This section comprises of interviews/profiles of Malik Siraj Akbar with different media outlets.
By Pamela Constable
November 14, 2011
Siraj Ahmed Malik, an ambitious young Pakistani journalist, was enjoying a stint last fall on a fellowship at the Arizona State University when he started getting chilling messages from home.One after another, his friends and colleagues were disappearing, he learned, and their bodies were turning up with bullet holes and burn marks. A doctor’s son from his home town was arrested and vanished. A fellow reporter was kidnapped, and his corpse was found near a river. A student leader was detained, and his bullet-riddled body dumped on a highway. A writer whose stories Malik had edited was shot and killed.
“These were kids I had played cricket with, people I had interviewed, younger reporters I had taught,” Malik, 28, said in an interview last week in Arlington County, where he now lives. The final straw came in early June, when one of his mentors, a poet and scholar, was gunned down in Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan, Malik’s native province.
On Aug. 19, Malik applied for political asylum in the United States. In his petition, he said that his work as a journalist and ethnic activist in Baluchistan, where he had exposed military abuses, made him likely to be arrested, tortured, abducted and “ultimately killed by the government” if he returned.Two weeks ago, his petition was granted. It was a highly unusual decision by U.S. immigration officials, given Pakistan’s status: a strategic partner in Washington’s war against Islamic terrorism; a longtime recipient of U.S. aid; and a democracy with an elected civilian government and vibrant national news media.
“I never wanted to leave my country, but I don’t want to become a martyr, either,” said Malik, a soft-spoken but steely man who spends his days hunched over a laptop at coffee shops in Clarendon, checking with sources back home to update his online newspaper, whose name means “Baluch Truth.”“What’s going on in Baluchistan is like the dirty war in Argentina,” he said. “I need to be telling the story, but I can’t afford to become the story.”Baluchistan is the Wild West of Pakistan — a remote desert province, larger than France, that is home to a mix of radical Islamic groups, rival ethnic and refugee gangs, rebellious armed tribes, and security agencies that have long been reported to kidnap, torture and kill dissidents with impunity.
Living under constant threat
Yet this ongoing violence and skulduggery receives scant international attention. Foreign journalists are banned from visiting the region alone, while headlines about Pakistan are dominated by a separate, high-stakes border conflict in which American drones and Pakistani troops are battling the Taliban and al-Qaeda.As a result, a handful of local journalists such as Malik have been left to investigate and report the news without big-city patrons or visiting foreign delegations to give them cover.“The threat of disappearance was always lurking in the back of our minds,” Malik wrote in his asylum petition. “My friends, colleagues and I lived with the knowledge that yesterday it was him that disappeared; today it is someone else; tomorrow it could easily be me.”
As Malik recounted over coffee, pressure and threats from unidentified intelligence agents were a daily hazard. According to his asylum file, agents accosted him in airports and hotels, detained and questioned him, and repeatedly threatened to “teach me a lesson.”Malik acknowledges that as an advocate for the Baluch nationalist cause, his journalism is hardly neutral. The ethnic minority movement, which seeks autonomy from the central government, includes armed groups. Malik claims that he does not condone them, but he describes their stance as a “defensive” response to official abuse.
Still, his case for protection was bolstered by reports from human rights groups and letters from university officials in Arizona, who called him “nothing short of brave.” In a July report, Human Rights Watch described a “practice of enforced disappearances” of Baluch leaders and intellectuals, often by security agencies, and listed 45 abductions or killings since 2009.
Activists including Malik assert that more than 5,000 Baluch have vanished in the past decade, but the issue has never been seriously addressed, while the government has both co-opted and persecuted Baluch tribal chiefs. In 2007, Pakistan’s military president fired the head of the Supreme Court, who sought to probe the disappearances. In 2008, a civilian government took office and an investigative commission was established, but little action has been taken.
“The authorities have no answers because there is no accountability,” said one Pakistani diplomat, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject. He suggested that Malik had exaggerated his fear of persecution as a “ploy” to remain in the United States, but he also called disappearances “the tip of the iceberg” in a society where security forces hold sway behind the scenes. Even a chief justice, he added, “knows there are lines he cannot cross.”
Driven to speak out
Najam Sethi, a newspaper publisher and titan of Pakistan’s liberal media establishment, was Malik’s boss from 2006 to 2010, when he worked as a correspondent in Quetta. For the past few months, Sethi has been on his own sabbatical at the New America Foundation in Washington, partly to escape the pressure he faces at home.
At a public forum here last week, Sethi described Pakistan’s news media as free to snipe at politicians and expose financial scandals but said it remains cautious about reporting on military and intelligence institutions, partly out of respect and partly out of fear.
“The media are scared, because there is no one to protect them,” Sethi said.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, more than 40 Pakistani journalists have been killed since 1992. In May, a well-known investigative reporter, Saleem Shahzad, was abducted and found murdered. Shahzad had received threats after writing about al-Qaeda infiltration of the military, and a senior U.S. military official said his killing had been “sanctioned” by the government.
Asked about Malik, Sethi said he thought his former staffer had been too aggressive and outspoken. As Malik’s editor, he said, he had intervened several times with military authorities to protect him. “I wish he hadn’t gone so far,” Sethi said. “He crossed too many red lines.”
Malik, however, said he felt “betrayed” by such liberal media leaders, saying they have avoided speaking out against oppression in Baluchistan. He recounted how Baluch groups had been galvanized by the 2006 army slaying of the legendary tribal chief Nawab Akbar Bugti.
“For us, the killing of Bugti was Pakistan’s 9/11,” Malik said. After that, he said, he stepped up his exposure of the violence and abuses. His activities drew increasing attention from government agents, who, he said, called him a “traitor” and threatened to kill him if he did not stop.
Instead, Malik persisted. In early 2010, he attended a conference in India and denounced the disappearances. From his fellowship perch in Arizona last winter, and then while working briefly at the Center for Public Integrity in Washington in the spring, he wrote and spoke out at every opportunity.
But as the deaths of other Baluch journalists and friends began to mount, Malik said last week, he began to hesitate about returning.
“Baluchistan needs a messenger to the world,” he said, itching to get back to his reporting. “Here in the United States, I don’t have an office or money, but at least I can stay alive and get the message out.”(Read the actual story in the Washington Post)
This story originally appeared on BBC News on February 28, 2012
The nationalist insurgency in the Pakistani province of Balochistan does not often command international attention. But recent comments by US politicians suggest there could be a new appetite for addressing the conflict. BBC Urdu’s Amber Shamsi reports on how Baloch bloggers are leading the charge.
Balochistan’s long-running insurgency is all about greater political autonomy and the conflict has been brutal, with human rights groups accusing security forces of regularly detaining and torturing political activists.
Although the government has denied such accusations, activists insist their movements are closely watched and curtailed.
Malik Siraj Akbar is one victim of the tough stance taken by the Pakistani government.
“I became the bureau chief of a national daily at the age of 22,” he says. “I thought I had a bright future in Balochistan. Balochistan was my story. But I’ve lost my story.”
Mr Akbar is a journalist and blogger who was forced to seek political asylum in the US after he received threats from the government and intelligence agencies. His e-paper, Baloch Hal, was one of those that was shut down and the reason – he believes – that he was targeted. He has now had to substitute the dusty, conflict-ridden provincial capital of Quetta for a quiet suburb of Washington DC.
For the last eight years the insurgency has gone largely unnoticed by Pakistan’s mainstream media and by foreign news organisations.
It is a murky conflict in which underground nationalist groups and Pakistan’s paramilitary and intelligence agencies are the main players. The insurgency encountered setbacks in 2006 during the presidency of Pervez Musharraf. Baloch nationalist leader Akbar Bugti was killed at that time during an army operation.
