Baloch journalist under terrorism charges
By Malik Siraj Akbar
Implicating political opponents and dissenting journalists in cases of ’sedition’ and ‘terrorism’ are two old-fashioned but regular tactics applied by governments. Such tools have been applied across the world, mainly in repressive regimes, in an effort to muzzle nonconforming opinion and put the key detractors of the ruling elite behind bars.
Confronted with a war-like situation, Balochistan is not alien to such undemocratic practices. The latest example comes from Bolan district where a Baloch journalist has been charged with terrorism allegations. Rehmatullah Shaheen, a correspondent of anti-government Daily Tawar, went missing on December 8th when he was traveling from his office to Mach Grid station where he was employed too. The journalist went missing for around a week. No one knows what actually happened to him. His family members believed that he had been put into a torture cell, tortured and forced to make confessions and show some links with the Baloch armed groups.
Known for his brave reporting from the sensitive region of Bolan, Shaheen was resurfaced by the local police after massive protest rallies were held across Balochistan by journalists’ different bodies. Not only were local newspapers flooded with statements from all over Balochistan demanding an immediate release of the missing journalist but demonstrations were held in all major district and tehsil headquarters, including Quetta, Balochistan’s provincial capital, to express solidarity with Mr. Shaheen. The government had no option but to bring in public on Tuesday the missing journalist in the wake of unprecedented protest rallies.
Unsurprisingly, the Bolan police said Shaheen was wanted by the police under Explosive Act as a hand grenade had subsequently been found from his residence following information disclosed by the detained journalist during the custody. Many people in Balochistan are growingly weary of such official pretexts as the police in the province have a long history of implicating people under false charges. The police are understandably powerful enough to unilaterally blame someone for possessing drugs and weapons if the ultimate motive behind such actions is only to immure a ’strategic threat’ to the interests of the rulers.
The arrest and subsequent charges against a Baloch journalist are in fact very alarming. This development is intended to send a warning message to all those working inside Balochistan that they could be rounded up any time and implicated in extremely serious crime related to sedition and terrorism so that maximum punishment is inflicted on those who are determined to articulate the truth and criticize the government policies.
Rehmatullah Shaheen’s case merits attention because it highlights the plight of rural journalists. 80% of Balochistan’s population lives in rural areas. Ironically, the only reports about Balochistan that manage to get some space in the country’s national press originate from Quetta. Normally, some people believe Quetta is Balochistan and vice versa. This is a very wrong understanding of the province. Real poverty, backwardness, feeling of deprivation and estrangement of the youth is visible in the rural parts of Balochistan. Likewise, trouble exists outside Quetta between the security forces and the Baloch fighters. Yet, news reports fail to come out because the underestimated district correspondents working from there operate under extremely challenging and vulnerable circumstances.
Registration of terrorism charges against one Rehmatullah Shaheeen will warn the rest of rural correspondents across Balochistan to think twice before reporting objectively from their respective areas regardless of poor governance in the area. Unfortunately, Balochistan has a depressing history of state-sponsored victimization of rural journalists in the province. For example, Rashid Azam, a Khuzdar-based journalist working for Urdu Daily Intekhab, was picked up by the security services and subjected to severe torture for the odd reason of “chatting” online with an Indian citizen. The fellow was tortured to such an extent that he not only permanently quit journalism after his release but also formally joined the pro-Pervez Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid-e-Azam).
Likewise, Munir Mengal, the Managing Director of the Baloch Voice TV channel, was subjected to inhuman torture for more than one year for the only reason that he wanted to launch a Balochi ,news channel. Mr. Mengal would have died inside the torture cell had Reporters Without Borders, an international media watchdog, not intervened. Reporters Without Borders pulled Mengal from the jaw of the country’s Gestapo and facilitated him to find asylum in France. Too high is the price journalists in Balochistan have to pay to tell the truth.
Likewise, Javid Lehri, a 22-year young journalist from Khuzdar working with the Urdu daily, Azadi, was put in inhuman torture for several months. He too quit the profession after being released by his captors.
In addition, the government forced a Quetta-based newspaper Daily Asaap to shut down in August this year while the offices of two more newspapers, Daily Balochistan Express and Daily Azadi were also besieged for two weeks. Worst still, an assassination attempt was made on the life of Jan Mohammad Dashti, the editor-in-chief of Baloch newspaper, Daily Assap. Dashti, also a provincial secretary and widely regarded as a highly influential figure in the province, was also forced to leave the country.
The Balochistan government should seriously pay attention to its poor record of press freedom. Surely, implicating Rahmatullah Shaheen in a terrorism-related case does not help in any way to intimidate the Press. When a government claims to be ‘democratic’ then it should also demonstrate some decency to validate its claims.