This section comprises of interviews/profiles of Malik Siraj Akbar with different media outlets
On September 16th, 2016, Malik Siraj Akbar was interviewed by BBC’s Owen Bennett-Jones for the show Newshour about India’s role and interests in Balochistan and reports about Baloch leader Brahamdagh Bugti’s decision to seek Indian citizenship. To listen to the full interview, please click here.
On September 2, 2016, Malik Siraj Akbar was interviewed by Rediff, India’s leading news website about the conflict in Balochistan. Given below is the full text of the interview and the original interview can be read here.
Malik Siraj Akbar is one of Balochistan’s senior journalists and a respected political analyst and the founder and president of the Balochistan Institute in Washington, DC.
He is the author of two books: A Broken Democracy and The Redefined Dimensions of Baloch Nationalist Movement.
He has also worked in the Daily Times and The Friday Times in Pakistan.
Sudhir Bisht spoke to Akbar over emails and Skype for this interview on Balochistan and India’s interest in the region.
There was so much celebration at the mere mention of Balochistan by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his Independence Day speech. Why this euphoria? Is it because political analysts believe this is the beginning of the internationalisation of the Balochistan issue?
Baloch nationalists have been struggling for several years to internationalise their cause. They have been seeking support from all countries of the world. They were super excited when Modi mentioned Balochistan. It was the first time ever that any foreign head of the government had officially mentioned Balochistan.
In an op-ed in the Indian Express, I said it was a ‘game-changer’ for the Baloch nationalists in terms of recognition for their movement at the official level. I totally agree with you that the Baloch were overexcited.
I believe Modi mentioned Balochistan only to embarrass Pakistan and also divert attention toward the situation in Kashmir. The Balochs, on their part, are so upset with Pakistan, that they warmly welcomed Modi’s statement.
I think the Balochs, India and Pakistan have all benefited from Modi’s statement. For the Baloch, the mere fact that a foreign prime minister spoke about them was a big deal. For the Indians, they just discovered the ‘B-bomb’ (or the ‘B word’) and its magical powers. They can throw the Balochistan bomb now at any international forum, conference and diplomatic setting to embarrass Pakistan.
As far as the benefits of these statements for Pakistan are concerned, now many serious people in Pakistan, not only conspiracy theorists, will begin to believe their government’s claim that India is involved in promoting unrest in Balochistan (even if it is not). This will help Pakistan defame and discredit a homegrown Baloch movement.
In the past, journalists and human rights activists continuously asked the Pakistani government to provide evidence if India was behind the insurgency in Balochistan. Now, Islamabad will simply quote Modi’s statements and the message from the Baloch leaders who thanked him, as ‘proof’ of an Indian ‘conspiracy’ against Pakistan. This will give Islamabad a stronger reason to accelerate military operations in Balochistan.
Modi exhibited genuine friendly disposition towards the Nawaz Sharif government. But his gestures of friendship were unrequited. Now he can be expected to harden his stand on Pakistan. What is the view that prevails about Modi in Balochistan?
The people of Balochistan have never had negative feelings about India although Pakistani textbooks teach too much hatred toward India. In provinces like the Punjab, which had a direct connection with the Partition, anti-Indian sentiments are deep-rooted. The Baloch people do not have any such feelings. They are mostly indifferent because Balochistan, unlike Sindh and the Punjab provinces, does not share a border or culture with India. There is little people-to-people interaction.
The Baloch have relatives in Iran, Afghanistan and the Gulf region but no such connections with India. Balochistan has a sizeable Hindu population who are well integrated in society.
I think the people of Balochistan have mostly welcomed Modi’s statements. The Baloch excitement comes from weariness toward Pakistan’s brutalities and injustice.
Modi tried to improve relations with Pakistan but Islamabad did not reciprocate to that gesture. I think from now on, India intends to raise Balochistan whenever Pakistan brings up Kashmir or upsets them on the issue of terrorism.
Modi exhibited genuine friendly disposition towards the Nawaz Sharif government. But his gestures of friendship were unrequited. Now he can be expected to harden his stand on Pakistan. What is the view that prevails about Modi in Balochistan?
The people of Balochistan have never had negative feelings about India although Pakistani textbooks teach too much hatred toward India. In provinces like the Punjab, which had a direct connection with the Partition, anti-Indian sentiments are deep-rooted. The Baloch people do not have any such feelings. They are mostly indifferent because Balochistan, unlike Sindh and the Punjab provinces, does not share a border or culture with India. There is little people-to-people interaction.
The Baloch have relatives in Iran, Afghanistan and the Gulf region but no such connections with India. Balochistan has a sizeable Hindu population who are well integrated in society.
I think the people of Balochistan have mostly welcomed Modi’s statements. The Baloch excitement comes from weariness toward Pakistan’s brutalities and injustice.
Modi tried to improve relations with Pakistan but Islamabad did not reciprocate to that gesture. I think from now on, India intends to raise Balochistan whenever Pakistan brings up Kashmir or upsets them on the issue of terrorism.
The common impression about the Baloch people is that they are brave, honest and loyal but far from progressive. That they believe in a preponderance of tribal laws and customs over any other set of modern laws. Many believe that an independent Balochistan will be a retrograde country which will force women to remain confined to their homes.
People in India don’t know much of your capital city of Quetta. Does it have the hustle and bustle of say an Islamabad or Karachi? Or is it just curfew, fear of violence and fearful quietude?
Balochistan is the least developed of Pakistan’s four provinces. It is the least educated and least economically developed. People are agitated that a region so rich in mineral resources and a sea-port is still so poor. The British did not develop infrastructure in Balochistan. If you look at some of the educational institutions elsewhere in Pakistan, they were built almost a hundred years before Balochistan got its first university in 1970.
There is a constant blame game between the Baloch and the central government as to who actually is responsible for this lack of development. Pakistan blames Balochistan’s tribal chiefs while the Baloch nationalists insist that Pakistan intentionally wants to keep Balochistan backward so that people are not empowered enough to resist Pakistan’s exploitation of their resources.
Balochistan is a tribal and heavily male-dominated society. I think only education can lead to more democracy, an end to tribal influence and empowerment of women. Please note that there is a strong relationship between Balochistan’s corrupt tribal chiefs and Islamabad. They support each other’s interests. Islamabad does not question these tribal chiefs influence because they always serve Pakistani interests. Islamabad runs Balochistan with the help of these corrupt tribal chiefs.
Quetta is the city of hope for Balochistan. People from all over region go there to get a university degree, find a job and it is the epicentre of political activism. It is big enough to have universities, cafes and hotels but it is nothing as compared to bigger cities like Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad. Many times, when a new bank or a company launches operations in Pakistan, they hardly include Quetta among their top desired destinations. I think this kind of negligence has led to dissatisfaction among the people.
Life in Quetta is difficult because it has experienced tremendous violence in the past one decade. The city has become the hub of religious, sectarian and nationalistic violence. On top of it, there is heavy government security. The city has been militarised where there are checkpoints to monitor people’s movements.
If life is like this in the capital, you can imagine how everyday life is in the remaining 29 districts. In most districts, people have no access to 24×7 electricity, health facilities, education and drinking water. There are no industries and employment opportunities in Balochistan’s smaller districts.
You have often written that that the commander of the southern command and the inspector general of the Frontier Corps have more authority than the elected chief minister. Why do you say so? After all in the last elections, 43 percent voters turned up, in spite of threats of violence by the Baloch National Front. The chief minister of Balochistan (Sardar Sanaullah Zehri) is the member of Pakistan Muslim League-N, the party of Nawaz Sharif. So what stops the CM and PM to ensure peace and progress in Balochistan?
In Pakistan, the army has remained in power at least three times since 1958. The army is a strong political and economic power. It does not trust the political leaders because it views them as incompetent and insufficiently patriotic. Therefore, the army very closely scrutinises and dictates politicians. The army is zero tolerance for political dissent or criticism.
Hence, it finds reliable allies in Baloch tribal chiefs or religious leaders who keep flattering army officers only to stay in power. Politicians in Balochistan represent an elite group that has remained in power for generations. In order to stay in power, they have remained loyal to everyone who was in power in Islamabad. Their politics is not based on ideology but determined on who is coming to power.
Most of the people in the current Balochistan government were once with General Pervez Musharraf or former President Asif Ali Zardari but have switched loyalties to Sharif. The army looks at Balochistan solely from the national security point of view. It believes it has a responsibility to fight alleged foreign (Indian) ‘agents’ who are out there to disintegrate Balochistan. Therefore, the real power still rests in the hands of the army commanders.
But the fact is that the Balochistan government is also extremely corrupt and incompetent. There are of course issues for which the army and the Frontier Corps are responsible but there are also numerous issues that the provincial government can and should resolve but it does not.
Who are the main players in the freedom movement of Balochistan who believe in dialogue and a non-violent movement? Similarly, why can’t all parties which believe in armed struggle unite under one banner? Why so many groups? I also read that children of some top Baloch leaders are in the US or Switzerland or Canada?
The Baloch armed resistance is far more sophisticated than its political counterparts. The Baloch Republican Party and the Baloch National Movement are two known political parties, joined by the Baloch Students Organisation (BSO-Azad), which openly yet peacefully call for a free Balochistan.
However, these parties have not been able to organise and mobilise support on the ground because of the Pakistani government’s crackdown against Baloch activists.
Prominent among Baloch armed groups are the Baloch Liberation Army, the Baloch Republican Army, the Baloch Liberation Front and Lashkar-e-Balochistan. They operate in different geographical parts of Balochistan. Given its vast territory and tribal structure, every armed group has a great understanding of the region where it operates.
People in Balochistan do desire that all Baloch leaders should get closer and unite on a single platform. It does not seem likely because of competition among some big egos within the Baloch nationalist movement.
Balochistan is known to be rich in mineral resources and natural gas. It has a long coastline and a port. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor runs through Gilgit Baltistan and connects with the sea at Balochistan. The Pakistan-China partnership in Baloch port area has the potential to create so many job opportunities for the local people. So it is not as if Pakistan isn’t trying to develop your state. Am I right or just ill-informed?
The Baloch have concerns about the CPEC. Even the government of Pakistan recently admitted that the details of this deal with the Chinese were ‘secret’. The CPEC is the brainchild of the Pakistani army.
Here are some areas where the Baloch have concerns.
1. They feel that they will be converted into a minority in their ancestral land in Gwadar once the project begins because of a massive demographic imbalance. Non-Baloch from other parts of Pakistan will come to Gwadar and convert the Baloch majority into a minority.
2. The Baloch want to be given priority in job opportunities. The Pakistani government has not taken sufficient measures to train and prepare Baloch youth to be employable at these projects. Hence, it is very likely that people from other parts of Pakistan will come to grab these jobs.
3. The Baloch want to make sure that people who come from outside Balochistan will not be given the right to vote or register as locals.
4. There is a demand that any outsider must partner with a Baloch. What I worry the most about CPEC is its security plan. Under the disguise of this project, Islamabad will tremendously militarise Balochistan. Any ‘development’ in Balochistan that does not benefit the Baloch will not be acceptable, secure and sustainable.
Do you think that Pakistan will let go of this area without a long, protracted, fight? Do you think some kind of a middle path will be arrived at eventually?
Forget about the minerals. Balochistan is half of Pakistan’s territory. It shares borders with Iran and Afghanistan and has a port that will soon connect Pakistan with Central Asia. No country easily gives up its territory easily. This is why there is so much bloodshed in Balochistan.
No movement for independence is painless. The middle ground you’re talking about sounds like a great idea but I think it is currently unpopular or unacceptable to both the Pakistani government and the Baloch. Both sides are (misleadingly) confident that they can accomplish their goals militarily.
Islamabad insists that Balochistan is not Bangladesh and there is no way it can break away from Pakistan. On the other hand, the Baloch think that armed resistance is a must to keep their movement alive. The armed groups have bothered Pakistan more than the Baloch political leaders. But the insurgency has not reached a point where Pakistan should officially feel threatened. The generals in Rawalpindi still believe they are in full control of Balochistan.
There is a middle ground but I wonder if it has any takers. That middle ground is maximum internal autonomy for Balochistan. If autonomy was offered a decade ago, this would probably be acceptable but today there is so much mistrust between Quetta and Islamabad, I am not optimistic that the stakeholders will sit down and negotiate.