Since then the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) appears to have been determined to block sites in Balochistan which are critical of the Pakistani state.
Since 2006, Pakistan’s telecommunication authority has blocked nearly 4,000 websites. Most of them are pornographic or contain blasphemous material, but a lot are those deemed “anti-state”. Many of these are websites, blogs and YouTube videos from the province of Balochistan.
Talking to the BBC, a PTA official said it was the government and not the telecoms authority that censors web content in Pakistan.
The PTA is reluctant to release the numbers and types of websites that have been blocked, and to date there has been no research into the exact number of Baloch websites on the forbidden list.
Given that many keep changing URLs and names, putting a finger on numbers is made all the harder. But Mr Akbar estimates that there must be hundreds.
“All over the world, the freedom to express oneself is best done through social media websites and blogs. We don’t [officially] have that right in Pakistan,” he says.
According to the Bytes for All organisation working to promote internet freedom in Pakistan, disappearances, illegal torture and extra-judicial killings of journalists, lawyers, students and political activists have increased rapidly throughout Balochistan in recent months.
It says that these developments received an “almost total blackout” by the Pakistani media.
But recently, Baloch nationalist groups have tried to fight back against media censorship. They asked cable operators to block the transmission of mainstream Urdu news channels throughout the province in protest over what they say is their refusal to cover Balochistan’s conflict.
“Reporters do send in the news, but there are no local voices from the interior or any in-depth analysis on the issues,” says Aurangzaib Khan, a representative of Intermedia pressure group.
He says that the kind of journalism being practised in the province is “forced”. “Reporters are made to report on stories that are not even newsworthy because they are under all kinds of pressure.”
He blames three forces responsible for “putting the screws” on journalists – the military, militants and separatists.
Blogging for truth?
But where the news media struggles, blogs flourish. Malik Siraj Akbar says that the world now looks to these blogs for news from the province.
For example, when UNHCR official John Solecki was kidnapped in 2009, the story was first broken by bloggers, he says.
But can blogs provide a holistic, impartial picture of Balochistan? After all, not every blogger is necessarily an objective and independent journalist.
I managed to track down one such blogger, a 29-year-old businessman who wants to remain anonymous for fear of retribution.
“We have to direct attention towards human rights abuses first. We are tortured and killed, as if we are not even human. First human rights must be restored in Balochistan, and then we can talk about women’s rights,” he says.
While human rights abuses in Balochistan have got scant attention in the rest of Pakistan, it is an issue gaining traction in Washington.
A US Congress Oversight and Investigations Committee recently held a hearing on human rights abuses in the province.
The Pakistani government has reacted strongly to the hearing, describing it as tantamount to “meddling in Pakistan’s internal affairs”.
But Malik Siraj Akbar says that this hearing is an achievement for Balochistan’s bloggers and human rights groups.
“In a sense, this is like Balochistan’s mini-Arab Spring, and the credit goes to those bloggers who have risked their lives to bring truth to the fore.”
But given that many bloggers are sympathetic towards the Baloch nationalist point of view, Aurangzaib Khan has a pertinent question.
“Who is telling the real story of Balochistan?” he asks.
Somewhere among rocky hills and dusty towns, where the scent of juniper wafts through the springtime air or snow grips the land with a cold, wintry hand, a 13-year-old-boy once sat writing stories for children’s magazines. His town was near the Iranian border in Balochistan, Pakistan’s largest province. At 16 he was writing a weekly sports column for an Urdu language newspaper in a land where politics was all but taboo. By the time he was 20, he was reporting on politics in English, and today he is a respected journalist in exile, receiving political asylum in the United States last year. That journalist is Malik Siraj Akbar, who is currently a Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy, where he is focusing on threats faced by the defenders of democracy, such as political leaders, human rights activists, and journalists.
Balochistan may be blessed with beautiful snowcapped mountains and juniper trees, but it is also one of the most dangerous places in the world, especially for journalists. Reporters Without Borders has named Pakistan the most dangerous place for journalists, singling out the Khuzdar region of Balochistan in particular. The Committee to Protect Journalists has documented that 42 Pakistani journalists have been killed since 1992, friends of Malik’s among them. The literacy rate of Balochistan is a paltry 37 percent compared to the national rate of 53 percent, according to journalist and human rights activist Mazhar Leghari. Few newspapers are published in the region, and little industry exists for advertisements that could bring in revenue to sustain them. Most people get their news from radio. Internet penetration is barely 10 percent in Pakistan, and the government has blocked 4,000 websites, according to Malik.
The blocked websites include The Baloch Hal (The Baloch News), Balochistan’s first online English language newspaper, which is founded and edited by Malik. The site is maintained from three different countries and is geared towards a foreign policy audience. Malik also has a blog, All Things Considered.
Malik told CIMA that journalists in Pakistan are in need of training in professionalism, ethics, and basic reporting skills. Media development organizations should promote community radio, especially in local languages. He pointed out that Iran broadcasts two radio stations in the Balochi language, but no American station like Voice of America broadcasts a service in Balochi. He would like to see the U.S. government play a broader role in broadcasting news and liberal values to counter the propaganda coming from Iran.
To read the original text of the Malik’s profile by the Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA), please click here
Reporting from the Danger Zone: An Interview with Pakisani Journalist Malik Siraj Akbar By — Torie Rose DeGhett
Published in The Political Note Book on June 20, 2011
How has this control exerted by the government and this threat affected his own reporting? “As journalists, we have a role to ensure good governance by doing accountability-based journalism. We do feel badly insecure because of the official violent response to our work and critique of government policies.” The Baloch Hal was banned by the Pakistani government in November of 2010, but despite that, Akbar says that “what we can do as professional journalists is to still give equal coverage to the government and the opposition. We have not changed our editorial policy but endeavored to stick to the idea of providing equal space to everyone to voice their stance on different issues. We believe there is no journalism but fearless journalism.”
Akbar says that the culprit when it comes to controlling the media is the army, which “actually calls the shots in Pakistan.” The influence of the army is incredible, and “has remarkably curtailed [the] Pakistani media’s role and responsibility as a watchdog. There is an unwritten convention that only a person with anti-US, anti-India and anti-Israel views can qualify as a good television talk show host. Once appointed, these talk show hosts, spread nothing but conspiracy theories and host retired army officers as “political experts” only to deny space to liberal political critics of the army. … The army defines the national interest, foreign policy and the internal policies. The media cannot independently investigate the role of the country’s secret services and their alleged complicity with Islamic terrorist groups.” This was, in fact, what Saleem Shahzad was reporting on just prior to his abduction and murder.
The Pakistani military’s hold on the media is rooted in a history “troubled with prolonged military rules and interruption of democratic governments.” He explains that the military rules (from 1958-69, 1977-88, and 1999-2008) “prevented the development of a democratic culture.” This, he says, provided a model for media control in current day Pakistan. “The army dictated the media; seeing this, the politicians also developed authoritarian tendencies toward the media.”
The concepts of patriotism and Muslimhood are key tools used to keep the media in check. Akbar writes that in the 1980s, Pakistan “underwent an extraordinary phase of Islamic radicalization by the then military regime headed by General Zia ul-Haq. “That was the time when phrases like ‘national interest,’ ‘national security,’ ‘patriotism,’ ‘good Muslim’ and ‘responsible citizen’ were narrowly defined by the military junta. Since then, it has become very easy for the governments (or the army) to shut down a newspaper or arrest a journalist for what they call undermining the ‘national interest.’”
