By Malik Siraj Akbar
When the government of Balochistan banned the official advertisements of Daily Asaap, the newspaper said it did not care much because it still enjoyed freedom of expression.
When the government curtailed its freedom of expression by banning two books by Dr. Naseer Dashti, published by Asaap Publications, the undeterred newspaper management still insisted that it had lost nothing as long as its staff members remained alive and healthy.
When the chief editor of the newspaper, Jan Mohammad Dashti, along with his driver narrowly escaped an assassination attempt presumably by the state intelligence agencies on 23 February this year, the paper reiterated its commitment to uninterrupted publication.
Now, Asaap – the most vocal Urdu language newspaper of Balochistan – has suddenly flabbergasted us all. The newspaper has formally decided to shut down its publication for good. The decision has been taken in the wake of constant harassment. The offices of Asaap in Quetta and Turbat, two cities from where the newspaper was simultaneously published, have been under siege by the Frontier Corps (FC) and intelligence agencies for the past two weeks.
Asaap basically comes from two Balochi words Aas (fire) and aap (water). In journalistic context, it means the determination to bring truth (to the readers, of course) even if one has to walk on the fire.
Habatan Dashti, the acting editor-in-chief of the newspaper, told me that the agencies’ personnel had made it impossible for them to work. “They [the spies] used to stand inside and outside the gates of the newspaper office. Every visitor, including the staff members, were investigated, humiliated and often barred from entering the newspaper office,” he said, “the deployment of forces outside the newspaper office was complete intrusion of our professional responsibilities. They always wanted to provoke us so that our staff members shouted at them and provided the FC a chance to take action against our staff members.”
In the wake of “impossible working circumstances”, Asaap wrote the following “Media Watch” on the front page to announce its closure:
“With absolute pain and sorrow, we wish to inform the respected readers of Asaap and the Baloch people that our office in Quetta has been under siege by the Frontier Corps (FC) and security forces for the past two weeks. These forces were busy in humiliating every visitor and staff member who came to our office. Asaap is the only newspaper [in Pakistan] where security forces have been deployed. These forces are engaged in regular search and harassment of staff members and visitors.
“Since the government decided to move a tank outside the Asaap offices, it has remarkably worsened the situation. Due to this, all of our staff members are panicked and unable to concentrate on their professional responsibilities. Everyone knows that Asaap began its publication amid very unfavorable circumstances. Since the outset, the paper has stood on a clear policy about Baloch and Balochistan.
“We are committed to a very holy mission which is rooted in the Baloch land. We continued our journey despite hardships and tried to assure the government that we did not work contrary to the media laws. We simply wanted to inform the rulers of the country and the State institutions about the actual Baloch demands and the justification for making such demands. Unabated injustices, repeated military operations, the murder of thousands of Balochs have coaxed the Balochs to rethink that they are not the citizens of this country and they do not enjoy the status of equal citizens. Likewise, we wanted to remind the Balochs that they, unlike other nationalities, were not getting equal political, social, economic and cultural rights in Pakistan.
“Instead of making an attempt to comprehend the Baloch demands, the ruling elite clearly sent us a defiant message indicating that our policy and demands were unacceptable and unbearable to them.
“Earlier this year, an attempt was made on the life of Waja Jan Mohammad Dashti, the [editor in-] chief of Daily Asaap, in order to kill him. Worst still, unsuccessful efforts were made to put the blame of the assault on Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Garib Nawaz Tehreek. Jan Dashti and his friends surely know which state institutions were actually behind this attack. We had made it clear to the government that we fully abided by all media laws. However, a discriminatory attitude towards Asaap, despite our adherence to all state laws, implicitly confirmed that the state was punishing us only for being a Baloch-friendly newspaper.
“For a long time, the powerful quarters in the country have been engaged in conspiracies against Asaap, Jan Mohammad Dashti and Waja Naseer Dashti. Now, the situation is becoming more troublesome. Under the umbrella of a clear conspiracy, pressure is being mounted against us, out office is being “guarded” by the security forces, staff members being searched and threats being hurled. Since Balochistan is undergoing a military operation right now, the security forces consider every ill-mannered action as justified. They are above the law and not answerable to anyone.
“Our readers fully know how Baloch leaders, Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, Balach Marri, Ghulam Mohammad Baloch, Sher Mohmmad Baloch and Lala Munir Baloch, were brutally killed. Thousands of known and unknown Baloch women, children and youth have been subjected to “enforced disappearances”. A similar number is languishing inside torture cells with no clue about their well being.
“At such a situation, Daily Asaap is left with two options either to temporarily or permanently shut its publication or to prepare for clashes between the security forces and the staff members of the newspaper. For Asaap, the personal safety of all its staff members, majority of whom are young people, is extremely important. We want these young staff members to remain healthy and respected. We are of the opinion that the lives of these staff members would be further jeopardized in case of uninterrupted publication of Asaap. They face serious threats to their lives. There is the great possibility of physically harming the staff members of this newspaper, implicating them in false cases and applying various other harassment tactics against them.
