Reporting from the Danger Zone: An Interview with Pakistani Journalist Malik Siraj Akbar


By Torie Rose DeGhett
Pakistan has recently become a subject of some attention as one of the deadliest places for journalism, brought into the global eye to a small degree by the death of Asia Times Online journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad at the end of May. In Pakistan, rife with censorship and threat, journalists lose their lives to conflict reporting and direct targeting with a surreal regularity.
Despite Western media’s attention to Shahzad’s death, the world beyond Pakistan generally seems to know shamefully little about the everyday nature of dangers to the press in that country, the numerous other reporters who have lost their lives, or the entrenched nature of such a powerful threat to press freedom. The subject of this interview, Malik Siraj Akbar, is a journalist in the Balochistan province of Pakistan and the founding editor of The Baloch Hal, which is the province’s first online English language newspaper(He’s currently in the US as a visiting journalist at the Center for Public Integrity and a Hubert Humphrey fellow at Arizona State.) I contacted him after reading his moving article for CPI’s iWatch News about losing several of his colleagues. Mr. Akbar was vigorous and detailed in his responses to my questions about his experiences with journalism in Pakistan, and obviously passionate. His words offer a critical look into a crisis in great need of broader coverage.

Balochistan is an especially dangerous area for journalists and academics, even by Pakistan’s standards. News from that region is stifled and often goes ignored, not just by the West, but by the rest of Pakistan itself. Mr. Akbar wrote that the province where he and two others established The Baloch Hal  is Pakistan’s largest but least reported province … considering the overwhelming scope and impact of online journalism, blogging and social media. Because of the military’s strict control over the national media vis-à-vis news pertaining to Balochistan, stories about the enforced disappearance, torture and murder of hundreds of secular, progressive political workers, journalists and lawyers hailing from the Baloch ethnic minority never get reported in the mainstream media dominated by corporate interests. Pakistanis know as little about Balochistan as people living in the United States or Rwanda because of a systematic blackout of the news from the resource-rich province bordering Iran and Afghanistan. Even if there is a little coverage of Balochistan in the Pakistani media, it awfully stereotypes the Baloch people and lacks local context and background in the news stories and analyses.”

 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.
(Courtesy: The Political Notebook, USA)

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