There is another threat that competes with the powerful military, that of radical groups equally willing to enforce their paranoid censorship with violence. “Reporters face a constant threat to their lives from the secret services, paramilitary forces and non-state actors such as Islamic radical groups. The army expects the media organizations to report dead soldiers as ‘martyrs’ but the rivals as ‘terrorists’ whereas the Islamists would insist that their men should be termed as Mujahideen or Fidaeen which means ‘holy fighters.’” Reporters become objects of a tug of war between the rival messages of the military and the paramilitary.
“…Reporters who refuse to concede to such dictations often end up kidnapped, tortured or killed. In the midst of such challenging circumstances, a lot of reporters opt for self-censorship in order to avoid landing in trouble either from the security forces or the non-state actors such as Taliban and Islamic radical groups. I know a lot of journalists who have either quit the profession or fled their actual areas from where they used to report. Even this strategy has not worked. For example, Saleem Shahzad, the Pakistan bureau chief of the Asia Times who was recently killed, had fled Karachi to find shelter in Islamabad after receiving threats. He was eventually chased and killed in Islamabad, the nation’s capital.”
The dangers to journalists in Pakistan extend beyond the threat of direct target. When Akbar wrote back to me, he added an answer to a question I hadn’t asked and hadn’t thought to: what about the general dangers for correspondents who report on conflict in Pakistan? The general level of conflict in the country, paired with untrained reporters sent in too hastily is a big concern, one that “needs urgent attention.” He explained that this particular danger is a new one, triggered by changes in Pakistan’s political culture in the post-9/11 era. “First, the electronic media was liberalized in a country where 45 private news channels began to operate, ending the thirty-year monopoly of the state-controlled Pakistan Television (PTV) as the exclusive provider of news. Secondly, Pakistan was introduced with an unending wave of suicide bombings and violent attacks after Islamabad’s decision to join the US-led war on terror.”
These inexperienced private news channels raced each other to get the news, and “began to hastily recruit staff without training them how to cover in certain situations.” He illustrated his point with the stories of journalists in Quetta (Balochistan’s provincial capital) who hurried to blast scenes to get breaking news coverage. One lost an eye in a follow-up blast; the other lost his life to a suicide bomber. The problem is not just the level of conflict or the general danger of the context from which these journalists report, but the lack of training given to the reporters who are thrust into these situations without necessary precaution.“… It is very important for all media outlets, particularly broadcasting companies, to train their crews about safety measures. Many media crews do not have an emergency aid kit when they go to cover a conflict whereas most of them do not know how to use it at a time when a fellow journalist urgently needs medical assistance after receiving serious injuries.”
Given the immense danger the job entails, it can’t be a popular aspiration for many young Pakistanis to become reporters. I was curious what someone already in the profession might tell one of those few who still might have their sights set on the career. He said that they “should ask themselves what it is that still motivates them to become reporters in a country that is ranked as the deadliest place on this planet for reporters. [They] should know that a reporter’s job is neither to serve as a spokesman for the government departments nor to improve the image of the country and the government. Let the ambassadors and spokesmen perform that task.” He did encourage “the educated and committed youth who stand for a cause to come forward and become journalists.” He said that only people like that, educated and ambitious, could “revive the watchdog status of the media in Pakistan.”
This watchdog status has indeed been compromised. When the government puts the lives of journalists in danger, it also threatens journalism’s political role. I asked Akbar who he considered to be the best and most reliable sources within Pakistan and he told me foreign news organizations like the BBC Urdu Service. These organizations, he says, are under less control “because they are headquartered abroad and do not depend on the government for advertisements or fear attacks on their offices from government loyalists.
“Furthermore, these organizations fully back their correspondents and apply extraordinary international pressure if the government authorities manhandle or arrest their correspondents. Secondly, foreign media organizations hire the best of the reporters from Pakistan and pay them handsomely in return of their services. Many of these reporters are often western educated with better professional skills. Unlike their Pakistani peers who complain about journalism being a low-paid profession, these well-paid reporters of foreign media organizations attain ample time to concentrate on investigative reports. In case the correspondent is a non-Pakistani national, the chances of him being targeted a very slim. The worst thing that can happen to him/ her is deportation by the government officials over their displeasure because of a certain news story.”
One of the reasons I pursued this interview in the first place was because I felt that bringing attention to the experiences of journalists in Pakistan was something necessary, something not done often enough. As a Western journalist, many of my news sources are Western and I sense very little and scattered attention to what is an ongoing and serious problem. I asked him what he felt about the Western media’s coverage of Pakistani journalists who are censored, abducted, tortured and murdered. He responded that he found it “very disappointing.” He pointed out how selective the reporting is, with the attention focused only on dramatic cases involving reporters linked to foreign news organizations or from major cities. “For example, in the last ten years, the only reporter whose death was investigated by the Pakistani authorities was the Wall Street Journal correspondent Daniel Pearl. If he were not an American national associated with a leading newspaper, his murderers would perhaps never be brought to justice.”
Speaking as a reporter from Balochistan, he told me that most of the stories of egregious affronts to media freedom and murders of reporters in his own province never make it to the Pakistani media, let alone the global media. “Reporters who work in Pakistan’s largest province of Balochistan and get killed by the government authorities because of their professional commitment even do not get the support of local organizations which claim to be the champions of journalists rights. The reason for this indifference is because these reporters work for smaller newspapers. I know several reporters from Balochistan whose killings were not even reported by the Pakistani newspapers and television channels.
“I often complain that Reporters Without Borders (RSF), International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) oftentimes fail to get their facts right. They do not have a fulltime professional presence in Pakistan which should be responsible to monitor and document the cases of violence, torture and harassment against journalists and media organizations.
“I am disappointed how these organizations are kept in dark even by their own sources inside Pakistan about whatever happens to reporters in Balochistan.”
Journalism in Pakistan is in the midst of a serious crisis. Journalists are being targeted for their work and being put in danger by being underprepared for conflict reporting. Much of the gravest dangers are faced by those in the province of Balochistan, where such events go unreported, undiscussed and off the radar because of a media blackout and a privilege to stories connected to foreign media and larger cities. This should all be broadly known, but is not. Malik Siraj Akbar, who can speak to all of this from his own experience, provides an impressive look at the stamina of reporters in Pakistan, committed to journalistic integrity in the face of danger. This is what makes journalism an admirable profession.
Mr. Akbar was very comprehensive and detailed in his responses to my questions, something I’m very grateful for. Because everything he told me was so invaluable and so well said, virtually everything he told me is reproduced here in this article, most of it in direct quotes. He can be followed on Twitter here and I strongly encourage using his newspaper, The Baloch Hal, as a source of information for the province of Balochistan.
On November 22, 2010, the South Asia News interviewed me about the ban by the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority on the Baloch Hal and also focused on the issues faced by journalists working in Balochistan.
Malik Siraj Akbar (Panjgur,1983) is the editor in chief of the Baloch Hal, the first Baloch newspaper in English. This digital platform was blocked in Pakistan last November by the PTA (Pakistan Telecommunication Authority), which blocks most digital media that broadcasts the voice of the Baloch people. In addition to reporting for The Baloch Hal and other news outlets, Siraj Akbar has recently published his first book “The Dimensions of the Baloch Redefined Movement” (Xlibris, 2011). As a political analyst, Siraj Akbar has been interviewed by media such as Al Jazeera, BBC, The New York Times and The Guardian, among many others.
GARA spoke with Siraj Akbar on the phone as he is currently based in the United States thanks to a scholarship that recognized his courageous and innovative journalistic work. Before we start the interview, Siraj Akbar admits he fears reprisals back home. Little wonder here as his native Balochistan has become a desert in which bodies appear daily on sandy roadsides like victims of a shipwreck. His work has made Islamabad uncomfortable and the killing of so many journalists validates the young journalist’s fears for his own life.