Violence is the new normal for the local people. That’s not a good sign. The Baloch are not tired of fighting and the Pakistanis are not weary of carrying out military operations against them. There are no advocates of the middle path.
Sudhir Bisht is an author and columnist based in New Delhi. He tweets @sudhir_bisht
On April 6th , 2016 Malik Siraj Akbar spoke to the BBC Urdu’s veteran broadcaster Shafi Naqi Jamai about the arrest of an alleged Indian spy from Balochistan. To listen to the full interview, please click here.
On January 17th, 2016 Malik Siraj Akbar spoke to the BBC Urdu reporter Riaz Sohail about the reasons why many Baloch political activists and human rights campaigners were fleeing Balochistan. To listen to the full interview, please click here.
On January 30th, 2016 Malik Siraj Akbar was interviewed by the BBC Urdu broadcaster Umer Afridi about the killing of Dr. Manan Baloch, the Secretary General of the Baloch National Movement (BNM) by the Pakistani security forces and its implications on the Baloch nationalist movement. The interview was published on the BBC website and is also available on Soundcloud.
The following interview appeared in Monthly Bolan Voice, Quetta, in its November 2014 edition. Original link
With reference to Balochistan we interviewed Malik Siraj Akber. Malik is a US-based journalist as well as the editor-in-chief of the Baloch Hal, the first online English language newspaper of Balochistan province and a contributing writer for the Huffington Post. In 2010-11, Akbar was a Hubert Humphrey Fellow at Arizona State University while in 2012, the National Endowment for Democracy (N.E.D), a Washington DC-based organization, awarded him a Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellowship where he researched the political assassinations, enforced disappearances and attacks on journalists in Balochistan. His writings mainly focus on the Baloch nationalist movement, human rights, press freedom, sectarian killings in Pakistan, the war on terror and U.S.-Pakistan relations. Much to his credentials, He has interviewed leading Pakistani government officials serving in Balochistan and the leaders of the Baloch nationalist movement. In addition to that, he has authored a book, ‘’The Redefined Dimensions of the Baloch Nationalist Movement’’ which was released in 2011.
Interviewed by Jameel Jansheer
(Blv stands for Bolan Voice and MSA for Malik Siraj Akbar)
Blv: You got political asylum in U.S on the base that journalists aren’t protected in Balochistan, after attainment of asylum how you are raising voice for Balochistan’s journalists?
MSA: I have been trying to create awareness among the rest of the Pakistanis and also the international community about the conflict in Balochistan, particularly the plight of journalists, through my articles, interviews, public talks and panel discussions. I have highlighted the central challenges of the news media in Balochistan on prestigious platforms like CNN, Al-Jazeera, BBC, Voice of America, Washington Post and several American universities and think-tanks. I am a member of the Press Freedom Committee of the National Press Club in Washington DC which provided me an opportunity to closely interact with organizations like Reporters Without Borders, Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Freedom House to educate them about what is happening in Balochistan with regards to issues of press freedom. You can see that organizations like CPJ and Amnesty International have significantly increased their reporting on Balochistan because we immediately reach out to them to bring into their attention certain incidents that happen in Balochistan. My 2012 research at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), Washington D.C, where I was a Regan-Fascel Democracy Fellow, focused on threats to journalists in Balochistan. I have given public presentations about the risks of reporting at the annual conference of the South Asian Journalists Association (SAJA) and events organized by reputed institutions like Harvard University, the Center for Media Assistance, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the American University, and George Mason University etc.
Blv: It has been guessed that you don’t voice-up for Baloch journalists who are victim of establishment’s atrocities (Daily Tawar workers and Baloch areas Journalists), but write for Syed Fahsih Iaqbal who wasn’t son of Baloch land but was a pro-establishment journalist in journalism profession Balochistan chapter?
MSA: In my personal and professional life, I never distinguish between people based on their race and religion. For me, everyone is important regardless of his or her religious, racial and ethnic background. I am disappointed over your question as you classify journalists in ‘Baloch journalist’ and ‘non-Baloch journalist’ categories. Only people who do not read my work can only accuse me of not writing about Baloch journalists. Unfortunately, there are numerous Baloch journalists, such as Mohammad Khan Sasoli, Rematullah Shaheen, Siddiq Edhio, Ilyas Nazar Javid Naseer Rind or even most recently Irshad Mastho, about whose challenges I wrote during their lifetime. At that time, nobody even knew them nor did anyone, either from the government or journalists’ organizations, paid attention to their plight. There is an unfortunate trend of recognizing and celebrating people when they are dead. Nobody talks about them when they are alive and facing serious death threats. For example, in 2009, I wrote about terrorism charges against journalist Rehmatullah Shaeen for the first time in an editorial “Baloch journalist under terrorism charges”. But at that time, nobody paid attention to what he was going through and what he could consequently face. He was eventually killed and dumped in 2012. Similarly, on July 10, 2012, we published a news report about threats to senior journalist Irshad Masthoi but, again, nothing was done until he was killed last month. When journalist Javid Naseer Rind was kidnapped, I wrote an editorial on September 13, 2012. I wrote: “Mr. Rind’s family and well-wishers have every legitimate reason to worry about his forced disappearance because, unfortunately, most of the Baloch journalists who had been kidnapped in the past in a similar pattern were eventually found dead.” Unfortunately, Mr. Rind met the same deadly fate. As far as Syed Fahsih Iaqbal is concerned, I must say several people whom you describe as “not the son of Baloch land” have indeed offered extraordinary services to Balochistan. There is nothing wrong with recognizing and appreciating these people and their services. Through my writings, I would like to tell my readers that you must not judge people’s services based on their ethnicity and religion. I can’t ever imagine myself reaching that level of chauvinism. I was probably the only Baloch journalist who publicly condemned one Baloch armed group’s warnings to BBC reporter Ayub Tareen, who had to flee Quetta owing to death threats. In July 2013, I published an article called “Ten Pakistani friends of Balochistan.” There are several people who are not the ‘son of the Baloch land”, such as the novelist Mohammad Hanif, Tarek Fatah, I.A. Rehman, Hamid Mir (with whom I disagree on numerous matters), Wusatullah Khan, Dr. Akbar Ahmed, Asma Jhangir, Ali Dayan Hassan. However, these people have spoken for the Baloch people on very important platform during very critical times. Their services are commendable and I think we should broaden our circle of such friends instead of insisting that we should appreciate only those who are the ‘sons of the soil’.
Blv: In an interview you spoke Baloch separatist movement commenced after 2006, but before this 5 movements for secession had been fought and present one is follow-up of those, hence how ignoring past movement and turning face from reality?
MSA: I am not sure which interview you are referring to but in that interview I must have been referring specifically to the ongoing Baloch movement. Of course, everyone knows that there had been uprisings in Balochistan in 1948, 1958, 1962 and 1973. The current Baloch movement began in 2004 and intensified in 2006 after the killing of Akbar Bugti. The movement between 2004 and 2006 was not about an independent Balochistan. It gained momentum in resistance to General Musharraf’s so-called mega projects, including the construction of the Gwadar Port. When the interim Prime Minister Chaudhary Shujaat Hussain formed two parliamentary committees to address the conflict in Balochistan, all Baloch leaders, including the Marri, Mengal and Bugti agreed to meet with senators Wasim Sajad and Mushahid Hussain, who headed these parliamentary committees. While negotiating with those committees, no one including Nawab Bugti, asked for a free Balochistan. Nonetheless, the resistance in 1973 was in reaction to the ouster of the National Awami Party (NAP) government. Had Zulifiqar Ali Bhutto not dismissed the Balochistan government, the NAP leadership would be contented to live with Pakistan. The current movement is a continuation of the Baloch sense of alienation but absolute independence had never been such a prominent part of the past movements. This movement is also the longest among all past resistance battles.
Blv: In above discussed interview you made demand for a ‘Secular Balochistan’, you should elaborate to whom you were addressing? Was that Pakistan, so it is not secular itself and its nature base on religious fundamentalism, consequently how it will bestow you secular environment or Balochistan adorned on a plate?
MSA: With that I meant whether Balochistan remains a part of Pakistan or becomes a free state, I, as an ordinary citizen, wish to see it become a society where religion strictly remains a personal matter of the citizens. The State should not patronize any religion. People should be treated as equal citizens regardless their religion. Secularism is not something that you can only introduce with a constitutional amendment. Secularism is actually a form of social behavior that societies like Pakistan and Balochistan urgently need. The reason I specifically mention Balochistan is because of the increasing attacks on Shias and the recent attacks on the Zikiris in Awaran. As I said earlier, there is several non-Baloch who have offered great services to Balochistan, there are also numerous non-Muslims or non-Sunnis who have made invaluable contributions to our society. We can appreciate their services only by not looking at them from the prism of Muslim versus non-Muslim.
Blv: Do you believe Baloch renaissances without its national-state, because the 67 years history of Pakistan implies purely decay of Baloch identification including cultural and pillage of its resources?
MSA: Well, when you talk of a renaissance then you of course do not want the State to lead it. Renaissance or reformative movements are generally started and led by the local people. There are things that the Baloch cannot achieve because, as you said, the Pakistani state does not want that to happen. But there are also many things for which the Baloch can take ownership without necessarily depending on the government. I think Attaullah Mengal’s decision in 1970s to force Punjabi teachers to leave Balochistan was a historic blunder. I was not even born then but I saw a similar trend in 2010 when Baloch armed groups killed dozens of schoolteachers on issues such as singing Pakistan’s national anthem or hoisting flags in the schools. Human Rights Watch rightly reported about our children saying that “their future is at stake.” Several non-Baloch PhD professors had to leave the province. We should ask ourselves: Is that how we should treat the people who come to teach our children? I would clearly say no. When Dr. Malik Baloch became the chief minister of Balochistan, I wrote an editorial called “Mr. Chief Minister, Bring Back Balochistan’s Teachers.” You can be in support of or against a free Balochistan but that does not justify killing teachers. For a renaissance, it is important that Balochistan’s intellectuals, teachers, not politicians, should decide how our politics and future should look like. When you bring all these important institutions under political influence then you basically take away the society’s ability to question certain political policies and practices. These are some of the biggest challenges we face right now. It is more important whether my child learns how to do his math and science than whether there is a Pakistani flag on the top of his school. That’s insignificant. That should not be the issue at this point as, ironically; all leaders of the Baloch movement also went to the same Pakistani educational institutions. Somebody should ask if these schools could not Pakistanize Balach Marri or Dr. Allah Nazar, how they are going to brainwash our today’s children. Nobody asks these questions for the same reason as I stated that our civil society and educational institutions are not absolutely free. They are expected to take sides either with the government or the nationalists for their survival.
Blv: Through your journalistic works you could bring Baloch Youth on an ideological path but your online-newspaper covers merely aristocrats?
MSA: [Laughs] Aristocrats? Who, besides the people of Balochistan, is not an aristocrat? It is unfortunate but aristocrats have always led the government and the opposition in Balochistan. Besides Dr. Allah Nazar, show me a single Baloch opposition leader who does not come from the aristocracy? Excluding Dr. Malik Baloch, tell me a single Balochistan chief minister who was not an aristocrat? Who are the movers and the shakers of Balochistan? Jams, Jamlis, Magsis, Zehris, Marris, Mengals, Bugtis, Raisanis etc. They are all the same, whether they are in the government or in the opposition. They will never allow an “outsider” come in their ranks and climb the ladder of leadership. Why is it that Jam Ghulam Qadir’s son Jam Yousaf or Ghause Baksh Raisani’s son Aslam Raisani or Saleh Bhothani’s brother Aslam Bhoothani only had to replace them on top government positions? If you look at the opposition, can you imagine that a non-Mengal or Bugti could lead the Balochistan National Party or the Jamori Watan Party? No. So, that’s where our job begins as journalists and writers. Our goal is to encourage free thought in the Baloch society and encourage debate. Through the Baloch Hal, we have prepared, or at least helped, a new generation of young Baloch writers and thinkers. We cover the aristocrats because we don’t live in the fools’ paradise. That’s the reality that these are actually the people in the government and they are the ones who make decisions. Our job as journalists is not to throw people out of power. Our work is to report what the people in the power or the opposition do right or wrong. This is a very slow process but that’s the way forward. I have no qualms in claiming that the Baloch Hal has done Balochistan such a great service that even several government-funded institutions or opposition parties could do that.
Blv: You are well aware that present rulers were disregarded by Baloch masses in passed state’s election and by boycotting people supported to secessionists but you never mentioned this fact to world by your journalistic obligations, what are reasons?
