to abide by the diktat of the two sides at once. While more than 80 Pakistani journalists were killed in the last one decade, not even a single person was prosecuted. The only journalist, whose killers were arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment, was an American – Daniel Pearl.
Under these circumstances, parliament should be urged to make special laws to ensure that media persons discharge their professional responsibilities without any fear. The recommendations made by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) at its 12th Doha Forum (held in May 2012) can be kept in mind by the parliamentarians while working on new legislation. Bringing together 600 international participants, including political leaders, decisions makers, academics, media figures as well as representatives of civil society and regional and international organisations to make recommendations for the protection of journalists worldwide, the IFJ had urged strengthening state laws.
The IFJ recommendations have already become a key part of the global campaign to press governments on their responsibility to protect journalists. They emphasised the need to vigorously enforce the existing legal instruments, binding national authorities to prevent and punish violence against journalists and request the UN to develop new strategies to promote states’ compliance with their obligations as well as the creation of a special unit in the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to follow up media cases.
The IFJ recommendations further called for the right of their families to receive compensation as well as the need for donors to link aid assistance to countries’ record on media protection. If these recommendations are not implemented on priority basis to ensure the safety of media persons in Pakistan, it is likely that many more journalists will stop working like their colleagues in Khuzdar and it would be difficult for Pakistani democracy to flourish without a free media.