Is the situation in East Balochistan as out of control as it seems?
Nobody thought that the situation could reach such levels of violence. Just five years ago the incidents were mainly concentrated in the regions of Dera Bugti and Kohlu but, today, they have spread throughout East Balochistan. Forced disappearances, the killings of dissidents, intellectuals, students, etc., multiply by the day even among families that have never before been politically involved.
The numerous reports by human rights organizations like Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch may imply that Balochistan’s is a conflict with roots in the systematic violation of human rights. But the truth is that have to admit that it is a political conflict. Unfortunately, Islamabad´s response to the political conflict is terror.
How should the Baloch conflict be addressed in Pakistan?
Unfortunately, whenever the Prime Minister comes to visit East Balochistan he brings threats rather than solutions. First, Islamabad should recognize it as a political conflict and take measures to promote dialogue. Key to this is the end the forced disappearances drama because this only promotes hatred among the Baloch. Both local and international sources point to the secret services and the Frontier Corps behind the disappearances and murders. They often abduct Baloch in front of hundreds of people in bazaars or at universities. A positive step would be to include Baloch soldiers within the Frontier Corps ranks which, up to date, are almost exclusively formed of Pashtuns. Once you have created a climate of dialogue, Islamabad should negotiate with those Baloch leaders who wish to do so.
But Islamabad puts the blame of Balochistan’s backwardness on those tribal leaders, doesn´t it?
You can not disband the tribal system overnight. In any case, today the Baloch tribal leaders are also political leaders. In my native Panjgur, Sardar Akhtar Mengal (head of the Mengal clan and the Balochistan National Party) came to people’s houses asking for their votes. That is the way to win people over. Like the Mengals, the Bugtis also had a political party. If we compare the Khan of Kalat (heir in exile to the throne in eastern Balochistan) with Akhtar Mengal, we´ll see that Mengal is 50% a democrat and 50% an aristocrat, while the Khan is 100% tribal. Before his assassination in 2006, Nawab Bugti (veteran leader of the Bugti clan) negotiated with Islamabad as a political leader of a coalition that included the majority of the Eastern Baloch. Paradoxically, Islamabad has negotiated with leaders internally, through the tribal line, but never from the political line.
Do the Baloch share a common roadmap for an eventual negotiation process?
No, and this is a big problem. Some call for autonomy, others for self-determination, and the armed groups and the Marris (the biggest Baloch clan) want independence. In any case, there are many other things to be observed: if Balochistan is an independent state, will it be an Islamic Republic? What will the status of the tribes be? What about the role of women? What will be the relationship between politics and religion? These, and many others, are key issues in a roadmap still to be written.
Thinking about the more immediate future, how will the Baloch people be affected by the withdrawal of the occupation troops in Afghanistan?
It will affect the Baloch both positively and negatively. Washington’s reduction of financial support to the Pakistani army will imply that Islamabad will have less resources with which to crush the Baloch. Other than equipment and money, troops like the Frontier Corps were also trained by the Americans in the frame of their “war on terror”. The negative part of the withdrawal is that a likely victory for the Taliban – partly financed and supported by Pakistan – will bring the Baloch into the hands of radical fundamentalists. Islamabad is using them to counter the Baloch nationalist movement. The Islamization of East Baluchistan is a recent phenomenon that degenerates, among many other side effects, in numerous attacks against Shiites and Baloch mainly at the hands of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (an armed group allegedly linked to the Taliban).
However, there is much talk lately of “peaceful Balkanization of Pakistan” . . .
Right, but the paradox is that it’s in current circumstances in nobody’s interest, not even neighbouring “archenemy” India. If Pakistan breaks, India will be flooded with thousands of refugees and militant Islamic radicals just as happened after the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir. Iran – a Shiite theocracy – does not want to see their territory invaded by legions of Sunni militants. For Afghanistan, the balkanization of Pakistan would add new problems to an already long list. Similarly, Washington is highly concerned about Islamabad’s nuclear warheads falling into the hands of fundamentalists. Balochistan will remain without infrastructures; it will lack employment, water, electricity, literacy . . . but that will not lead to the disintegration of Pakistan. Inside the country, both the Baluch and Sindhis want independence, and the Pashtuns call for their Pashtunistan. However, these nationalists still have not managed to join forces in order to weaken Pakistan. All this said, I think that the so-called “peaceful balkanization of Pakistan” is out of the question at least at this moment.
Meanwhile, Pakistan is strengthening ties with neighbouring Persia, isn´t it?
While the ideological differences between Shiites and Sunnis could pose an insurmountable obstacle, both countries have addressed their priorities from the most absolute pragmatism. Without going any further, last summer Islamabad and Tehran signed a seven billion project to build the IP (Iran-Pakistan) pipeline. The IP would crisscross the Baloch territory from west to east. Besides, both governments fight alongside to quell the Baloch nationalist movements, to crush the Baluch on their respective borders.
Energy resources plus an highly strategic position boasting a thousand kilometres long coast at the gates of the Persian Gulf. To what extent is the oblivion to which the Baloch are condemned deliberate?
The Khan of Kalat said once that the Baloch were among the losers of World War II and I’m afraid they will also join the same list after the last war in Afghanistan is over. The message from Pakistan to the West has been clear: if you raise the Baloch issue we will make things even more difficult for you in Afghanistan. Moreover, there is very little information about our region. The West often confuses the Baloch cause with the Pashtun Taliban movement, and the fact is that the Baloch movement is the most secular current in the whole region, very much in the antipodes of religious fundamentalists. Indeed, this lack of information prevents people from thinking of Baluchistan as a plausible and effective secular buffer zone positioned between the Islamic republics of Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan.
Do you assume part of the blame? [Do you think the Balochs also committed some mistakes?]
Absolutely. I’ve always said it’s a terrible mistake to boycott the elections in Pakistan. A Member of Parliament still enjoys great respect in the West. By not having them the Baloch lose the opportunity for their representatives to speak with foreign representatives and diplomats. I know this is paradoxical, and even unbearable for many Baluch, but the truth is they are losing opportunities when it comes to getting international support. I think the struggle of the Baluch people has to be multidimensional – through armed struggle on the ground if they support it for themselves as an option, but they also have to struggle through parliamentary politics and their own media. We all know the Baloch won’t get much from Parliament, but we have to understand how much they lose by not being in it. (Courtesy: Crisis Balochistan)
The following interview originally appeared in The News on Sunday on June 6, 2011
Is it still possible to reach out to the radical nationalist elements and salvage the situation? Editor Baloch Hal believes it is
By Beena Sarwar
Does one laugh or cry at the answers given by people on the streets of Lahore when asked what they know about Balochistan? Most can’t even name a city in Pakistan’s largest province (‘Punjab Balochistan ke barey mein kitna janta hai’, Sharjil Baloch, BBC Urdu online, March 1, 2011).
The ignorance is not limited to the ordinary Lahori. Malik Siraj Akbar, editor of the Baloch Hal online daily, can recount stories about the ignorance of journalist colleagues in Karachi and Lahore. But let’s leave these stories aside just now. The point is that there is little awareness in the rest of the country about the situation in Balochistan, never mind the names of its cities.
“Those who are getting killed in Balochistan represent the cream of society,” points out Akbar. The decimation of the progressive, secular, middle-class, educated people, writers, journalists, students, including some who were about to complete their Masters, combined with the continuing radicalisation of the youth, means that there are few moderate voices left in Balochistan.