MSA: I was the only Baloch editor who publicly called on the Balochistan National Party and the National Party to boycott the general elections of 2013. On March 13, I wrote an editorial called “Why the Baloch Interests Rest with Boycotting the Elections.” My argument was, “By opting for elections, the Baloch nationalist parties have significantly disappointed the Baloch masses… but participation in the election before punishing those ‘democratic’ leaders who committed human rights abuses in Balochistan…will encourage and cement a culture of impunity and unconditional remission.” Soon after the elections, I described the voter response the “lowest turnout probably ever witnessed in the history of the province.” However, I must say that the participation of the Baloch and Pashtun nationalists, who had boycotted the 2008 elections, gave the 2013 elections more legitimacy. People who are supportive of the free Balochistan movement did not vote but moderate nationalists such as the National Party performed better than what we had expected.
Blv: China by help of establishment looting Baloch resources, and being a Baloch journalist on which level you are hindering this wrong-doings?
MSA: You have to understand that a journalist’s job is not to “hinder” something. Our responsibility is to give alternative policy recommendations. The political leaders, in return, make policy decisions. Chief Minister Dr. Malik Baloch willingly accompanied Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to sign an agreement on Gwadar Port. Now, it is strange that when Baloch nationalists are in power, they actively support controversial government decisions that do not serve the interests of the Baloch people. However, these nationalists complain against Islamabad only when they are ousted from power. Didn’t Sarar Akhtar Mengal, as the Balochistan Chief Minister in 1998, make a similar blunder by driving the car of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in Balochistan when the latter had detonated nuclear tests in Chagai? On Gwadar, I opposed Dr. Malik’s decision and I called the agreement with China a “midday robbery”. In my editorial, I suggested that the “Baloch should do whatever it takes to resist the Chinese presence in Balochistan because most of Pakistan’s foreign friends such as China, Iran and Saudi Arabia are not friends of the Baloch. Pakistan uses Balochistan as a ground for all types of experiments ranging from nuclear tests to constructing naval bases for foreign countries.”
Blv: How you are working for Baloch journalists internationally, who are facing various difficulties; lacking of training institutes, financial scarcity, and adverse-environment are most prominent?
MSA: While journalists back home in Balochistan face direct threats to their lives, those among us who live in exile face equally severe financial hardships. Being a journalist in Balochistan does not necessarily make you a journalist in the United States and get a job with a media organization. I would be very honest that I have personally faced the hardest times of my life in the last four years since I got political asylum here in the United States. Finding steady income is the number one challenge here. It is simply not easy to be by yourself in a country with 300 million people (America) without having any connections in places where you wish to find employment. In addition, there are only a few organizations that assist journalists but the situation in countries like Syria and Iraq is so adverse that these organizations hardly have the resources to help every journalist in need. I, as an individual, cannot do much to change the working and living conditions of journalists besides only writing about these issues. Local press clubs and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) should step forward and initiate projects that address issues of journalists’ safety and training.
Naeema Saeed, a journalist for Pakistani English language newspaper the Nation, published an interview of Malik Siraj Akbar on May 25, 2014. The interview was published in The Nation‘s Sunday Plus magazine as well as the newspaper’s online edition. Here is the full text of the interview.
Pakistani news channels are working 24/7. They are reporting on all the issues in which public is interested and in their hassle, they overlook the issues of public interest. Concerns like Balochistan crisis slip the sight unless some serious journalists with real urge to report come forward. Malik Siraj Akbar is one such name. He is the editor Baloch Hal, of the first online newspaper focusing on Balochistan.
I remember the latest tragedy when last year an earthquake hit the land of Balochistan. As a result of the terrible jolts an island appeared on the coast city of Gawadar. Instead of reporting the plight of the victims, the mainstream media bombarded the images and videos of the small island in the province. The Baloch Hal and few other agencies came forward to bring to light the miseries of the people of the province which is the richest when it comes to natural resources and is the poorest when it comes to standard of living of the people. Siraj has been trying to report situation in Balochistan on all important issues.
I had first interaction with Siraj on twitter. I tried to open a link of Baloch Hal but what popped up on the screen was, “Surf Safely, The site you are trying to access contains content that is prohibited for viewership from within Pakistan.” Siraj and I, mentioned the then interior minister Rehman Malik in tweets to grab his attention to the topic. The effort was futile as the governments play deaf ear to freedom of expression. Sunday Plus had a conversation with Siraj. He shared his insight about Pakistan, and Balochistan crisis. We also discussed his book and how he is showing a skeptic yet resolute face of Pakistani youth. Following are excerpts of the interview:
How did you get into this profession?
My interest in journalism dates back to my early teens. I had always wanted to become a journalist because journalists influence public opinion and get to meet with different people. I have always been very extrovert and gregarious and journalism fits that kind of a lifestyle. I used to write short stories for children’s magazines in Urdu. At the age of 16, I started writing on cricket. Prime Sports, a Karachi-based weekly sports magazine, offered me a regular column which ran for a while.
I started my journalistic career in 2003. In 2006, after completing my post-graduation in journalism from the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai, India, I joined Daily Times as the Balochistan Bureau Chief. It was the peak time of the conflict between the government and the Baloch nationalists. It provided me an opportunity to interview top government and opposition leaders and report on the Baloch nationalist movement. In 2009, I founded theBaloch Hal, Balochistan’s first online English language newspaper. My articles have appeared in Foreign Policy, Chicago Tribune, Huffington Post, the Diplomat, Dawn, Express Tribune, The News International, Times of India, the Hindu, Frontline and many other publications.
What is the ideology behind Baloch Hal? What are the future plans?
The Baloch Hal is a liberal, hyper-local newspaper that exclusively covers stories related to Balochistan because we think there is either insufficient coverage of Balochistan in the mainstream Pakistani media or a lack of proper understanding of local perspectives. We endeavor to bridge that gap. We regularly work with young journalists and aspiring writers from remote parts of Balochistan who need career advice, mentorship and a platform to get their work published. The Baloch Hal is still evolving and shaping itself since the very concept of online journalism has not fully matured yet in our part of the world. The economic viability of an online newspaper, including ours, is still the biggest challenge we face that this time. We run The Baloch Hal voluntarily and we will have to find sustainable revenue to not only continue to publish the paper but also to improve its quality.
Tell us about your book. When did you start working on it? How was the response? Did you find it difficult to publish it?
I worked on my book in 2010-11 while I was completing the Hubert Humphrey Fellowship Program at Arizona State University. The book focuses on the changing dynamics of the Baloch nationalist movement. While Balochistan has had troubled relations with the federal government since 1948, what is unique about the ongoing nationalist movement is the widespread participation of the Baloch middle-class and women. This does not bode well for Pakistan and makes it hard for Islamabad to completely eradicate the nationalist movement when it enjoys so much public support. I self-published the book.
Are you working on any other book?
I am not currently working on a book but I intend to write my memoirs in near future. People may think I am too young or not-so-important to publish my autobiography. But the reason I want to write this book is to tell the story of my generation of the young Baloch. Our generation has been the prime victim of the conflict in Balochistan. I have lost numerous personal friends in the ongoing war. Young boys of my age faced extrajudicial arrests, torture and murder all these years.
I have lived on exile for nearly five years without having met my family even once during these years. There seems to be no safe place for young Baloch people within Pakistan. Who on the earth goes to a war-torn country like Afghanistan to seek protection and asylum? You may laugh and say no one but in fact thousands of Balochs are even compelled to go to Afghanistan for protection. It has been too hard to be a young Baloch in Pakistan in recent times. Besides politics, people of my age in the rest of Pakistan know nothing about the Baloch people as to how we live, what we eat and how we spend our lives. Even once a former Pakistani senator asked me, “Siraj, what language do you people speak in Balochistan? Balochistani?” I see a major disconnect between our generation of people from Balochistan and the rest of the country.
Why did you leave Pakistan?
I left Pakistan to work on the Hubert Humphrey Fellowship Program in 2010-11. But I did not return after the completion of my fellowship because the government blocked the Baloch Hal in November 2010 and violence against journalists significantly increased in Balochistan. Journalists’ safety has today become a Pakistan-wide challenge for our community. If you are a Baloch journalist and attacked then you are very unlikely to get the kind of attention Syed Saleem Shahzad, Umer Cheema, Hamid Mir or Raza Rumi received. So, if you are a Baloch journalist, you have to be smart enough to draw a line between stupidity and bravery because there is no one from the Pakistani government or the media to cry for you once you disappear or are killed.
How do you see Baloch problem? Give a brief review?
The Baloch problem has complicated in the recent times. In the past, it seemed to be a mere issue of provincial autonomy. Violence, intolerance has increased and the State has failed to fulfill its obligations to protect people’s lives and meet their fundamental socio-economic needs. The Balochs had been agitated in the past for not benefitting from their mineral wealth but now their anger is further fueled by use of force against the Baloch people. The government needs to take urgent but drastic measures to normalize Balochistan. The Center has to devise a policy of long-term engagement and ownership of the Baloch in order to make them equal partners in the affairs of the State. The sooner Islamabad does so, the better for a conflict management and resolution.
Do you see any hope in case of Pakistan? What are the most important problems?
Pakistan has invested more in religion than investing in its economy. Pakistan needs robust economic and social reforms to ignite hope among its people. In the 21st century it is more important to know how many of your countrymen are fed, educated, and employed than knowing who is a Sunni or a Shia. It should take advantage of the great economic progress its neighbours China and India are making. It is unfortunate for Pakistan that China and India are currently negotiating with the world’s top investors and inviting leading global universities to open their campuses over there and Pakistan is stuck with negotiating with the Taliban and offering it an office. It does not mean that Pakistan has totally missed the bus but it can no longer afford to squander more time if it intends to progress and prosper.
On cultural front Pakistan is lagging far behind, Balochistan in particular is further away on cultural progress. Many believe that cultural power can help resolve many crisis. Do you think soft power can help?
Pakistan is home to diverse cultures. Instead of capitalizing on that cultural heritage, we imposed a single Muslim-Pakistani-Urdu-speaking cultural identity on the whole country. Unlike India, Pakistan did not allow mother tongues and regional languages to flourish. As a result, local art, literature, music and cultural practices did not find ample space to flourish. Once we learn to appreciate cultural diversity, we will become a more tolerant and pluralistic country. Cultural freedom and practices can tremendously bridge gaps between various groups fighting in the name of religion and ethnicity. People in one Pakistani province hardly know anything about the cultural icons of the other provinces. We should utilize our private television channels to bridge that cultural gap and promote mutual understanding among our people.
On May 2nd, 2014, Malik Siraj Akbar participated in Voice of America’s weekly current affairs program, Access Point with Ayesha Tanzeem, to speak about the Amnesty International report about the dangers of reporting in Pakistan and the allegations about the involvement of intelligence agencies in muzzling the local media.
On March 10, 2014, The Story of South Asia, a Washington DC-based website, published the following detailed interview of Malik Siraj Akbar about the conflict in Balochistan, challenges of the news media and the state of human rights. Here is the full text of the interview. The interview was conducted by Roshan Ghimire.
Interviewed by Roshan Ghimire
Akbar is a well- known journalist and a blogger from Balochistan, the largest province of the Pakistan. He was granted Political asylum in the United States after facing threats for his writing. He is also the Editor-in- Chief of the Baloch Hal , the first online English newspaper of Balochistan, which is currently banned in Pakistan. In an exclusive interview with Story South Asia, Malik spoke about the issues of press freedom, human right violations and the future of Balochistan.
Balochistan has been the epicenter for regional warfare and rivalries. How was Balochistan when you were growing up?
I grew up in Balochistan during 1980s and ‘90s. It was a peaceful time for Balochistan as the province recovered from the worst military operation of 1970s that claimed thousands of Baloch lives. But we lived in poverty, and a lack of basic facilities. There was also an on-going realization among the people of my generation that the Pakistani federal government exploited our province’s mineral wealth and we received nothing in return. We did not feel properly represented in any domain of life in Pakistan.
You worked for a long time in Pakistan, as the youngest Bureau Chief of Pakistan’s leading Newspaper Daily Times for five years. You lived in Balochistan and filed many stories on pressing issues for several years. Can you tell us about your experience working as a journalist in Pakistan?
Working as a journalist in Balochistan is different from working elsewhere in Pakistan. One feels like the very news organizations that you work for sides with the federal government by default.
