B.L.F. Vs. B.B.C.

A recent warning from the underground Baloch Liberation Front (B.L.F.) to Mr. Ayub Tareen, the Quetta correspondent of BBC’s Urdu and Pashtu services, is deeply alarming. What was reported by the News Network International (N.N.I.) and published in Urdu language Daily Tawar, the warning is the first of its kind when an armed group has publicly singled out a journalist and threatened him of the group’s “strict actions” for the reporter’s alleged “partisan reporting”.  
During the past one year time, it is the second time that the B.L.F. is threatening the same reporter. In an earlier account, Mr. Tareen was quoted in a blog post by the Committee to Protect Journalists (C.P.J.) saying that the B.L.F. had called him up and complained about ‘insufficient’ coverage on the BBC. This time, Mr. Tareen has been accused of ‘partisan’ reporting for which the B.L.F. has warned the ‘higher authorities’ of the London-based organization “to take action against their reporter’s partisan attitude.” As a mark of protest for not amply covering the situation in Balochistan, the B.L.F. has announced a boycott of the B.B.C., according to Basham Baloch, the organization’s spokesman.

We are deeply concerned about the safety of fellow journalists working in Balochistan. Such aggressive behavior on the part of an organization that claims to be fighting for the rights of an oppressed (read Baloch) nation is deplorable. Mr. Tareen is in fact one of the most respected and credible journalists of Balochistan whose reporting for the B.B.C. for more than a decade has been above questioning. A native Pashtun, Mr. Tareen has covered the Baloch nationalist movement in a far more professional manner than many other journalists in Balochistan.

He went to the extent of risking his own life to interview Dr. Allah Nazar Baloch, B.L.F’s presumed chief. Furthermore, no international media organization has covered the situation in Balochistan as extensively and professionally as the B.B.C’s Urdu service. Thus, we see such pressure tactics totally unacceptable and a clear attempt to force journalists to become spokesmen for certain political parties and armed groups.

A confrontation with the media or an attempt by political forces to enjoin journalists to report according to their wishes will undermine the credibility and legitimacy of political organizations. We also find it unreasonable to threaten a journalist based in Quetta for ‘insufficient coverage’. Such complaints are mainly because of the political opposition’s ignorance about technical and administrative set-up of a media organization.

While a reporter’s job is to file a story from the field, it is beyond his powers to decide its placement and time of coverage. After the submission of a news story, the reporter’s work goes through half a dozen people in the news room/ studio, including copy editors, editors, producers and managers who decide how much time a story deserves. Therefore, it is totally unfair to punish or harass a poor reporter for things beyond his control.

B.L.F’s threats to the B.B.C. reporter are in fact a part of the larger problem that confronts journalists in Balochistan. While several journalists have been killed in the line of duty in the past, several others face similar potential threats to their lives. On July 10, the Balochistan Union of Journalists (B.U.J.) informed the media that the province’s Finance Minister hadthreatened to harm senior journalist Irshad Masthoi. The B.U.J. said those threats were “very serious”. Threats from the minister show the other side of  the picture confirming that warnings do not only come from insurgent groups but they also emanate from the government itself which is ideally required to provide protection to all citizens, including journalists.

On the same day when Mr. Masthoi received threats from the Finance Minister, we came across a new official trick to curtail the freedom of the press in Balochistan. The Frontier Corps (F.C) and the Police told a Supreme Court bench that the “foreign-funded media representatives” were responsible for the turmoil in the province. These were very serious charges on journalists although the security forces had no evidence to prove the acceptance of money from foreign entities by local journalists and media outlets.

One step further, the F.C. and police criticized journalists for not sharing information about their sources. They said that the spokesmen of armed groups call up journalists to accept responsibility for different violent activities. Journalists, they added, “should cooperate” with the security forces to provide the telephone numbers of the spokesmen. In fact, nowhere in the world do journalists share the identity of their sources in the first place but in the second place we see deeper motives behind such complaints. The government wants to pressurize local journalists under one or the other pretext.

Those who are familiar with conflict reporting, they know very well that when a spokesman of a banned group uses a satellite phone to call a journalist to claim responsibility, the display screen on the phone shows an “Unknown Caller” or a “”Private Number”.  Thus, security forces know that journalists do not actually receive the spokesmen’s phone numbers. So, there is no point in forcing journalists to ‘cooperate’ with intelligence agencies or law enforcement organizations.

We call upon all stakeholders in Balochistan to have maximum respect for the freedom of expression. Journalists should be allowed to continue their work without any fear and favor. A free media is in the best interest of democracy and conflict resolution in Balochistan.

Originally published in The Baloch Hal  on July 25, 2012

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