In this situation, what does Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) do in November 2010, but block Baloch Hal, one of the few Baloch voices still calling for reconciliation, parliamentary solution, and dialogue.
Other Baloch portals are also banned, including blogs and sites that use the dateline ‘Occupied Balochistan’ — which Baloch Hal does not, despite the nationalists’ pressure.
Moderate voices like Akbar and his Baloch Hal must walk a tightrope between the military and the militants, where one man’s martyr is another man’s traitor and vice versa. “The role of intellectuals has been diminished, extremists dictate us. The FC (Frontier Constabulary) wants us to call them (nationalists) ‘terrorists’; the nationalists want us to refer to their dead as ‘martyrs’.”
Baloch Hal tries to keep a balance, despite the pressures. “The internal polarisation within Balochistan has become very strong. Many of the youngsters have become extremists. To the nationalists, we are traitors because we don’t pick up the gun. The government thinks we’re too pro-Baloch,” says Akbar.
Is it still possible to reach out to the radical nationalist elements, salvage the situation? Akbar believes it is. “But the initiative has to come from the centre, from people in other provinces. The Baloch just see that there’s silence from there about their issues.”
Baloch Hal, run by a miniscule team of volunteers, tries to bridge the gap. It started as “a small blog in Nov 2009” after Akbar lost his five-year old job as the bureau chief of a major English language Lahore-based daily. Driven by the need to document what was happening in Balochistan, he threw his energy, skills and resources into Baloch Hal, taking up consultancies to pay the bills.
One such consultancy entailed training a hundred journalists from around the province. Akbar believes that these journalists, living in remote areas often with few amenities, are “the real heroes” of Balochistan. “The Balochistan Union of Journalists doesn’t accredit anyone from outside Quetta and doesn’t own these jouranlists because they are not ‘full-time’ reporters, but work as freelancers, and earn their living elsewhere. I say if you pay them, they will become full-time reporters.”
He knows what it’s like to be in their shoes: he started his career as a district correspondent in his hometown Panjgur (electrified in 2001) spending his own money on faxes while reporting for the Urdu daily Kohistan. He then moved on to the English language daily Balochistan Express. “They don’t even give you a press card.”
Baloch Hal describes itself as “the first online English newspaper of Balochistan which staunchly pursues an independent editorial policy aiming to practice objective journalism. The online paper offers candid opinion, in-depth analyses, revealing interviews, investigative reports and fresh photographs which are instantly shared with a global audience by using social networks like Twitter and Facebook”.
“I want to expand it to include podcasts, newscasts and so many other things in the pipeline,” says Akbar. “This is just the beginning.”
In a province with low Internet penetration, he is aware that his target audience is outside the region. It is important to reach out to that audience to prevent the further ‘ghettoisation’ and isolation of Balochistan as he sees it. His own switch from Urdu to English journalism was critical to projecting Balochistan’s realities with all its nuances to the outside world.
Akbar’s current fellowship in the USA has made him more determined to institutionalise Baloch Hal according to top journalistic standards, introduce a fact-checking department, and to keep trying to get writers from Balochistan to write.
He’s well aware of the dangers. In the last nine months, he has lost six colleagues to violent death, mostly at the hands of ‘unknown assailants’. “The mainstream papers just say ‘man killed’ — they don’t say that man was a journalist. Police blame these murders on ‘enemies of the country’. We say they must be properly investigated.”
“My dream is to see a strong, educated, middle class youth in Balochistan,” says Akbar. “I come from a middle class family. I’ve seen how education empowers people.”
He points to the rapid changes in Baloch society. “There were already many changes from what it was like in the 1960s and ‘70s — but now you’re seeing changes in a matter of six or seven months.”
It is important for these changes to be documented and for alternative views to be given space. Baloch Hal provides a platform where people can express themselves through the pen rather than a gun. Banning rational, moderate voices from Balochistan only shuts more doors. That is the last thing that an elected civilian government that stresses reconciliation and dialogue should be doing. PTA, are you listening? (Courtesy: The News International)
Malik told RFE/RL on November 17 that he decided to apply for asylum after he began receiving information from his native province of Baluchistan in western Pakistan that many of his friends and colleagues had disappeared and were later found dead with gunshot wounds.
بلوچستان کی حقیقت کون بتائے گا!
بی بی سی اردو ڈاٹ کام، اسلام آباد
صحافی اور بلاگر ملِک سراج اکبر کو گزشتہ سال مبینہ طور پر خفیہ اداروں کی دھمکیوں کی وجہ سے سیاسی بنیاد پر جلا وطن ہو کر امریکہ میں پناہ لینی پڑی۔ ان کا کہنا ہے کہ وہ اپنے وطن کو بہت یاد کرتے ہیں۔
’میں بائیس سال کی عمر میں ایک قومی اخبار کے لیے کوئٹہ کا بیورو چیف بنا۔ میرا خیال تھا کہ میرا بلوچستان میں ایک روشن مستقبل ہو گا۔ بلوچستان ہی میری اصل کہانی تھی، جس کو میں کھو بیٹھا ہوں۔‘
اگرچہ وہ بلوچستان کی سرزمین کو چھوڑنے پر مجبور ہوئے، انہوں نے اپنی کہانی نہیں چھوڑی۔ جس آن لائن اخبار کی وجہ سے ان کو پاکستان کے خفیہ اداروں اور فوج کی طرف سے دھمکیاں ملیں وہ اب اسے پرخطر کوئٹہ کی بجائے پرامن واشنگٹن سے چلا رہے ہیں۔