Balochistan is Pakistan’s largest province but it receives the least amount of editorial space in the mainstream national media. Editors censor the stories filed by Balochistan-based correspondents under the pretext of “national security”. For a reporter covering Balochistan, it is often frustrating that your editors and publishers censor so much of your reporting that the government no longer needs officials to perform this job [of censorship].
After all the years working and reporting in Pakistan, what made you flee to the United States?
I did not flee to the United States. I came here in 2010 when the State Department awarded me a ten-month long Fulbright Hubert Humphrey Fellowship. While I worked here on my fellowship and regularly wrote about the conflict in Balochistan, the Pakistani government officially blocked theBaloch Hal, Balochistan’s first online English language newspaper that I had founded in 2009. Meanwhile, several Baloch journalists were killed by Pakistani authorities. The ban on my newspaper and the killing of fellow journalists in Balochistan alerted me that my life could also be at risk if I returned to Balochistan.
I had received death threats when I was in Balochistan in 2007 but I never thought that someone would be stupid enough to kill a journalist – only because they didn’t like a news story. But now when I turn back and recount the number of 20 plus reporters who have been killed in Balochistan, I realize that killing of journalists has unfortunately become a nightmarish reality of our profession in Balochistan.
I have heard the Pakistani government is ruthless when it comes to censorship in Balochistan. The government banned your website The Baloch Hal on 2010. What exactly is the government trying to hide about Balochistan?
The government, rather the Pakistani military, has too much to hide about Balochistan. The military wants to control the national narrative on Balochistan. For years, the people of Pakistan had been fed a selective state-sponsored narrative about Balochistan, which depicts the Baloch people who want ownership of their natural resources as the “enemies of Pakistan” and “foreign agents”.
Just like the British colonial rulers, the Pakistani military in collaboration with the national media, tells the general public that they are actually in Balochistan to “civilize”, “modernize” and “develop” the Baloch, whereas we see this as a policy to plunder Balochistan’s mineral wealth and treat the province as a Pakistani colony. Hence, we chose to contest that official narrative and launched the Baloch Hal to tell the Baloch perspective on all critical issues. The government and the media try to tell the world that a small minority of people is seeking “provincial autonomy” in Balochistan, which is untrue, because the on-going Baloch movement seeks complete separation from Pakistan.
Our reporting and editorials predominantly focus on widespread human rights abuses in Balochistan that includes forced disappearances, torture and political assassination of political opponents.As journalists, we believe it is our responsibility to show our readers the actual picture instead of keeping them in darkness simply because the government wants us to do so.
Violation of human rights is a big issue in Balochistan today. Thousands of men and women are missing from the province. The government blames Baloch Militants groups and other extremist for this. Others think government is responsible for the missing people. Who do you think is the real culprit?
Among all human rights abuses, currently the issue of enforced disappearance is the most alarming. Thousands of political activists who belong to the Baloch ethnic community have gone missing, while hundreds of them have been killed and dumped across Balochistan. Pakistan’s own Supreme Court has admitted time and again that the country’s intelligence agencies and security forces are involved in these extrajudicial arrests. But the judiciary does not have the teeth to bite the human right abusers. The people who have “disappeared” are severely tortured during custody, denied their basic right to hire a lawyer or face a legal trial. International human rights groups such as the Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have also blamed the Pakistan authorities for indulging in these extrajudicial operations.
There are two other fronts of violence and rights abuses in Balochistan.The Sunni extremists, led by an underground banned terrorist group the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, have claimed responsibility for the killing of hundreds of Shia Muslims. Most Shias in Balochistan belong to the Hazara ethnic community. The Lashkar-e-Jhangvi is believed to enjoy covert support from elements within the Pakistani security establishment and it receives funding from some oil-rich Arab countries.
The Baloch armed groups have also engaged in killing unarmed Punjabi civilians, university professors and journalists as a part of their ‘revenge strategy’ against the government. As a result of these attacks, thousands of Punjabis, locally known as “settlers”, have been forced to flee Balochistan.
People in Balochistan have been fighting for autonomy and local control of the province for a long time. Extremists are fighting for independence. Is separation a solution for Balochistan? What are people looking for?
For decades, Balochistan had been fighting for provincial autonomy while remaining within the federation of Pakistan. Since 2006, when prominent Baloch political and tribal leader Nawab Akbar Bugti was killed, the demand for provincial autonomy has transformed into an organized call for a separate Baloch state. Those who are calling for separation are mostly young educated people who no longer see a future for themselves in Pakistan. Baloch women have also begun to actively participate in the pro-independence movement.
The Baloch nationalist leaders can at best respond to your question whether or not separation is a solution to their problem. However, I am sure about one thing: no one anywhere in the world would want to live in a country where their children are routinely picked up, tortured and murdered by their own army.
The formation of local government in the province may take months and years,” said Sultan Bayazeed, the provincial election commissioner (PEC) of Balochistan. How will this affect the future of the province?
Balochistan, just like the rest of Pakistan, does not have a strong local government because every new government restructures the overall local government system. During General Musharraf’s time, for instance, local governments were formed to provide support to the former dictator at grassroots level. Instead of focusing on building local institutions, Musharraf empowered people who unquestionably supported his regime. Local and provincial governments have also had serious differences on administrative and financial affairs.
There is an urgent need to build strong local government institutions that are autonomous and financially independent. Strong local governments will significantly address at least some of the basic challenges Balochistan currently faces in the area of law and order, health and education. Provincial government should only be responsible for legislation while development should be devolved to local level.
Since 1972, Balochistan’s gross income has grown in size by 2.7 times. Outside Quetta, the resource extraction infrastructure of the province is gradually developing but still lags far behind other parts of Pakistan”. How does outside involvement in the province affect tensions? Do you think the area being resource rich affects local governance, or attempts at a peace?
Considering Balochistan’s distinct social, political and economic dynamic, development is one area that is very likely to evoke tensions. Development has always had different connotations for the local Baloch and Pakistan’s federal government. The Baloch interpret development as an activity that leads to employment opportunities and therefore an improvement in their living standards. For Pakistan, development has been a way to consolidate its military presence, cause demographic imbalance against the Baloch people. It is also a means for them to provide undisputed access to its Chinese allies to the port in Gwadar and to Balochistan’s gold and copper projects in Chagi District.
As long as Pakistan deprives the Baloch of the benefits of the province’s resources, development and foreign investment will have bleak prospects of success. For example, the Baloch nationalists have been blowing up gas pipelines for almost a decade now saying that their gas is being forcefully taken to other Pakistani provinces without giving the indigenous people a share. There have also been frequent attacks on the Chinese engineers working at the port in Gwadar. So, development can cause unrest and tensions in Balochistan, if all stakeholders are not on the same page.
What are the basic challenges that people in the region face – given that it’s practically dessert terrain, life can’t be easy between water scarcity and conflict?
Balochistan is the richest Pakistani province in terms of natural resources but it is still one of the poorest regions in South Asia. It is Pakistan’s least educated province with extremely depressing social indicators on health and education. People do not have access to clean drinking water. Employment opportunities are tight and limited. The conflict has left hundreds of thousands of people internally displaced. The province needs attention and an improvement of infrastructure in almost every sphere of life. The Pakistani government looks at every issue from the prism of “national security” which means Islamabad does not easily encourage or allow international donors and non-governmental organizations to work with the communities in Balochistan.
People who are critical of your work say you are running a blog and not a news site. As a journalist and an editor, how hard is it to maintain objectivity when you are working under constant life threats?
It is unimportant for us whether people describe us as a blog or a news site. What matters is the impact the Baloch Hal has had in terms of spreading awareness, formulating public opinion and reshaping English journalism in Balochistan. It is reassuring that today national and international journalists read our editorials to see what the Baloch have to say about any critical issue.
For example, Al-Jazeera English and Foreign Policy recently quoted our work. CNN has republished our photographs while BBC World, Washington Post and Radio Canada International, have mentioned our work as an impressive example of online journalism from a conflict zone. No online publication in Pakistan has received such widespread recognition for innovative journalism. We have provided a platform to a new generation of young writers and journalists from Balochistan.
As an editor, my job is to write editorials, political analyses and commentaries that are actually based on my several years of field experience. Unlike news reports, editorials are generally subjective as they reflect the newspaper’s policy. I believe in the Robert Fisk school of thought in journalism where I think editorials should clearly distinguish between “good guys” and the “bad guys”. As I said before, we are committed to giving a local Baloch perspective. Therefore, our editorials, by default, keep Balochistan’s interests supreme.
Balochistan is in the middle of a cross fire between government officials, extremists and activists. As a journalist, do you think foreign intervention, or UN involvement is necessary?
The Baloch nationalists and the Pakistani military do not trust each other. Nor are they willing to take a step back from their stated positions. The intervention of international interlocutors such as the United Nations or the European Union has therefore become essential. Unless there are international guarantors, talks between the Baloch and the Pakistani state to bring peace and justice in Balochistan will not succeed.
As a defender of democracy, what is your vision for Balochistan?
I wish to see peace return to Balochistan. Everyone I talk to is now exhausted with this prolonged conflict. Hundreds of precious lives have been lost and thousands are still missing.
I wish to see Balochistan as an extremely secular region where every citizen enjoys equal rights regardless of their ethnicity, color and religion. My vision for Balochistan is totally different from Pakistan’s vision. While Pakistan continues to Islamize its society, I wish to see completeseparation of religion from politics. I would like to see Balochistan as the master of its own destiny, a place where our children don’t see security check posts and armed soldiers every morning when they step outside their homes to go to school.
On February 19, 2014, Malik Siraj Akbar appeared in a show on Huffington Post Live focusing on the conflict in Balochistan. The show featured Willem Marx, the author of the new book on Balochistan, Balochistan: At A Crossroads. The show was moderated by Caroline Modarressy-Tehrani
On January 13, 2014, Malik Siraj Akbar participated in a Huffington Post Live discussion about the threats to reporting in Pakistan. He provided a perspective from Balochistan. The show was hosted by Alyona Minkovski and it was specially aired on the third death anniversary of Geo TV’s young reporter Wali Khan Babar.
The following interview was conducted by German Radio DW’s correspondent Shamil Shams and firstly published on December 6, 2013
Malik Siraj Akbar, a Pakistani expert living in exile in the US, says Pakistani security agencies are involved in grave human rights violations and the abduction of activists in Pakistan’s Balochistan province.
DW: Pakistani security agencies have once again failed to present the missing Baloch people to the Supreme Court despite a December 5 deadline. Why are the Pakistani authorities reluctant to comply with the court’s orders?
Malik Siraj Akbar: In Pakistan, the military, its intelligence agencies, and the security establishment have historically remained unaccountable to anyone, including the superior judiciary. They have enjoyed absolute impunity for all their extrajudicial actions over the years. In Balochistan, the same intelligence agencies and the army are blamed for perpetrating enforced disappearances.
The security agencies are unwilling to comply with the court’s order because they believe, although without evidence, that the missing persons are closely connected with Baloch separatist organizations. Multiple government institutions such as the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the Military Intelligence (MI), and the Frontier Corps Intelligence (FCI), are involved in whisking away these people.
According to the Asian Human Rights Commission, the Pakistani army operates dozens of illegal underground torture cells in different parts of the country and various intelligence agencies do not share complete information with each other about their operations and torture cells. Rights groups believe these people are languishing in these cells. The Supreme Court intervention seems to have overwhelmed the security apparatus but there is still not a single institution or a person who knows everything about every missing person. It is a very chaotic situation.
Defense Minister Khawaja Asif recently told the apex court that no “missing persons” were in the government’s custody. In whose custody are they then?
The minister is right in a way. While the civilian government has control over the police department and the civilian intelligence bureau, the Pakistani army is not under civilian control. It is the army and the intelligence agencies that are involved in enforced disappearances and the Pakistani army certainly does not brief the civilian government about its operations, detention centers and investigation methods. And Balochistan is one of those areas which the army strictly keeps under its control under the pretext of “national security.” I believe even Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, just like former President Asif Ali Zardari, has no clue about the whereabouts of the missing Balochs.
How significant is the “long march” of the Baloch people from Quetta to Karachi. Has it achieved its objectives?
