Baloch Press: Between Nationalist-anvil and Khaki-hammer
I had met Mohamamd Khan Sasoli, the slain president of Khuzdar Press Club, a few months before his brutal murder on December 14th. Sasoli was in his mid 30s and very concerned about his safety because of growing threats journalists working in rural Balochistan faced. As Khuzdar District continues to remain one of the most sensitive parts of volatile Balochistan, Sasoli said members of his press club were regularly receiving threats urging them to give up reporting on certain issues. He had genuine fears. Who would kill him was still anybody’s guess given the involvement of multiple reclusive players in the ongoing deadly conflict.
“If we report the nationalists, the government will threaten us,” he explained his quandary with a toothless smile, “and if we cover the government, the nationalists will kick our a**** by branding us as the spies of intelligence agencies.”
Previously, two of Sasoli’s journalistcolleagues, Wasi Ahmed and Faiz Sasoli, had been killed by an underground Baloch group. Likewise, another young journalist Javed Lehri of Daily Azadi had been picked up by the intelligence agencies and subjected to severe torture for several months. I asked Lehri,23, about his ordeal. He hesitatingly said the spymasters beat him inhumanly during his captivity asking why the newspaper he worked for was called Azadi (liberation).
“They asked whose Azadi the newspaper stood for,” he recalled,” I said I had no idea as I only worked as a stringer for that newspaper.”
The Frontier Corps (FC) subsequently besieged the Quetta offices of Daily Azadi and Balochistan Express for a complete week.
By the time Javed was released after nine-month detention, he was urgently in need of seeing a psychiatrist in Karachi to cure post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) .
In 2010, I had the opportunity of organizing five media workshops at Quetta Press Club for rural journalists of Balochistan with the collaboration of the U.S-based National Endowment for Democracy and Balochistan Institute for Development (BIFD). During these workshops, we trained one hundred mid-career journalists from all 30 districts of the province discussing the issues of media, democracy and human rights. In our discussions, the following nauseating dimensions of Baloch journalists’ gruesome circumstances came under limelight.
Firstly, state intelligence agencies and the Frontier Corps (FC) regularly interfere in the journalists’ professional responsibilities. They often dictate reporters to refrain from covering issues such as enforced disappearances, torture, security forces’ clashes with nationalists and protests organized by nationalist parties.
My murdered friend Sasoli informed in one of those workshops in a conference hall full of twenty journalists that he was receiving threats from an anti-nationalist group warning that if he covered the Baloch nationalists, he would have to pay a ‘heavy price’ for his reporting. He continued reported. He paid the price too. Likewise, a senior journalist from Gwadar, Lala Hameed Hayatan, 25, whose dead body was thrown in a river on November 18 with a paper stating “gift of eid”, also fell victim of the same phenomenon. Hameed’s journalist colleagues allege that he had been “kidnapped” by the personnel of intelligence agencies and then killed within a few days. Another Baloch journalist Siddiq Eido was kidnapped a few days ago in Gwadar, adding to fears that he may experience the same ill-fated end like that of the other two Baloch reporters
Secondly, Baloch nationalist groups have also targeted journalists over the years by billing them as ‘spies’ of the government intelligence agencies. One such victim was fifty-five year old Dr. Chishti Mujahid, the Quetta-based bureau chief of weekly Akhbar-e-Jahan, who was gunned down on 9 February, 2008. The Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) accepted responsibility for Mujahid’s killing which was followed by two more murders of reporters by the same organization. On 16 April, 2009 Wasi Ahmed, the Khuzdar correspondent of Daily Azadi, ironically a pro-nationalist newspaper, was killed while Independent News of Pakistan (INP) correspondent, Faiz Mohammad Sasoli, was shot dead on 27 June, 2010 yet again in Khuzdar.
Thirdly, as competition in the age of ‘breaking news syndrome’ intensifies, untrained press cameramen and photographers operating in a conflict zone like Balochistan meet fatal experiences. Two press cameramen were killed in Quetta this year while covering violent incidents. Malik Mohammad Arif of Samaa TV had rushed to Quetta’s Civil Hospital on April 16 to cover the murder of a Shia leader’s son. While he was filming inside the hospital, a suicide bomber struck, killing Arif and 50 others. Another young television journalist, Ejaz Raisani, sustained bullet injuries while covering a religious procession in Quetta which claimed his life on 6 September.
Fourthly, influential tribal chiefs pose another dimension of threats to journalists. For example, Riaz Mengal of Daily Intekhab was kidnapped presumably on the instructions of the son of a former federal minister after the reporter exposed the trafficking of illegal vehicles in Balochistan. Four other journalists from Jaffarabad were called by a tribal chief supposedly for a press conference but were beaten up and deprived of their equipment by the same war lord.
Jacqueline Park, the Asia-Pacific Director of International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), recently termed Balochistan as a “notoriously dangerous location to work as a journalist”
As the Balochistan conflict worsens, truth becomes the first causality.
All stakeholders perceive journalists as a threat and do whatever it takes to kill the potential messengers. In the backdrop of turmoil that has engulfed Balochistan, media watchdogs must pay attention to the plight of journalists working in the conflict-stricken province. While some organizations should initiate training programs on conflict reporting, the employers must at least back their reporters in the (battle) field. It is our moral responsibility to provide financial assistance to the families of those gallant journalists who were killed while upholding the true voice.