Malik Siraj Akbar Interview in The News on Sunday


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 on Sunday— Read the original version of the interview)

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