The long march is a milestone in Balochistan’s struggle for civil rights and justice. The peaceful march also indicates that most of the missing persons are not linked with the Baloch separatist groups. If they were affiliated with such groups, their families would surely be reluctant to share their photos and detailed biographies with the media. They would not ask for an open investigation under the country’s judicial system. By walking 700 kilometers in the quest for justice and human rights, the long march leader Mama Qadeer and his colleagues did something that I often say even Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela couldn’t do.
There has been very little coverage of this march in Pakistani media. Why is this?
There is insufficient coverage of everything related to Balochistan in the Pakistani media. The long march was not an exception. The Pakistani media also sides with the army’s policy on most issues related to Balochistan. I do not think it is only due to the military’s pressure. It is simply because most Pakistanis do not know much about Balochistan; they have never been there and they do not know what their army is doing there. With the media so ignorant, you can imagine how little the Pakistani public knows about the situation there. The media is indeed responsible for intentionally giving a cover-up to the army’s human rights abuses in Balochistan.
What are the ‘long march’ organizers demanding?
Actually, the organizers of the long march have been protesting since 2005 in different ways. They have been holding hunger strike camps, demonstrations in front of local press clubs, the Balochistan High Court, and the Supreme Court of Pakistan in Islamabad. Their protests never attracted much attention. The reason they chose to walk from Quetta to Karachi was to raise more awareness for their cause because the Nawaz Sharif government is less enthusiastic than the preceding Pakistan People’s Party’s to resolve the Balochistan conflict.
The protestors are demanding that their relatives be resurfaced, given access to lawyers, and produced before the court. They say if the courts convict their relatives, they will accept the verdict. They also demand that kidnappings, torture and murder should end.
There was hope that Abdul Malik, the new chief minister of Balochistan, would resolve the Baloch conflict. Have you seen any progress in this regard since he took the reins of the provincial government?
The conflict is not between Baloch separatists and the chief minister. It is a conflict between the Baloch people and the Pakistani army and the federal government. The chief minister cannot do much to resolve this issue considering his limited influence over the army, the intelligence agencies and even the Baloch separatists. As expected, he has not managed to make an iota of progress in resolving the conflict.
What do you propose Islamabad do to address the demands of the Baloch people?
The demands of the Baloch separatists and the organizers of the long march are totally different. It is still possible for Islamabad to control further damage in Balochistan by resurfacing the missing persons so that anti-Pakistan sentiments do not further trickle down to the common Baloch people. The separatists are, ironically, not in a hurry. They believe the more Islamabad commits rights abuses, the more their support base broadens among general public.
As far as the demands of the separatists are concerned, they are clearly asking for a free Baloch state. Understandably, Islamabad will not concede to that demand. In a situation like this, Islamabad should at least meet the demands of the organizers of the long march to build some confidence and de-escalate tensions. The demands of the long marchers are in accordance with the Pakistani law and the constitution.
The following interview was published in the Author Spotlight section of the Diplomat Magazine on August 2, 2013
Malik Siraj Akbar chose exile over death. He lived to tell the story of resistance, a freedom movement and the fight for democracy in Balochistan. Geographically, Balochistan may be part of Pakistan but in its heart it is an independent nation, one that never accepted the Islamic Republic’s forceful annexation in 1948.
Akbar started his journalistic career in 2006 at 23 as a bureau chief for Pakistan’s national newspaper, the Daily Times. While writing for major national and international newspapers, he faced constant harassment from the Pakistani authorities, which eventually prompted him to seek asylum in the U.S. in 2010, where he was taking part in the Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship Program.
To describe the changing dynamics of the Baloch national movement, which already has a history of more than five decades, Akbar recently wrote a book, The Redefined Dimensions of Baloch Nationalist Movement, in which he narrates how the movement for an independent Balochistan has percolated to each and every section of the society, with even the educated middle class, once aloof from this struggle, becoming a vocal votary of the freedom movement.
Now 30, Akbar epitomizes the Islamic Republic’s widening fault-line and its failure to sustain the idea of Pakistan, as radical Islam and rabid religiosity push the country to a precipice. The Diplomat’s Sanjay Kumar recently spoke with the author.
How do you identify yourself: a Baloch or Pakistani? What is the reason for identifying or describing your identity the way you do?
I am asked this question almost every single day. Both sides – the Balochs and the Pakistanis – ask me the same question with a set of expectations. Considering the nature of my work, I prefer to identify myself as an independent journalist. Yet I am frequently asked whether I am a “Baloch journalist” or a “Pakistani” journalist. I do not wish to restrict my constituency of readers by identifying myself on ethnic, religious or geographic lines. It is unfortunate that most journalists currently working in Balochistan are asked the same question. Gone are the days when journalists could work independently without necessarily belonging to one or the other side.
In your book The Redefined Dimensions of Baloch Nationalist Movement you talk about the last decade of the Baloch national movement, and what it aims to achieve.
As stated in its title, the book highlights the “new dimensions” of the Baloch nationalist movement. In the past, the Baloch nationalists only asked for administrative and financial autonomy while remaining within the federation of Pakistan. That demand has significantly changed in the past decade. Now, it has transformed into a demand for Balochistan’s absolute independence from Pakistan. Unlike the past anti-Pakistan movements initiated in Pakistan, the current Baloch movement is headed by educated young people from middle-class families. Women and children also actively participate in peaceful protest rallies in support of a free Balochistan. Pakistan has applied all possible repressive tactics to quell the Baloch uprising.
Every now and then you hear a missing person story from Balochistan. Why do people go missing, and how serious is the alienation issue?
Pakistan’s secret service, the Inter-Services Intelligence and Frontier Corps, a federal paramilitary force, are believed to be behind the cases of enforced disappearances in Balochistan.
Thousands of Baloch people have disappeared since the conflict began in 2004, while hundreds have resurfaced as bullet-riddled corpses in what is known locally as Pakistan’s “kill and dump” operations in Balochistan. The disappeared include people from almost all walks of life. Most of them are young students and political activists between the ages of 18 to 24. A few lucky among the missing persons who are released have reported about undergoing severe torture during official custody.
The missing persons’ issue has significantly contributed to Baloch anger.
Are you also one of the missing persons from your motherland? Why would a bright, promising person such as yourself have to seek asylum in the U.S.?
The Pakistani government blocked my online newspaper, The Baloch Hal, which was critical of the government’s policies on Balochistan, particularly on human rights issues. Nearly 20 journalists have been killed in Balochistan in the line of duty and the government has failed to convict a single murderer. I do worry for my personal safety in Pakistan, particularly in Balochistan, because of my writings and public speeches about the situation in Balochistan. I have repeatedly received threats from the government. I even once reported those threats to the Governor of Balochistan, who clearly suggested that if I did “positive journalism”, which meant pro-government reporting, I would not be harmed. I have never been apologetic about my writings on Balochistan.
What is the biggest threat in your province – Islamization of the province or militarization – and how so?
Militarization is the biggest threat Balochistan faces. Islamization is just a byproduct of the Pakistani army and its intelligence agencies. Balochistan is a very secular society where we, until recently, never worried about things like Islamization. In recent years, the Pakistani secret services have injected radical Islam to counter Baloch nationalists. Those who receive support from the Pakistani military establishment include the Taliban, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and the pro-Taliban Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam.
A reason why the militarization of Balochistan worries me is the absence of the Baloch in Pakistan’s security establishment. So, militarization aside, everyone in the military, secret services and paramilitary forces who is appointed in Balochistan actually belongs to another province. They are outsiders. They do not speak the Balochi language nor do they know the local culture and traditions. With no stakes involved, they indulge in massive human rights abuses and promote radical Islam in order to Islamize the secular Baloch society.
You describe the killing of the Baloch nationalist leader, Nawab Mohammad Akbar Khan Bugti, as Balochistan’s 9/11. Why? How has that incident complicated the reconciliation process with Pakistan?
Nawab Bugti was a moderate Baloch leader who had worked with Pakistan throughout his life. He was not a separatist. He had actually served as a former governor and chief minister of the province. During the last days of his life, he was also engaged in talks with Islamabad on critical issues like gas royalty and construction of military cantonments in Balochistan.
With the killing of Bugti, Balochistan was left with no leader with whom Islamabad could negotiate. His killing created a vacuum for dialogue and transformed the Baloch demand for provincial autonomy into a quest for outright independence. When you kill a moderate leader, you just pave the way for hardliners and that is what has happened in Balochistan. A moderate negotiator like Bugti has been replaced by educated, middle-class young men who no longer want to reconcile with Pakistan.
You started the first online English newspaper for Balochistan, The Baloch Hal. Why did you feel the need to start a newspaper?
There is very limited coverage of Balochistan in the Pakistani media. Even most Pakistanis do not know much about Balochistan. The mainstream newspapers, with which I had the opportunity to work, deliberately censor stories regarding Balochistan. Rarely are issues pertaining to the province given space on the editorial pages. Also, foreign journalists are denied entry inside Balochistan. So I launched The Baloch Hal as a window for the rest of the country as well as for the world. We focused on hyper-local stories and provided insights about them.
The work of The Baloch Hal was immediately recognized and appreciated in the international media. Even the BBC World Service praised our work. The Pakistani government, for its part, thought The Baloch Hal, with its reporting on human rights issues, was embarrassing the military. As a result, the Pakistani Telecommunication Authority (P.T.A.), blocked us in 2010. For the past three years, The Baloch Hal has remained banned inside Pakistan. Although several national and international groups such as the Committee to Protect Journalists, Bytes for All and The News International have mentioned the ban on our newspaper, successive Pakistani governments have not agreed to lift it.
Some analysts say that Balochistan is going to be Pakistan’s next Bangladesh. Is the idea of Balochistan more important for you or the idea of Pakistan? Can both ideas coalesce or coexist?
I don’t think Balochistan is going to be the next Bangladesh. Unfortunately, this fact also boosts the Pakistani government’s confidence level because they know that they can continue with their human rights abuses in Balochistan and the Balochs have no choice but to tolerate the state repression.
Unlike the Bengalis, the Baloch do not have international support. There is not a single country yet that supports the idea of a free Balochistan. Pakistan gets substantial military assistance from the United States to fight the war on terror and portions of that assistance are diverted to carry out military operations against the Baloch. The U.S. government, despite repeated reminders by groups like the Amnesty International, does not hold Pakistan accountable for the misuse of American aid.
I think the idea of Pakistan is deeply flawed. Besides the Baloch, almost everyone else in Pakistan, such as the Shia Muslims, the Hindus, the Christians and other ethnic minorities, has a problem with the idea of Pakistan. If countries can amend their constitutions, I do not understand why Pakistan cannot revisit its fundamental idea. A country, such as Pakistan, that calls itself the “land of pure” and that expects citizens to abide by the teachings of Islam and treat India, the United States, Israel as perpetual enemies cannot give its people a sense of nationhood.
India is often blamed for stoking insurgency in your province. To what extent is this true?
The Pakistani government has blamed India, the U.S. and Israel on so many occasions for domestic failures that even ordinary citizens have stopped buying that official claim anymore. Balochistan is Pakistan’s original sin and Pakistan has to admit its policy blunders. Pakistan and India love to “expose” each other on almost every occasion. I am sure Pakistan would not miss an opportunity to embarrass India if it had genuine proof of New Delhi’s involvement in Balochistan. The Baloch movement is absolutely indigenous and existed even during times when India and Pakistan sought peace. If Balochistan enjoyed Indian support, the Baloch would not receive the bullet-riddled corpses of their youths every single day. They would surely have followed the Bangladesh model much earlier.
By Pamela Constable
November 14, 2011
Siraj Ahmed Malik, an ambitious young Pakistani journalist, was enjoying a stint last fall on a fellowship at the Arizona State University when he started getting chilling messages from home.One after another, his friends and colleagues were disappearing, he learned, and their bodies were turning up with bullet holes and burn marks. A doctor’s son from his home town was arrested and vanished. A fellow reporter was kidnapped, and his corpse was found near a river. A student leader was detained, and his bullet-riddled body dumped on a highway. A writer whose stories Malik had edited was shot and killed.
“These were kids I had played cricket with, people I had interviewed, younger reporters I had taught,” Malik, 28, said in an interview last week in Arlington County, where he now lives. The final straw came in early June, when one of his mentors, a poet and scholar, was gunned down in Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan, Malik’s native province.