“Hence, Asaap has no options left but to decide to shut its publication in order to ensure the safety of its own workers. Therefore, the Asaap management has decided that the newspaper will not be published from Quetta and Turbat from tomorrow and the paper will not be delivered to our valued readers tomorrow morning. We are taking this decision with great pain. We are sure our readers will understand the hardships we are facing. Our insistence to carry on with the publication of the newspaper may lead to some serious problems for our staff members. We are thankful to all our readers who gave us love and respect throughout this period. We are thankful to all our staff members who even did not care about their personal safety while working at this newspaper. Asaap is being strangulated. We know with the closure of this newspaper, the voices of Baloch people will not be heard in the print media as loudly as was done in the past. This may have a slightly negative impact on the Baloch movement. However, we are confident that that even after Asaap, the Baloch movement will continue its journey towards its ultimate destination.”
Asaap will be missed for a long time by the Baloch readers and writers. This newspaper gave birth to a new generation of Baloch writers and journalists. Before the launching of this newspaper, Baloch writers could hardly dream to get space for their works to be published. Asaap changed this trend and provided equal opportunities to all young writers of Balochistan irrespective of their ethnic affiliations. Three excellent Pashtoon young writers that Asaap groomed include Shams Mandokhel, Jaffar Khan Tareen and Nusrat Afghani. The paper encouraged these aspiring writers to think, analyze and criticize.
For me, the closure of this extremely important newspaper entails personal suffering. I was one of the lucky people who began their writing career from this newspaper. I wrote my first column in Asaap from my home district Panjgur in 2003. We, Manzor Baloch (Quetta) Manzoor Izzat Baloch (Panjgur), Faisal Mengal (Quetta), Khalid Waleed Saifi (Turbat), Shakil Baloch (Panjgur), Ismail Baloch (Gwadar), Nusrat Afghani (Quetta), Rana Saeed Advocate (Quetta) and some others whose names may not remember right now, constituted the first batch of columnists of Asaap.
Writing for Asaap was a wonderful experience despite the pros and cones involved. It was the first newspaper that paid us all Rs. 200 for each articles. I was a student at the American English Language Center in Panjgur when I got the first payment for my articles. My friend Dr. Chakar Baloch and I went to TCS to collect my envelope. By that time, it was not less than an achievement to receive a TCS dispatch in the small town of Panjgur. It was often believed that TCS dispatches could only come for VVIPs of town.
“Oh wow! You have got a TCS dispatch,” yelled Dr. Baloch delightedly, “I have never received even a registered mail in my whole life time. I know he was joking but both of us enjoyed his sense of humor.
It was one of the happiest days of my life when I got paid for the first time for a write-up of mine.
Subsequently, Asaap agreed to give me a regular space for a column in the newspaper. I began to write a column called “Harat Kada” which used to appear three to four times a week. One thing that many people still remember about that column is my bearded photo that used to appear in the newspaper. Everyone, including editor-in-chief Waja Jan Dashti, called me ‘Maulana”.
Many of us, the young writers, also had our grievances against Asaap as our articles were often unnecessarily edited and they were different from what we had actually written when they were published.
I never knew how widely Asaap was read until I went to Turbat and Gwadar where many people knew me because of my “bearded columns”. However, many people were pleasantly surprised to see me without the long beard.
In a nutshell, Asaap gave many of us the courage to think differently. It gave birth to too many new journalists and writers. I feel sorry for our coming generation of Baloch writers who will surely be deprived of such a wonderful platform to be published and guided at an early age by senior journalists. In addition, Asaap also began printing a series of books comprising of the articles published in the same newspaper. It has brought out around two dozen books so far which has enabled many young Baloch writers to proudly identify themselves as ‘published writers’.
A few days before the assassination attempt on Dashti sahib, Hababatan, the nephew of the editor-in-chief of the newspaper, told me that Waja Dashti had wished that I should write the preface of one of these upcoming books. Because of my own laziness and the subsequent attack on Dashti sahib, I could not write the preface of the book. I will never be able to do that honorable job now.
The end of Asaap is in fact the closure of a school of journalism.
The newspaper continued its journey very proudly and confidently. It raised the voice of the Baloch people without any fear and favor even during the gruesome martial law days of General Pervez Musharraf. The turning point for Asaap was the publication of the list of missing persons issued by Baloch Liberation United Front (BLUF) which demanded the release of missing Baloch political workers in return of UNHCR official John Solecki. This remarkably irritated the government authorities.
“I told, Dashti, they will kill you,” confided a senior journalist with me, “he said “so what? I know they are behind me”. ”
The government was further disillusioned by the Asaap’s aggressive pursuance of the case of Zarina Marri.
It is highly regrettable that the newspaper was forced to close down not under a military regime but by a government headed by a party that flaunts its democratic credentials. It is still not too late to take notice of what actually happened with the press in Balochistan. Pakistan People’s Party has people like Sherry Rehman who have such tall moral standings that they can resign from top official positions but will not compromise on press freedom. Sherry Rehmans of PPP should try to find out why the FC officials were deployed inside and outside a newspaper office in Quetta. Is this what the government pays the FC for?
I am not sure the closure of Asaap will attract much criticism from journalists’ bodies across Pakistan. On the contrary, many people would be cheering this development. This move has, nonetheless, sent a very clear message to the Baloch media organizations that they will be shut one after the other.
Lastly, I know I am not the only one who will miss Asaap.