’ہمارا اخبار بلوچ حال اس طریقے سے نہیں چل پا رہا جسیا ہم چاہتے تھے۔ ہم چاہتے تھے کہ ہم بلوچستان سے خبریں شائع کریں مگر ہم بروقت خبریں نہیں شائع کر پا رہے۔ اندرون بلوچستان میں ہمارے سٹرنگرز کو سکیورٹی کا بہت بڑا مسئلہ ہے۔‘
سنہ 2006 سے سپریم کورٹ کے احکامات پر پاکستان ٹیلی کام اتھارٹی نے اب تک کم سے کم چار ہزار ویب سائیٹوں کو بند کیا ہوا ہے، جن میں بلوچستان کے عنوان سے لکھے ہوئے بلاگز، دیگر ویب سائیٹس اور ویڈیوز شامل ہیں۔ ان میں سے ایک ویب سائٹ ملک سراج اکبر کی بلوچ حال بھی ہے۔
پی ٹی اے کے ایک اہلکار نے واضح کیا کہ ادارے کا ویب سائٹس کے مواد پر کوئی قانونی کنٹرول نہیں ہے۔ وہ صرف بین الوزارتی کمیٹی کی سفارشات پر عمل کرتے ہوئے فحش، توہین آمیز اور غیر ملکی ویب سائٹس پر پابندی لگاتے ہیں۔ ان غیر ملکی عناصر ویب سائٹوں میں بلوچ ویب سائٹس شامل ہونے کے سوال پران کا کہنا تھا ’غیر ملکی ویب سائٹس تو گنی چنی ہیں۔ ویسے بھی اس فیصلے پر پی ٹی اے کی کوئی مداخلت نہیں ہوتی۔‘
فیصلے کے اختیار پر اہلکار نے بتایا کہ آئی ٹی کی وزارت میں ایک بین الوزارتی کمیٹی ان معاملات کو دیکھتی ہے جس کی سربراہی سیکرٹری انفارمیشن ٹیکنالوجی کرتے ہیں اور اس کمیٹی میں خفیہ اداروں کے نمائندے بھی بیٹھتے ہیں۔
ملک سراج اکبر کہتے ہیں ’دنیا بھر میں اظہارِ رائے کا سب سے بہترین طریقہ کار سوشل میڈیا ویب سائٹس اور بلاگز کو مانا جاتا ہے۔ پاکستان میں ہمیں اظہارِ رائے کا بنیادی حق نہیں ملا۔‘
انٹرنیٹ سے متعلق حقوق کے لیے کام کرنے والی تنظیم بائٹس فار آل کی حال ہی میں شائع کی گئی رپورٹ کے مطابق، بلوچستان میں صحافیوں، وکلاء، طلبا اور سیاسی کارکنوں کی غیر قانونی حراست، گمشدگیوں، ماورائے عدالت قتل اور ان پر تشدد میں اضافہ ہوا ہے اور ان واقعات کو پاکستانی ذرائع ابلاغ نے تقریباً ’بلیک آؤٹ‘ کیا ہے۔
حال ہی میں بعض بلوچ قوم پرست تنظیموں نے صوبہ بلوچستان میں اردو چینلز کو احتجاج میں بند کرایا۔ ان تنظیموں کا موقف تھا کہ پاکستان کا میڈیا بلوچستان کی صورتِ حال پر خاموش ہے۔
آزادی صحافت پر کام کرنے والی غیر سرکاری تنظیم انٹر میڈیا کے اہلکار اورنگزیب خان کا کہنا ہے ’بلوچستان میں جو کچھ ہو رہا ہے، پاکستان کا مین سٹریم میڈیا اس کی درست عکاسی نہیں کرتا۔ خبریں تو آجاتی ہیں، لیکن اس پر مقامی لوگوں کی آوازیں سامنے نہیں آتیں اور نہ ہی گہرہ مطالعہ کیا جاتا ہے۔‘
اورنگزیب خان کا کہنا ہے کہ بلوچستان میں اس وقت جو صحافت کی جا رہی ہے، وہ زبردستی کی ہے۔ ’صحافیوں کو ایسی خبروں کو رپورٹ کرنا پڑتا ہے جو شاید چھپنے کے لائق نہ ہوں مگر وہ دباؤ کے تحت مجبوری میں کام کرتے ہیں۔‘
گزشتہ سال اکتوبر میں اورنگزیب خان نے انٹرمیڈیا کے لیے اسی موضوع پر ’میڈیا انڈر تھریٹ ان بلوچستان‘ کے نام سے رپورٹ شائع کی تھی جس میں انہوں نے تین خطرات کی نشاندہی کی: فوج، شدت پسند اور مزاحمت کار۔ اس تین طرفہ دباؤ کے باعث بلوچستان کی اصل تصویر سامنے نہیں آ پاتی۔
اس ماحول میں بلوچستان سے خبروں کو عام کرنے میں بلاگرز کا کردار اور بھی اہم ہو جاتا ہے۔ ملک سراج اکبر کا کہنا ہے کہ بلوچستان کی خبروں کے لیے دنیا کی نظر اب بلاگز پر ہے۔ ’اقوامِ متحدہ کے ادارے برائے پناہ گزین کے اہلکار جان سولیکی کے اغوا کی خبر بلاگرز نے بریک کی تھی۔ ہمیں امریکہ سے پیغامات آ رہے تھے اور ہم ان کو تازہ صورتِ حال کے بارے میں آگاہ کر رہے تھے۔‘
سوال یہ ہے کہ کیا بلاگرز اصل تصویر کی عکاسی کر سکتے ہیں؟ ملک سراج اکبر کی طرح سب بلاگرز صحافی نہیں ہیں۔ میرا رابطہ انتیس سالہ ضمیر خان (نام تبدیل کیا گیا ہے) سے ایک خفیہ نمبر پر ہوا۔ وہ کوئٹہ میں کاروبار چلاتے ہیں اور سنہ 2009 سے بلوچستان کے بارے میں مختلف ناموں اور ویب سائٹوں پر لکھ رہے ہیں۔
ان کے بلاگز اور ٹوئٹس پر پاکستان کی فوج، پنجابیوں اور پاکستانی میڈیا پر تنقید تو ہوتی رہتی ہے مگر ان کے بلاگوں میں صوبے میں آبادکاروں کے قتل اور خواتین کے حقوق کے بارے میں خاموش ہیں۔
ضمیر خان اپنا دفاع کرتے ہوئے کہتے ہیں ’سب سے پہلے انسانی حقوق کی طرف توجہ دلوانی ہوگی۔ ہم پر جو مظالم ہو رہے ہیں، ایسا لگتا ہے کہ ہمیں انسان ہی تصور نہیں کیا جاتا۔ پہلے بات انسانی حقوق کی ہوگی اور پھر آگے چل کر خواتین کے حقوق پر بات ہو سکتی ہے۔‘
ہوئی جس میں بلوچستان میں انسانی حقوق کی خلاف ورزیوں پر غور کیا گیا۔
ملک سراج اکبر بلوچستان کے حالات پر آٹھ فروری کو امریکی ایوانِ نمائندگان میں کھلی سماعت کو بلوچستان کے بلاگرز کے لیے ایک بہت بڑی کامیابی اور’انقلابی قدم‘ قرار دیتے ہیں۔ ان کے بقول جن مسائل کے بارے میں شاید پنجاب میں آگاہی نہیں ہے امریکی وزراتِ خارجہ اور نظریاتی ادارے اس پر بات کر رہے ہیں۔
’ایک طرح سے یہ بلوچستان کے لیے چھوٹے پیمانے کا عرب سپرنگ ہے۔ اس کا پورا کریڈٹ بلوچ بلاگرز کو جاتا ہے جو خطرہ مول لےکر سچ کو منظرِ عام پر لائے۔‘
انٹرنیٹ پر بلوچ بلاگرز کی برادری تو متحرک ہو گئی ہے مگر وہ بلوچ قوم پرستوں پر تنقید کرنے سے گریز کرتے ہیں اور ان کا نقطہ نظر یکطرفہ ہوتا ہے۔ وہ صوبے کو مقبوضہ بلوچستان بھی کہتے ہیں اور تشدد کو قتلِ عام۔ اورنگزیب خان کا کہنا ہے کہ ویسے بھی اگرچہ بلاگرز یک طرفہ ہیں تو صحافیوں کو بھی سچی معلومات نہیں مل پاتی۔
تو بلوچستان کی حقیقی کہانی کون بیان کرے گا؟
German Radio Deutsche Welle interviewed me in November 2010 about the ban on the Baloch Hal
I spoke to the Urdu Service of the Voice of America, Washington DC, about targeted killings in Quetta city
An interview with the BBC Urdu Service
This interview originally appeared in online newspaper, News Pakistan in two parts on November 2,3, 2012
Akbar, who is currently residing in the United States, is an ambitious Pakistani journalist and has been actively highlighting the Balochistan issue across the globe.
He is a Contributing Writer at the Huffington Post and a former Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington D.C.
He is the founder and the editor of The Baloch Hal, Balochistan’s first online English language newspaper. His newspaper was banned in Pakistan because of its fiercely objective and critical editorial policy.
He also wrote a book The Redefined Dimensions of Baloch Nationalist Movement which was released in the US in 2011.
He spoke exclusively to Newspakistan.pk about the current situation in Balochistan and his words offer a critical look into a crisis in great need of broader coverage. Here is the first part of his detailed interview.
First of all what are your views about current situation in Balochistan?
Balochistan is currently going through a serious political and administrative crisis which is worsening with every passing day. The affairs of the province are covertly but strictly run by the Frontier Corps and intelligence agencies.
The political government is powerless in terms of making major decisions but, at the same time, it is deeply inept and corrupt as well.
