Indifference or blackout


By Malik Siraj Akbar

The previously overlooked fury in Balochistan against the mainstream media has gradually transformed into full-fledged public expression of dissatisfaction with how the national media covers the troubled province. Disgruntled young Balochs blame the media, particularly the private news channels, for allegedly building up the entire crisis in Balochistan by not objectively and completely reporting the conflict since its inception. They say neither are they pleased with the amount of coverage the country’s largest province gets in the news bulletins, talk shows and documentaries nor are they appreciative of some journalists’ pro-government depiction of the situation in Balochistan.

At the beginning of February, this disillusionment led the Balochistan National Party and its student wing the Baloch Students Organisation (BSO-Mohiuddin group) to boycott the private news channels across Balochistan and Baloch-populated parts of Karachi. While Balochi, Sindhi and Pashtu channels were exempted from this boycott, cable subscribers in most Baloch districts did not receive service of the news channels for several days.

“The Pakistani media discriminates the Baloch,” charged Agha Hassan Baloch, a lawyer and BNP’s information secretary, “everyday, young Baloch activists are being killed and dumped by the security forces but there is a total blackout of news from Balochistan.”

Hassan complains that stations promptly flash “breaking news” tickers out of unimportant events taking place in principal cities but more urgent reports from Balochistan entailing human rights, suffering and poverty even do not manage to get listed on the news rundown.

Unanimous protests

In October 2010, the Azad faction of the BSO, which calls for Balochistan’s independence, asked the people of the province to stop reading newspapers printed from Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad because, it said, they did not contain sufficient account of the military operation and disappearances of nationalist leaders. The BSO eventually ended its boycott after assurances from journalists’ bodies in Quetta that their concerns would be conveyed to the publishers of newspapers living outside Balochistan.

As the indifferent policies of the national media toward Balochistan remain unchang-ed, methods of protest are becoming harsher by the day.

For instance, on February 22, a Lahore-based daily reported the burning of its newspaper bundle in Quetta by some ‘unidentified people’ who had also interrupted the distribution of the channel’s programmes in Balochistan. This reactionary attitude did not come out of blue. Sources in Quetta say a talk show, run on a news channel owned by the same newspaper’s publisher, had been used as a platform by a leader of General Musharraf’s Awami Pakistan Muslim League to incite the killing of a notable Baloch political leader, besides calling him a “donkey” and “stupid” in a live talk show. The talk show host, on the contrary, defended the abusive guest by calling his views “valid” which further incensed the supporters of the Baloch leader.

The three political groups cited above, which have protested against the media at different times, represent totally divergent schools of nationalist thought. Yet, they collectively share the same grievance that there is not ample and accurate reporting of Balochistan. This feeling has gone down and made them feel as if the media is responsible for the ignorance of the rest of the country about Balochistan and lack of corrective political measures on behalf of the government policymakers.

Total blackout

The blackout of news from and about Balochistan is now being viewed as an integral part of the broader conflict. This phenomenon dates back to the history of print journalism in the province. Local newspapers never thrived in Balochistan because of several factors. First, dearth of advertisement revenue because of the absence of manufacturing industries and private companies dissuaded newspapers owners from launching papers in the province. Second, the vast terrain, scattered population and poor road infrastructure further prevented the timely dissemination of newspapers across the region. Above all, widespread illiteracy in the province made newspapers a less appealing medium as compared to radio.

Up till now, not a single major news channel or publication has its headquarters in Balochistan. With the exception of a few, most media outlets even do not have bureau offices in a province which is believed to have perhaps the highest number of untold stories. All sides of a story do not reach the audience because all media organisations do not have paid reporters in Balochistan’s remaining 29 districts. Reporting about Balochistan takes place from Quetta, the provincial capital. While an opportunity to travel inside Balochistan is rare for the Quetta-based correspondents who are oftentimes overburdened with work because of small teams, funds for travel and investigative assignments is another improbability.

The Balochs grumble about the lack of representation in media outlets. Many national and international media organisations such as the BBC, the Voice of America, DawnNews, The News International, Geo, Associated Press of Pakistan etc. do not have Baloch correspondents who should be able to speak the local language and report about the problems faced by people living in rural areas.

Likewise, head offices provide funding to their senior correspondents when they have to cover an election or a natural calamity such as floods and earthquakes. Ironically, the only occasion when a large number of reporters from “big cities” get an opportunity to see the province is when the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) or Frontier Corps (FC) embeds them to show some “positive development” work done by the military. Such tours are normally a futile exercise as the embedded journalists do not get to see the full side of the picture.

In fact, their predictably appreciative post-trip write-ups of the military are the only outcome of such large gathering of reporters. But this is what these official trips on C-130 planes are intended to achieve.

New media

Protests against and boycott of the national media indicates the increasing awareness among the nationalist groups about the significance of the use of media to promote their objectives. Despite the intensification of the conflict, Balochistan has not been an attractive destination in terms of making money for media tycoons who have refrained from establishing studios or printing presses in Balochistan. Similarly, correspondents from other provinces even do not get an assignment or a fellowship from their papers to spend some months, instead of days and weeks, in Balochistan to develop a better sense of the local culture and aspirations.

Paradoxically, the news from Balochistan has started reaching out to a larger audience because of social media and blogs. Nationalists use the internet to spread their message. Although the government has restricted access to hundreds of websites and blogs, social networks like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have become an effective and popular source of educating the people living outside Balochistan to make better sense of things.

Some popular Baloch online sources include Crisis Balochistan, the Baluch, Baloch Unity, Baloch Warna and Baloch Voice.

Social media and online journalism is a good way to instantly share information but it is still not a right replacement for explanatory, investigative and objective journalism, which is needed to see all sides of the Baloch picture. People in rural areas still do not have access to the internet and they largely depend on news channels and radio shows.

In order to better understand Balochistan and its people, there is an immediate need to invest in developing the capability and capacity of the local media and journalists. Entrepreneurs should be willing to experiment initiatives, such as locating the headquarters of channels to the province, hosting talk shows from Balochistan and widening Balochistan’s share of air time in order to give the Baloch a sense of ownership and participation in the news industry. Government’s neglect of the province’s issues is not as dangerous as is the negligence of the national media.

This article was originally published in The News on Sunday 

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