On Aug. 19, Malik applied for political asylum in the United States. In his petition, he said that his work as a journalist and ethnic activist in Baluchistan, where he had exposed military abuses, made him likely to be arrested, tortured, abducted and “ultimately killed by the government” if he returned.Two weeks ago, his petition was granted. It was a highly unusual decision by U.S. immigration officials, given Pakistan’s status: a strategic partner in Washington’s war against Islamic terrorism; a longtime recipient of U.S. aid; and a democracy with an elected civilian government and vibrant national news media.
“I never wanted to leave my country, but I don’t want to become a martyr, either,” said Malik, a soft-spoken but steely man who spends his days hunched over a laptop at coffee shops in Clarendon, checking with sources back home to update his online newspaper, whose name means “Baluch Truth.”“What’s going on in Baluchistan is like the dirty war in Argentina,” he said. “I need to be telling the story, but I can’t afford to become the story.”Baluchistan is the Wild West of Pakistan — a remote desert province, larger than France, that is home to a mix of radical Islamic groups, rival ethnic and refugee gangs, rebellious armed tribes, and security agencies that have long been reported to kidnap, torture and kill dissidents with impunity.
Living under constant threat
Yet this ongoing violence and skulduggery receives scant international attention. Foreign journalists are banned from visiting the region alone, while headlines about Pakistan are dominated by a separate, high-stakes border conflict in which American drones and Pakistani troops are battling the Taliban and al-Qaeda.As a result, a handful of local journalists such as Malik have been left to investigate and report the news without big-city patrons or visiting foreign delegations to give them cover.“The threat of disappearance was always lurking in the back of our minds,” Malik wrote in his asylum petition. “My friends, colleagues and I lived with the knowledge that yesterday it was him that disappeared; today it is someone else; tomorrow it could easily be me.”
As Malik recounted over coffee, pressure and threats from unidentified intelligence agents were a daily hazard. According to his asylum file, agents accosted him in airports and hotels, detained and questioned him, and repeatedly threatened to “teach me a lesson.”Malik acknowledges that as an advocate for the Baluch nationalist cause, his journalism is hardly neutral. The ethnic minority movement, which seeks autonomy from the central government, includes armed groups. Malik claims that he does not condone them, but he describes their stance as a “defensive” response to official abuse.
Still, his case for protection was bolstered by reports from human rights groups and letters from university officials in Arizona, who called him “nothing short of brave.” In a July report, Human Rights Watch described a “practice of enforced disappearances” of Baluch leaders and intellectuals, often by security agencies, and listed 45 abductions or killings since 2009.
Activists including Malik assert that more than 5,000 Baluch have vanished in the past decade, but the issue has never been seriously addressed, while the government has both co-opted and persecuted Baluch tribal chiefs. In 2007, Pakistan’s military president fired the head of the Supreme Court, who sought to probe the disappearances. In 2008, a civilian government took office and an investigative commission was established, but little action has been taken.
“The authorities have no answers because there is no accountability,” said one Pakistani diplomat, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject. He suggested that Malik had exaggerated his fear of persecution as a “ploy” to remain in the United States, but he also called disappearances “the tip of the iceberg” in a society where security forces hold sway behind the scenes. Even a chief justice, he added, “knows there are lines he cannot cross.”
Driven to speak out
Najam Sethi, a newspaper publisher and titan of Pakistan’s liberal media establishment, was Malik’s boss from 2006 to 2010, when he worked as a correspondent in Quetta. For the past few months, Sethi has been on his own sabbatical at the New America Foundation in Washington, partly to escape the pressure he faces at home.
At a public forum here last week, Sethi described Pakistan’s news media as free to snipe at politicians and expose financial scandals but said it remains cautious about reporting on military and intelligence institutions, partly out of respect and partly out of fear.
“The media are scared, because there is no one to protect them,” Sethi said.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, more than 40 Pakistani journalists have been killed since 1992. In May, a well-known investigative reporter, Saleem Shahzad, was abducted and found murdered. Shahzad had received threats after writing about al-Qaeda infiltration of the military, and a senior U.S. military official said his killing had been “sanctioned” by the government.
Asked about Malik, Sethi said he thought his former staffer had been too aggressive and outspoken. As Malik’s editor, he said, he had intervened several times with military authorities to protect him. “I wish he hadn’t gone so far,” Sethi said. “He crossed too many red lines.”
Malik, however, said he felt “betrayed” by such liberal media leaders, saying they have avoided speaking out against oppression in Baluchistan. He recounted how Baluch groups had been galvanized by the 2006 army slaying of the legendary tribal chief Nawab Akbar Bugti.
“For us, the killing of Bugti was Pakistan’s 9/11,” Malik said. After that, he said, he stepped up his exposure of the violence and abuses. His activities drew increasing attention from government agents, who, he said, called him a “traitor” and threatened to kill him if he did not stop.
Instead, Malik persisted. In early 2010, he attended a conference in India and denounced the disappearances. From his fellowship perch in Arizona last winter, and then while working briefly at the Center for Public Integrity in Washington in the spring, he wrote and spoke out at every opportunity.
But as the deaths of other Baluch journalists and friends began to mount, Malik said last week, he began to hesitate about returning.
“Baluchistan needs a messenger to the world,” he said, itching to get back to his reporting. “Here in the United States, I don’t have an office or money, but at least I can stay alive and get the message out.”(Read the actual story in the Washington Post)
This story originally appeared on BBC News on February 28, 2012
The nationalist insurgency in the Pakistani province of Balochistan does not often command international attention. But recent comments by US politicians suggest there could be a new appetite for addressing the conflict. BBC Urdu’s Amber Shamsi reports on how Baloch bloggers are leading the charge.
Balochistan’s long-running insurgency is all about greater political autonomy and the conflict has been brutal, with human rights groups accusing security forces of regularly detaining and torturing political activists.
Although the government has denied such accusations, activists insist their movements are closely watched and curtailed.
Malik Siraj Akbar is one victim of the tough stance taken by the Pakistani government.
“I became the bureau chief of a national daily at the age of 22,” he says. “I thought I had a bright future in Balochistan. Balochistan was my story. But I’ve lost my story.”
Mr Akbar is a journalist and blogger who was forced to seek political asylum in the US after he received threats from the government and intelligence agencies. His e-paper, Baloch Hal, was one of those that was shut down and the reason – he believes – that he was targeted. He has now had to substitute the dusty, conflict-ridden provincial capital of Quetta for a quiet suburb of Washington DC.
For the last eight years the insurgency has gone largely unnoticed by Pakistan’s mainstream media and by foreign news organisations.
It is a murky conflict in which underground nationalist groups and Pakistan’s paramilitary and intelligence agencies are the main players. The insurgency encountered setbacks in 2006 during the presidency of Pervez Musharraf. Baloch nationalist leader Akbar Bugti was killed at that time during an army operation.
Since then the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) appears to have been determined to block sites in Balochistan which are critical of the Pakistani state.
Since 2006, Pakistan’s telecommunication authority has blocked nearly 4,000 websites. Most of them are pornographic or contain blasphemous material, but a lot are those deemed “anti-state”. Many of these are websites, blogs and YouTube videos from the province of Balochistan.
Talking to the BBC, a PTA official said it was the government and not the telecoms authority that censors web content in Pakistan.
The PTA is reluctant to release the numbers and types of websites that have been blocked, and to date there has been no research into the exact number of Baloch websites on the forbidden list.
Given that many keep changing URLs and names, putting a finger on numbers is made all the harder. But Mr Akbar estimates that there must be hundreds.
“All over the world, the freedom to express oneself is best done through social media websites and blogs. We don’t [officially] have that right in Pakistan,” he says.
According to the Bytes for All organisation working to promote internet freedom in Pakistan, disappearances, illegal torture and extra-judicial killings of journalists, lawyers, students and political activists have increased rapidly throughout Balochistan in recent months.
It says that these developments received an “almost total blackout” by the Pakistani media.
But recently, Baloch nationalist groups have tried to fight back against media censorship. They asked cable operators to block the transmission of mainstream Urdu news channels throughout the province in protest over what they say is their refusal to cover Balochistan’s conflict.
“Reporters do send in the news, but there are no local voices from the interior or any in-depth analysis on the issues,” says Aurangzaib Khan, a representative of Intermedia pressure group.
He says that the kind of journalism being practised in the province is “forced”. “Reporters are made to report on stories that are not even newsworthy because they are under all kinds of pressure.”
He blames three forces responsible for “putting the screws” on journalists – the military, militants and separatists.
Blogging for truth?
But where the news media struggles, blogs flourish. Malik Siraj Akbar says that the world now looks to these blogs for news from the province.
For example, when UNHCR official John Solecki was kidnapped in 2009, the story was first broken by bloggers, he says.
But can blogs provide a holistic, impartial picture of Balochistan? After all, not every blogger is necessarily an objective and independent journalist.
I managed to track down one such blogger, a 29-year-old businessman who wants to remain anonymous for fear of retribution.
“We have to direct attention towards human rights abuses first. We are tortured and killed, as if we are not even human. First human rights must be restored in Balochistan, and then we can talk about women’s rights,” he says.
While human rights abuses in Balochistan have got scant attention in the rest of Pakistan, it is an issue gaining traction in Washington.
A US Congress Oversight and Investigations Committee recently held a hearing on human rights abuses in the province.
The Pakistani government has reacted strongly to the hearing, describing it as tantamount to “meddling in Pakistan’s internal affairs”.
But Malik Siraj Akbar says that this hearing is an achievement for Balochistan’s bloggers and human rights groups.
“In a sense, this is like Balochistan’s mini-Arab Spring, and the credit goes to those bloggers who have risked their lives to bring truth to the fore.”
But given that many bloggers are sympathetic towards the Baloch nationalist point of view, Aurangzaib Khan has a pertinent question.
“Who is telling the real story of Balochistan?” he asks.
Somewhere among rocky hills and dusty towns, where the scent of juniper wafts through the springtime air or snow grips the land with a cold, wintry hand, a 13-year-old-boy once sat writing stories for children’s magazines. His town was near the Iranian border in Balochistan, Pakistan’s largest province. At 16 he was writing a weekly sports column for an Urdu language newspaper in a land where politics was all but taboo. By the time he was 20, he was reporting on politics in English, and today he is a respected journalist in exile, receiving political asylum in the United States last year. That journalist is Malik Siraj Akbar, who is currently a Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy, where he is focusing on threats faced by the defenders of democracy, such as political leaders, human rights activists, and journalists.
Balochistan may be blessed with beautiful snowcapped mountains and juniper trees, but it is also one of the most dangerous places in the world, especially for journalists. Reporters Without Borders has named Pakistan the most dangerous place for journalists, singling out the Khuzdar region of Balochistan in particular. The Committee to Protect Journalists has documented that 42 Pakistani journalists have been killed since 1992, friends of Malik’s among them. The literacy rate of Balochistan is a paltry 37 percent compared to the national rate of 53 percent, according to journalist and human rights activist Mazhar Leghari. Few newspapers are published in the region, and little industry exists for advertisements that could bring in revenue to sustain them. Most people get their news from radio. Internet penetration is barely 10 percent in Pakistan, and the government has blocked 4,000 websites, according to Malik.
The blocked websites include The Baloch Hal (The Baloch News), Balochistan’s first online English language newspaper, which is founded and edited by Malik. The site is maintained from three different countries and is geared towards a foreign policy audience. Malik also has a blog, All Things Considered.
Malik told CIMA that journalists in Pakistan are in need of training in professionalism, ethics, and basic reporting skills. Media development organizations should promote community radio, especially in local languages. He pointed out that Iran broadcasts two radio stations in the Balochi language, but no American station like Voice of America broadcasts a service in Balochi. He would like to see the U.S. government play a broader role in broadcasting news and liberal values to counter the propaganda coming from Iran.
To read the original text of the Malik’s profile by the Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA), please click here
Reporting from the Danger Zone: An Interview with Pakisani Journalist Malik Siraj Akbar By — Torie Rose DeGhett
Published in The Political Note Book on June 20, 2011
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.
On November 22, 2010, the South Asia News interviewed me about the ban by the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority on the Baloch Hal and also focused on the issues faced by journalists working in Balochistan.
Malik Siraj Akbar (Panjgur,1983) is the editor in chief of the Baloch Hal, the first Baloch newspaper in English. This digital platform was blocked in Pakistan last November by the PTA (Pakistan Telecommunication Authority), which blocks most digital media that broadcasts the voice of the Baloch people. In addition to reporting for The Baloch Hal and other news outlets, Siraj Akbar has recently published his first book “The Dimensions of the Baloch Redefined Movement” (Xlibris, 2011). As a political analyst, Siraj Akbar has been interviewed by media such as Al Jazeera, BBC, The New York Times and The Guardian, among many others.