Genuine political leaders, activists and independent journalists have gone in hiding or fled the province because they fear being kidnapped and killed by state-sponsored intelligence agencies and death squads.
On the top of this abysmal situation, sectarian killing of Shia/ Hazaras have significantly increased while the state seems to be intentionally promoting radical Islamist elements in Baloch areas to counter the Baloch nationalism.
Can political dialogue resolve the issue of insurgency in the province?
There have been a number of attempts in the past one decade to address the conflict in Balochistan through dialogue. The most broad-based endeavor was made in 2004 under the leadership of caretaker prime minister Chaudhary Shujaat Hussain.
Two parliamentary committees were constituted which also enjoyed the trust and acceptance of the Baloch nationalists. But those committees failed because of a number of reasons.
For example, Nawab Bugti’s killing in 2006 derailed the negotiation process while, most importantly, hawks in the Pakistan military establishment and federal bureaucracy refused to implement the recommendations of the committees (this was repeatedly confirmed by Senator Mushahid Hussaib Syed—who headed one of the committees).
Political dialogue can resolve all kinds of disputes but at this point there are no signs that the army is willing to see pro-independent Balochistan leaders like Hairbayar Marri and Brdamdagh Bugti on the negotiation table. Likewise, the Balochs do not trust the Pakistani authorities.
They do not want to negotiate with the political government or the military establishment without any international guarantors because they say they have been betrayed time and again the past despite official promises.
Do you think the Establishment has really made its mind to stop taking recourse to military means in ending the conflict in Balochistan?
The Establishment has been trying to quell the insurgency for the past eight years but it has failed because the insurgency has spread in breadth and width of Balochistan.
Secondly, insurgency can be quelled only by allowing a political settlement of the conflict and the Establishment does not seem to be encouraging that either.
How do you see Akhtar Mengal’s six-point agenda which he presented in the Supreme Court?
Mengal’s Six Points did not have anything which had already not been demanded by all political stakeholder and international human rights organizations in order to normalize the situation in the province.
The government and intelligence agencies rejected all of Mengal’s points within 24 hours after they were presented. Thus, those Six Points are no longer significant. They are just a part of the history.
Do you see any political future for Mengal after his recent six-point agenda?
Mengal is the last of the Baloch nationalists acceptable to the Pakistani Establishment. He will be allowed to contest elections.
He will be accommodated in the future Balochistan government but that will ultimately make him as unpopular among the Baloch as Nawab Akbar Bugti was in 1970s and Nawab Raisani is today.
Do you believe Akhtar Mengal will be able to fill his political vacuum in the province when separatists have become radical about his (Akhtar Mengal’s) demands?
Akhtar Mengal already made a political blunder by appearing before the Pakistani Supreme Court. His decision was very unpopular with the radical Balochs.
If he becomes the next Chief Minister of Balochistan, he will directly be pitted against the hardliner Balochs and required to take action against them.
This will create a very challenging situation for him because he will be required to deliver to the Establishment’s expectations.
In case the government approves six-point agenda of Mengal, will it be able to woo the separatists?
Mengal’s Six Points even do not reflect his party’s stance on Balochistan. These Points are basically a set of recommendations about addressing the issue of law and order in Balochistan and building confidence of the enraged nationalists.
To end the insurgency and resolve Balochistan conflict, the Establishment will probably have to concede to tougher demands. And I am sure BNP does have another longer list of those demands.
What will be the role of Pastuns in the province against the separation movement?
The Pashtuns are not a part of the current conflict nor are they a part of any separatist movement. They have never faced military operations.
Since the Pashtuns and Baloch live on their respective historical lands, the Pashtuns neither support nor oppose the Baloch movement.
On the other hand, the Balochs say they will support the Pashtuns if they want to create their own province, join Khyber Pakhtunkhwa or join Afghanistan.
Is Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) as popular in the province as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in Waziristan?
No. Lashkar-e-Jhangvi is absolutely unpopular among the people in Balochistan because the society has always been secular and home to even a large number of non-Muslims.
The Baloch society is not known for attacking people on the basis of their religion. It mainly operates in Quetta not elsewhere in the province. There is a general impression that the LeJ is sponsored by the Pakistani intelligence agencies.
Do you see any likelihood of international forces intervention in Balochistan in the future?
I do not see any signs of international military intervention in Balochistan in near future. The maximum support we will see will come in forms of statements and parliamentary resolutions from international governments and organizations which will urge Pakistan to resolve the conflict through political means and end human rights abuses.
We do not know a single country that currently officially supports the idea of an independent Balochistan.
Do you see the possibilities of Baloch political parties contesting the next general elections?
The National Party, which boycotted the previous elections, will contest the next elections. The Balochistan National Party also seems to be interested in participating in the elections although it has not officially publicized its plans.
Can any leader bridge the gap between the warring parties?
Nawab Khair Baksh Marri is the ideological father of the current nationalist movement. Only he has the power to influence the insurgents to give up arms.
What are the interests of China, India and the US in Balochistan?
Besides China, which constructed a port in Gwadar, we have not seen signs of Indian and American presence or interest in Balochistan.
The Balochs are staunchly opposed to the Chinese presence in their province where armed groups have carried out a number of attacks on the Chinese engineers working on various projects in Balochistan.
In addition, there is Saudi and Iranian interest in Balochistan where they want to fight their Sunni versus Shia proxy battle.
Does the Supreme Court’s recent verdict on Balochistan’s government have any political significance?
What the Supreme Court said in its judgement about the Balochistan government —it has failed to play its constitutional obligation—was already known to the people and the media.
So, that was not a significant pronouncement nor was it a big deal to reaffirm that the security forces were responsible for committing human rights abuses in the province.
What counts at the end of the day is what the SC can do to end all these practices and bring back the missing persons and end the political role of intelligence agencies.
Will SC’s intervention in the province really help resolve the issue?
The Supreme Court intervention is unlikely to yield any positive results given the fact that the intelligence agencies and the representatives of the security forces were either unwilling to cooperate with the court in the first place or unwilling to accept the charges leveled against them.
This is mainly because of the culture of impunity that has developed over so many years in Pakistan where our security forces blatantly carry out rights abuses and easily get away with it.
In the case of the Supreme Court ruling, we also see that the security forces and the intelligence agencies have very smartly skipped their share of the blame and all criticism seems to be directed at Chief Minister Raisani and his government.
Until the personnel from security forces, who are blamed for carrying out rights violations, are brought to justice, the Supreme Court intervention will not make much sense to Balochistan.
Why did the government ban local media in the province?
The government is unhappy with the media on two accounts. It does not want the media to cover the activities and operations of the Baloch insurgent groups as they regularly make telephone calls to the media organizations to accept responsibility for attacks they carry out against the government.
The government believes the coverage of these groups amounts to glorifying violence and demoralizing the security forces whereas the media insists that people have a right to know what is happening in their surroundings, who is doing and what has caused such break-down of law and order.
Secondly, the Balochistan High Court has also warned to imprison newspaper editors for at least six months if they publish the statements of the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi.
Once again, the government justifies the ban saying that it amounts to depicting the Lashkar as a heroic force.
Our argument, as the media, is that if the government fails to protect the people’s lives then our readers and viewers at least have a right to know who is behind these killings and what they want to achieve by carrying out such attacks.
I do not think there is any element of glorifying violence in the media coverage of the armed groups. After all, they are a reality of the society and we have to cover them as a part of our job.
Is there any division between Brohi and Bloch tribes?
No. There are no apparent divisions between the Baloch and Brohi tribes. The separatist movement comprises of people from tribes that speak both the languages.
What is the role of local media organizations in the current situation of the province?
The local media works under extraordinary circumstance. It multitasks in a situation when the mainstream Pakistani media does not sufficiently cover Balochistan. So, there is a lot of dependence on the local media to highlight people’s issues.
In the recent years, journalists have come under remarkable pressure and physical threats. At least 22 local journalists have been killed in Balochistan since in 2009 and these figures are increasing day by day. So, the media directly faces the heat of the conflict.
Lastly, what is the future of the province?
If the federal government and the military establishment continue to run Balochistan on ad hocism and through a policy of divide and rule, I see a very bleak future for the province and its people.
Such policies can convert Balochistan into a deadly battle field where a civil war can erupt which will entail pro-establishment Baloch tribes versus anti-establishment Baloch tribes, Balochs versus Punjabis, Balochs versus Pashtuns, Shias versus Sunnis, moderate Muslims versus Talibanized Muslims.
In addition, lack of human development and economic opportunities is making Balochistan a very frustrated society.
The educated Balochs are far more anti-Pakistan than their elders. They see no hope in the country. The challenge ahead is how Islamabad chooses to address this myriad challenge.
On December 25th, 2012, the Pakistan Frontier Corps launched a military operation in southern Balochistan’s Mashky area, in Awaran District. The operation has received little or no attention in the Pakistani media. Tanqeed speaks to Malik Siraj Akbar, editor-in-chief of the banned online paper, The Baloch Hal, to get an update on the situation, and a take on why the Mashky atrocities have been ignored.
Tanqeed (TQ): What is the status of the Mashkey operation right now?
Malik Siraj Akbar (MSA): On its fifth day, the operation has relatively slowed down as far as firing and door-to-door search operations are concerned. The heavy deployment of the Frontier Corps (F.C.) is still in place. According to local residents, the security forces have established at least 12 new check posts. The deployment of the F.C. has restricted civilian movement and caused a shortage of edible supplies in the area and also blocked road communications. At least 20 people, including women and children, have been killed in the operation. The Baloch insurgents have also inflicted losses on the F.C. and the F.C., on its part, says most of the people killed in the operation were ‘terrorists’, a charge the locals deny.
The claim of the security forces cannot be trusted because the operation is taking place in a populated area which cannot be the same place from where the Baloch insurgents operate. The insurgents mainly hide in and operate from mountainous areas. Dozens of local residents have also been whisked away by security forces and taken into custody for interrogation. Their whereabouts are still unknown. The local communities are in a state of shock and male members of various households have gone into hiding because they fear being arrested by the F.C. as a part of their tactic to spread terror among the citizens. During the operation, several houses have also been burnt.
TQ: You have criticized the Pakistani media of carrying out a blackout of the operation. Please elaborate.
MSA: The Pakistani media, mainly the broadcast media, have pretended not to know what has been happening in Mashky although they were given a heads-up by the local politicians through their press conferences and also through the social media. The Mashky operation entails several levels of human rights abuses at the same time. It included killing of civilians, burning people’s homes and whisking away unarmed citizens. It also has deep implications on a political and peaceful resolution of the Balochistan conflict. The media did not cover the operation, the protests and press conferences that ensued in the wake of the operation and kept the whole nation in darkness. The Pakistani media is known for its immediate and aggressive adoption of position on almost every issue. It was not seen asking those tough questions as to who sanctioned the military operation in Balochistan and what caused it this time. There were no talk-shows about it either. After all, the operation was carried out at such a time when the nation was either marking the birthday of the founder of Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Jinnah or, two days later, mourning the death anniversary of Benazir Bhutto. Our media should have played a role and put into question what was actually happening in Balochistan during these days. It was a quick operation which remained unnoticed by the Pakistani media. Worst still, the media was more obsessed with Pakistan-India cricket match and the domestic issues of a Pakistani singer at a time when people were being killed by the forces in Balochistan. This shows how badly misplaced the Pakistani media’s priorities are.
TQ: But the Pakistani media has covered the Baloch cause extensively this year. Do you not think this is an improvement?
MSA: Pakistani media’s coverage of Balochistan is not consistent and professional. It is not research-based but driven by the passionate national narrative provided by the Pakistani military. Most of the what we have seen in the past one year is rather an expression of frenzy or paranoia, which is also not an original product of the media. This frenzy is the brainchild of the military and the Pakistani nationalist journalists. Reporting on Balochistan is spontaneous and reactionary.
From time to time, we see a short-term surge in talk-shows and newspaper columns on Balochistan which is connected to some other development elsewhere.
For instance, in 2012, Balochistan’s coverage could easily be classified in various frantic phases
In February and March 2012, there were floodgates of coverage of Balochistan after the U.S. Congress held a hearing on Balochistan; Congressman Dana Rohrabacher introduced a bill and addressed a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington D.C. calling for Balochistan’s right to self-determination and statehood.
In September, we saw the second round of massive coverage of Balochistan when the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances visited Pakistan and met with the families of the missing persons, including those from Balochistan. There was a frantic reaction to the arrival of the U.N. working group in Pakistan as the Pakistani right-wing journalists and opinion leaders saw it as ‘foreign-sponsored” interference in Pakistan’s internal matters.
In October, there was the next phase of overwhelming coverage of Balochistan after former chief minister Sardar Akhtar Mengal ended his self-imposed exile and returned to Pakistan to present his Six Points before the Supreme Court.
The problem with such inconsistent and reactionary coverage is that our media immediately gets excited about Balochistan and that excitement also fades away within days. The media begins to report on Balochistan again when some more tragedies strike there. Balochistan needs constant engagement from the national media instead of frantic coverage.
TQ: How have the Baloch in Mashkey, and elsewhere, reacted to this blackout?
MSA: Besides the ordinary people in Mashky, there is extraordinary anger among the Baloch people across Balochistan and outside Pakistan. There have been protests all over Balochistan, in Karachi and even in front of the British Parliament in London by the members of the Baloch diaspora. What is remarkably sad, but true at the same time, is the fact that the Baloch hold the Pakistani media, next to the military and security forces, responsible for not covering the operation in Balochistan. They look at the media as a collaborator in the excesses committed against them. I have never seen such amount of widespread anger among the Baloch people across the spectrum against the Pakistani media as is being vented this time against the blackout of the Mashky operation.
TQ: What needs to happen now?
MSA: The media should be provided access to the area and it should cover the operation objectively and impartially. The media owners and editors should know that a complete blackout of the operation and the overall situation in Balochistan will risk the lives of their stringers and correspondents who work on ground in Balochistan. The Baloch nationalists will blame them (although unjustifiably) as “supporters of the government” and exert pressure on these journalists for not sufficiently covering the operation. The Baloch nationalists, just like the military, are not known to have an understanding of how the media should operate. They do not fully respect the reporters’ plea that their job is only to file stories but not to decide their space, length and placement. This issue, in the past, has caused many reporters their lives. Balochistan has become an increasingly dangerous place for reporters where 24 correspondents have been killed in the past 5 years. Such an indifferent attitude of the Pakistani media will increase the problems of local journalists and compromise their personal safety.
Secondly, a blackout of the news has also forced many journalists to depend on social media for the news. It turned out that the Baloch nationalists are taking the social media for granted and they have misinformed the journalists. As I wrote in my Baloch Hal editorial, Baloch nationalists have been found sharing fake and outdated pictures, providing wrong information and distorted statistics to gain more attention and sympathies. As for the media, our job must be to independently verify the facts instead of being overwhelmed or influenced by the government (read security forces) or the opposition parties. They will try to bluff the media. In Mashky, truth has, unfortunately, become the casualty. A lot of media outlets still have the resources to dig out the truth if they now make a professional commitment to do so.