GARA spoke with Siraj Akbar on the phone as he is currently based in the United States thanks to a scholarship that recognized his courageous and innovative journalistic work. Before we start the interview, Siraj Akbar admits he fears reprisals back home. Little wonder here as his native Balochistan has become a desert in which bodies appear daily on sandy roadsides like victims of a shipwreck. His work has made Islamabad uncomfortable and the killing of so many journalists validates the young journalist’s fears for his own life.
Is the situation in East Balochistan as out of control as it seems?
Nobody thought that the situation could reach such levels of violence. Just five years ago the incidents were mainly concentrated in the regions of Dera Bugti and Kohlu but, today, they have spread throughout East Balochistan. Forced disappearances, the killings of dissidents, intellectuals, students, etc., multiply by the day even among families that have never before been politically involved.
The numerous reports by human rights organizations like Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch may imply that Balochistan’s is a conflict with roots in the systematic violation of human rights. But the truth is that have to admit that it is a political conflict. Unfortunately, Islamabad´s response to the political conflict is terror.
How should the Baloch conflict be addressed in Pakistan?
Unfortunately, whenever the Prime Minister comes to visit East Balochistan he brings threats rather than solutions. First, Islamabad should recognize it as a political conflict and take measures to promote dialogue. Key to this is the end the forced disappearances drama because this only promotes hatred among the Baloch. Both local and international sources point to the secret services and the Frontier Corps behind the disappearances and murders. They often abduct Baloch in front of hundreds of people in bazaars or at universities. A positive step would be to include Baloch soldiers within the Frontier Corps ranks which, up to date, are almost exclusively formed of Pashtuns. Once you have created a climate of dialogue, Islamabad should negotiate with those Baloch leaders who wish to do so.
But Islamabad puts the blame of Balochistan’s backwardness on those tribal leaders, doesn´t it?
You can not disband the tribal system overnight. In any case, today the Baloch tribal leaders are also political leaders. In my native Panjgur, Sardar Akhtar Mengal (head of the Mengal clan and the Balochistan National Party) came to people’s houses asking for their votes. That is the way to win people over. Like the Mengals, the Bugtis also had a political party. If we compare the Khan of Kalat (heir in exile to the throne in eastern Balochistan) with Akhtar Mengal, we´ll see that Mengal is 50% a democrat and 50% an aristocrat, while the Khan is 100% tribal. Before his assassination in 2006, Nawab Bugti (veteran leader of the Bugti clan) negotiated with Islamabad as a political leader of a coalition that included the majority of the Eastern Baloch. Paradoxically, Islamabad has negotiated with leaders internally, through the tribal line, but never from the political line.
Do the Baloch share a common roadmap for an eventual negotiation process?
No, and this is a big problem. Some call for autonomy, others for self-determination, and the armed groups and the Marris (the biggest Baloch clan) want independence. In any case, there are many other things to be observed: if Balochistan is an independent state, will it be an Islamic Republic? What will the status of the tribes be? What about the role of women? What will be the relationship between politics and religion? These, and many others, are key issues in a roadmap still to be written.
Thinking about the more immediate future, how will the Baloch people be affected by the withdrawal of the occupation troops in Afghanistan?
It will affect the Baloch both positively and negatively. Washington’s reduction of financial support to the Pakistani army will imply that Islamabad will have less resources with which to crush the Baloch. Other than equipment and money, troops like the Frontier Corps were also trained by the Americans in the frame of their “war on terror”. The negative part of the withdrawal is that a likely victory for the Taliban – partly financed and supported by Pakistan – will bring the Baloch into the hands of radical fundamentalists. Islamabad is using them to counter the Baloch nationalist movement. The Islamization of East Baluchistan is a recent phenomenon that degenerates, among many other side effects, in numerous attacks against Shiites and Baloch mainly at the hands of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (an armed group allegedly linked to the Taliban).
However, there is much talk lately of “peaceful Balkanization of Pakistan” . . .
Right, but the paradox is that it’s in current circumstances in nobody’s interest, not even neighbouring “archenemy” India. If Pakistan breaks, India will be flooded with thousands of refugees and militant Islamic radicals just as happened after the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir. Iran – a Shiite theocracy – does not want to see their territory invaded by legions of Sunni militants. For Afghanistan, the balkanization of Pakistan would add new problems to an already long list. Similarly, Washington is highly concerned about Islamabad’s nuclear warheads falling into the hands of fundamentalists. Balochistan will remain without infrastructures; it will lack employment, water, electricity, literacy . . . but that will not lead to the disintegration of Pakistan. Inside the country, both the Baluch and Sindhis want independence, and the Pashtuns call for their Pashtunistan. However, these nationalists still have not managed to join forces in order to weaken Pakistan. All this said, I think that the so-called “peaceful balkanization of Pakistan” is out of the question at least at this moment.
Meanwhile, Pakistan is strengthening ties with neighbouring Persia, isn´t it?
While the ideological differences between Shiites and Sunnis could pose an insurmountable obstacle, both countries have addressed their priorities from the most absolute pragmatism. Without going any further, last summer Islamabad and Tehran signed a seven billion project to build the IP (Iran-Pakistan) pipeline. The IP would crisscross the Baloch territory from west to east. Besides, both governments fight alongside to quell the Baloch nationalist movements, to crush the Baluch on their respective borders.
Energy resources plus an highly strategic position boasting a thousand kilometres long coast at the gates of the Persian Gulf. To what extent is the oblivion to which the Baloch are condemned deliberate?
The Khan of Kalat said once that the Baloch were among the losers of World War II and I’m afraid they will also join the same list after the last war in Afghanistan is over. The message from Pakistan to the West has been clear: if you raise the Baloch issue we will make things even more difficult for you in Afghanistan. Moreover, there is very little information about our region. The West often confuses the Baloch cause with the Pashtun Taliban movement, and the fact is that the Baloch movement is the most secular current in the whole region, very much in the antipodes of religious fundamentalists. Indeed, this lack of information prevents people from thinking of Baluchistan as a plausible and effective secular buffer zone positioned between the Islamic republics of Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan.
Do you assume part of the blame? [Do you think the Balochs also committed some mistakes?]
Absolutely. I’ve always said it’s a terrible mistake to boycott the elections in Pakistan. A Member of Parliament still enjoys great respect in the West. By not having them the Baloch lose the opportunity for their representatives to speak with foreign representatives and diplomats. I know this is paradoxical, and even unbearable for many Baluch, but the truth is they are losing opportunities when it comes to getting international support. I think the struggle of the Baluch people has to be multidimensional – through armed struggle on the ground if they support it for themselves as an option, but they also have to struggle through parliamentary politics and their own media. We all know the Baloch won’t get much from Parliament, but we have to understand how much they lose by not being in it. (Courtesy: Crisis Balochistan)
The following interview originally appeared in The News on Sunday on June 6, 2011
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 International)
Malik told RFE/RL on November 17 that he decided to apply for asylum after he began receiving information from his native province of Baluchistan in western Pakistan that many of his friends and colleagues had disappeared and were later found dead with gunshot wounds.
بلوچستان کی حقیقت کون بتائے گا!
بی بی سی اردو ڈاٹ کام، اسلام آباد
صحافی اور بلاگر ملِک سراج اکبر کو گزشتہ سال مبینہ طور پر خفیہ اداروں کی دھمکیوں کی وجہ سے سیاسی بنیاد پر جلا وطن ہو کر امریکہ میں پناہ لینی پڑی۔ ان کا کہنا ہے کہ وہ اپنے وطن کو بہت یاد کرتے ہیں۔
’میں بائیس سال کی عمر میں ایک قومی اخبار کے لیے کوئٹہ کا بیورو چیف بنا۔ میرا خیال تھا کہ میرا بلوچستان میں ایک روشن مستقبل ہو گا۔ بلوچستان ہی میری اصل کہانی تھی، جس کو میں کھو بیٹھا ہوں۔‘
اگرچہ وہ بلوچستان کی سرزمین کو چھوڑنے پر مجبور ہوئے، انہوں نے اپنی کہانی نہیں چھوڑی۔ جس آن لائن اخبار کی وجہ سے ان کو پاکستان کے خفیہ اداروں اور فوج کی طرف سے دھمکیاں ملیں وہ اب اسے پرخطر کوئٹہ کی بجائے پرامن واشنگٹن سے چلا رہے ہیں۔
’ہمارا اخبار بلوچ حال اس طریقے سے نہیں چل پا رہا جسیا ہم چاہتے تھے۔ ہم چاہتے تھے کہ ہم بلوچستان سے خبریں شائع کریں مگر ہم بروقت خبریں نہیں شائع کر پا رہے۔ اندرون بلوچستان میں ہمارے سٹرنگرز کو سکیورٹی کا بہت بڑا مسئلہ ہے۔‘
سنہ 2006 سے سپریم کورٹ کے احکامات پر پاکستان ٹیلی کام اتھارٹی نے اب تک کم سے کم چار ہزار ویب سائیٹوں کو بند کیا ہوا ہے، جن میں بلوچستان کے عنوان سے لکھے ہوئے بلاگز، دیگر ویب سائیٹس اور ویڈیوز شامل ہیں۔ ان میں سے ایک ویب سائٹ ملک سراج اکبر کی بلوچ حال بھی ہے۔
پی ٹی اے کے ایک اہلکار نے واضح کیا کہ ادارے کا ویب سائٹس کے مواد پر کوئی قانونی کنٹرول نہیں ہے۔ وہ صرف بین الوزارتی کمیٹی کی سفارشات پر عمل کرتے ہوئے فحش، توہین آمیز اور غیر ملکی ویب سائٹس پر پابندی لگاتے ہیں۔ ان غیر ملکی عناصر ویب سائٹوں میں بلوچ ویب سائٹس شامل ہونے کے سوال پران کا کہنا تھا ’غیر ملکی ویب سائٹس تو گنی چنی ہیں۔ ویسے بھی اس فیصلے پر پی ٹی اے کی کوئی مداخلت نہیں ہوتی۔‘
فیصلے کے اختیار پر اہلکار نے بتایا کہ آئی ٹی کی وزارت میں ایک بین الوزارتی کمیٹی ان معاملات کو دیکھتی ہے جس کی سربراہی سیکرٹری انفارمیشن ٹیکنالوجی کرتے ہیں اور اس کمیٹی میں خفیہ اداروں کے نمائندے بھی بیٹھتے ہیں۔
ملک سراج اکبر کہتے ہیں ’دنیا بھر میں اظہارِ رائے کا سب سے بہترین طریقہ کار سوشل میڈیا ویب سائٹس اور بلاگز کو مانا جاتا ہے۔ پاکستان میں ہمیں اظہارِ رائے کا بنیادی حق نہیں ملا۔‘
انٹرنیٹ سے متعلق حقوق کے لیے کام کرنے والی تنظیم بائٹس فار آل کی حال ہی میں شائع کی گئی رپورٹ کے مطابق، بلوچستان میں صحافیوں، وکلاء، طلبا اور سیاسی کارکنوں کی غیر قانونی حراست، گمشدگیوں، ماورائے عدالت قتل اور ان پر تشدد میں اضافہ ہوا ہے اور ان واقعات کو پاکستانی ذرائع ابلاغ نے تقریباً ’بلیک آؤٹ‘ کیا ہے۔
حال ہی میں بعض بلوچ قوم پرست تنظیموں نے صوبہ بلوچستان میں اردو چینلز کو احتجاج میں بند کرایا۔ ان تنظیموں کا موقف تھا کہ پاکستان کا میڈیا بلوچستان کی صورتِ حال پر خاموش ہے۔
آزادی صحافت پر کام کرنے والی غیر سرکاری تنظیم انٹر میڈیا کے اہلکار اورنگزیب خان کا کہنا ہے ’بلوچستان میں جو کچھ ہو رہا ہے، پاکستان کا مین سٹریم میڈیا اس کی درست عکاسی نہیں کرتا۔ خبریں تو آجاتی ہیں، لیکن اس پر مقامی لوگوں کی آوازیں سامنے نہیں آتیں اور نہ ہی گہرہ مطالعہ کیا جاتا ہے۔‘
اورنگزیب خان کا کہنا ہے کہ بلوچستان میں اس وقت جو صحافت کی جا رہی ہے، وہ زبردستی کی ہے۔ ’صحافیوں کو ایسی خبروں کو رپورٹ کرنا پڑتا ہے جو شاید چھپنے کے لائق نہ ہوں مگر وہ دباؤ کے تحت مجبوری میں کام کرتے ہیں۔‘
گزشتہ سال اکتوبر میں اورنگزیب خان نے انٹرمیڈیا کے لیے اسی موضوع پر ’میڈیا انڈر تھریٹ ان بلوچستان‘ کے نام سے رپورٹ شائع کی تھی جس میں انہوں نے تین خطرات کی نشاندہی کی: فوج، شدت پسند اور مزاحمت کار۔ اس تین طرفہ دباؤ کے باعث بلوچستان کی اصل تصویر سامنے نہیں آ پاتی۔
اس ماحول میں بلوچستان سے خبروں کو عام کرنے میں بلاگرز کا کردار اور بھی اہم ہو جاتا ہے۔ ملک سراج اکبر کا کہنا ہے کہ بلوچستان کی خبروں کے لیے دنیا کی نظر اب بلاگز پر ہے۔ ’اقوامِ متحدہ کے ادارے برائے پناہ گزین کے اہلکار جان سولیکی کے اغوا کی خبر بلاگرز نے بریک کی تھی۔ ہمیں امریکہ سے پیغامات آ رہے تھے اور ہم ان کو تازہ صورتِ حال کے بارے میں آگاہ کر رہے تھے۔‘
سوال یہ ہے کہ کیا بلاگرز اصل تصویر کی عکاسی کر سکتے ہیں؟ ملک سراج اکبر کی طرح سب بلاگرز صحافی نہیں ہیں۔ میرا رابطہ انتیس سالہ ضمیر خان (نام تبدیل کیا گیا ہے) سے ایک خفیہ نمبر پر ہوا۔ وہ کوئٹہ میں کاروبار چلاتے ہیں اور سنہ 2009 سے بلوچستان کے بارے میں مختلف ناموں اور ویب سائٹوں پر لکھ رہے ہیں۔
ان کے بلاگز اور ٹوئٹس پر پاکستان کی فوج، پنجابیوں اور پاکستانی میڈیا پر تنقید تو ہوتی رہتی ہے مگر ان کے بلاگوں میں صوبے میں آبادکاروں کے قتل اور خواتین کے حقوق کے بارے میں خاموش ہیں۔
ضمیر خان اپنا دفاع کرتے ہوئے کہتے ہیں ’سب سے پہلے انسانی حقوق کی طرف توجہ دلوانی ہوگی۔ ہم پر جو مظالم ہو رہے ہیں، ایسا لگتا ہے کہ ہمیں انسان ہی تصور نہیں کیا جاتا۔ پہلے بات انسانی حقوق کی ہوگی اور پھر آگے چل کر خواتین کے حقوق پر بات ہو سکتی ہے۔‘
ہوئی جس میں بلوچستان میں انسانی حقوق کی خلاف ورزیوں پر غور کیا گیا۔
ملک سراج اکبر بلوچستان کے حالات پر آٹھ فروری کو امریکی ایوانِ نمائندگان میں کھلی سماعت کو بلوچستان کے بلاگرز کے لیے ایک بہت بڑی کامیابی اور’انقلابی قدم‘ قرار دیتے ہیں۔ ان کے بقول جن مسائل کے بارے میں شاید پنجاب میں آگاہی نہیں ہے امریکی وزراتِ خارجہ اور نظریاتی ادارے اس پر بات کر رہے ہیں۔
’ایک طرح سے یہ بلوچستان کے لیے چھوٹے پیمانے کا عرب سپرنگ ہے۔ اس کا پورا کریڈٹ بلوچ بلاگرز کو جاتا ہے جو خطرہ مول لےکر سچ کو منظرِ عام پر لائے۔‘
انٹرنیٹ پر بلوچ بلاگرز کی برادری تو متحرک ہو گئی ہے مگر وہ بلوچ قوم پرستوں پر تنقید کرنے سے گریز کرتے ہیں اور ان کا نقطہ نظر یکطرفہ ہوتا ہے۔ وہ صوبے کو مقبوضہ بلوچستان بھی کہتے ہیں اور تشدد کو قتلِ عام۔ اورنگزیب خان کا کہنا ہے کہ ویسے بھی اگرچہ بلاگرز یک طرفہ ہیں تو صحافیوں کو بھی سچی معلومات نہیں مل پاتی۔
تو بلوچستان کی حقیقی کہانی کون بیان کرے گا؟
German Radio Deutsche Welle interviewed me in November 2010 about the ban on the Baloch Hal
I spoke to the Urdu Service of the Voice of America, Washington DC, about targeted killings in Quetta city
An interview with the BBC Urdu Service
This interview originally appeared in online newspaper, News Pakistan in two parts on November 2,3, 2012
Akbar, who is currently residing in the United States, is an ambitious Pakistani journalist and has been actively highlighting the Balochistan issue across the globe.
He is a Contributing Writer at the Huffington Post and a former Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington D.C.
He is the founder and the editor of The Baloch Hal, Balochistan’s first online English language newspaper. His newspaper was banned in Pakistan because of its fiercely objective and critical editorial policy.
He also wrote a book The Redefined Dimensions of Baloch Nationalist Movement which was released in the US in 2011.
He spoke exclusively to Newspakistan.pk about the current situation in Balochistan and his words offer a critical look into a crisis in great need of broader coverage. Here is the first part of his detailed interview.
First of all what are your views about current situation in Balochistan?
Balochistan is currently going through a serious political and administrative crisis which is worsening with every passing day. The affairs of the province are covertly but strictly run by the Frontier Corps and intelligence agencies.
The political government is powerless in terms of making major decisions but, at the same time, it is deeply inept and corrupt as well.
Genuine political leaders, activists and independent journalists have gone in hiding or fled the province because they fear being kidnapped and killed by state-sponsored intelligence agencies and death squads.
On the top of this abysmal situation, sectarian killing of Shia/ Hazaras have significantly increased while the state seems to be intentionally promoting radical Islamist elements in Baloch areas to counter the Baloch nationalism.
Can political dialogue resolve the issue of insurgency in the province?
There have been a number of attempts in the past one decade to address the conflict in Balochistan through dialogue. The most broad-based endeavor was made in 2004 under the leadership of caretaker prime minister Chaudhary Shujaat Hussain.
Two parliamentary committees were constituted which also enjoyed the trust and acceptance of the Baloch nationalists. But those committees failed because of a number of reasons.
For example, Nawab Bugti’s killing in 2006 derailed the negotiation process while, most importantly, hawks in the Pakistan military establishment and federal bureaucracy refused to implement the recommendations of the committees (this was repeatedly confirmed by Senator Mushahid Hussaib Syed—who headed one of the committees).
Political dialogue can resolve all kinds of disputes but at this point there are no signs that the army is willing to see pro-independent Balochistan leaders like Hairbayar Marri and Brdamdagh Bugti on the negotiation table. Likewise, the Balochs do not trust the Pakistani authorities.
They do not want to negotiate with the political government or the military establishment without any international guarantors because they say they have been betrayed time and again the past despite official promises.
Do you think the Establishment has really made its mind to stop taking recourse to military means in ending the conflict in Balochistan?
The Establishment has been trying to quell the insurgency for the past eight years but it has failed because the insurgency has spread in breadth and width of Balochistan.
Secondly, insurgency can be quelled only by allowing a political settlement of the conflict and the Establishment does not seem to be encouraging that either.
How do you see Akhtar Mengal’s six-point agenda which he presented in the Supreme Court?
Mengal’s Six Points did not have anything which had already not been demanded by all political stakeholder and international human rights organizations in order to normalize the situation in the province.
The government and intelligence agencies rejected all of Mengal’s points within 24 hours after they were presented. Thus, those Six Points are no longer significant. They are just a part of the history.
Do you see any political future for Mengal after his recent six-point agenda?
Mengal is the last of the Baloch nationalists acceptable to the Pakistani Establishment. He will be allowed to contest elections.
He will be accommodated in the future Balochistan government but that will ultimately make him as unpopular among the Baloch as Nawab Akbar Bugti was in 1970s and Nawab Raisani is today.
Do you believe Akhtar Mengal will be able to fill his political vacuum in the province when separatists have become radical about his (Akhtar Mengal’s) demands?
Akhtar Mengal already made a political blunder by appearing before the Pakistani Supreme Court. His decision was very unpopular with the radical Balochs.
If he becomes the next Chief Minister of Balochistan, he will directly be pitted against the hardliner Balochs and required to take action against them.
This will create a very challenging situation for him because he will be required to deliver to the Establishment’s expectations.
In case the government approves six-point agenda of Mengal, will it be able to woo the separatists?
Mengal’s Six Points even do not reflect his party’s stance on Balochistan. These Points are basically a set of recommendations about addressing the issue of law and order in Balochistan and building confidence of the enraged nationalists.
To end the insurgency and resolve Balochistan conflict, the Establishment will probably have to concede to tougher demands. And I am sure BNP does have another longer list of those demands.
What will be the role of Pastuns in the province against the separation movement?
The Pashtuns are not a part of the current conflict nor are they a part of any separatist movement. They have never faced military operations.
Since the Pashtuns and Baloch live on their respective historical lands, the Pashtuns neither support nor oppose the Baloch movement.
On the other hand, the Balochs say they will support the Pashtuns if they want to create their own province, join Khyber Pakhtunkhwa or join Afghanistan.
Is Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) as popular in the province as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in Waziristan?
No. Lashkar-e-Jhangvi is absolutely unpopular among the people in Balochistan because the society has always been secular and home to even a large number of non-Muslims.
The Baloch society is not known for attacking people on the basis of their religion. It mainly operates in Quetta not elsewhere in the province. There is a general impression that the LeJ is sponsored by the Pakistani intelligence agencies.
Do you see any likelihood of international forces intervention in Balochistan in the future?
I do not see any signs of international military intervention in Balochistan in near future. The maximum support we will see will come in forms of statements and parliamentary resolutions from international governments and organizations which will urge Pakistan to resolve the conflict through political means and end human rights abuses.
We do not know a single country that currently officially supports the idea of an independent Balochistan.
Do you see the possibilities of Baloch political parties contesting the next general elections?
The National Party, which boycotted the previous elections, will contest the next elections. The Balochistan National Party also seems to be interested in participating in the elections although it has not officially publicized its plans.
Can any leader bridge the gap between the warring parties?
Nawab Khair Baksh Marri is the ideological father of the current nationalist movement. Only he has the power to influence the insurgents to give up arms.
What are the interests of China, India and the US in Balochistan?
Besides China, which constructed a port in Gwadar, we have not seen signs of Indian and American presence or interest in Balochistan.
The Balochs are staunchly opposed to the Chinese presence in their province where armed groups have carried out a number of attacks on the Chinese engineers working on various projects in Balochistan.
In addition, there is Saudi and Iranian interest in Balochistan where they want to fight their Sunni versus Shia proxy battle.
Does the Supreme Court’s recent verdict on Balochistan’s government have any political significance?
What the Supreme Court said in its judgement about the Balochistan government —it has failed to play its constitutional obligation—was already known to the people and the media.
So, that was not a significant pronouncement nor was it a big deal to reaffirm that the security forces were responsible for committing human rights abuses in the province.
What counts at the end of the day is what the SC can do to end all these practices and bring back the missing persons and end the political role of intelligence agencies.
Will SC’s intervention in the province really help resolve the issue?
The Supreme Court intervention is unlikely to yield any positive results given the fact that the intelligence agencies and the representatives of the security forces were either unwilling to cooperate with the court in the first place or unwilling to accept the charges leveled against them.
This is mainly because of the culture of impunity that has developed over so many years in Pakistan where our security forces blatantly carry out rights abuses and easily get away with it.
In the case of the Supreme Court ruling, we also see that the security forces and the intelligence agencies have very smartly skipped their share of the blame and all criticism seems to be directed at Chief Minister Raisani and his government.
Until the personnel from security forces, who are blamed for carrying out rights violations, are brought to justice, the Supreme Court intervention will not make much sense to Balochistan.
Why did the government ban local media in the province?
The government is unhappy with the media on two accounts. It does not want the media to cover the activities and operations of the Baloch insurgent groups as they regularly make telephone calls to the media organizations to accept responsibility for attacks they carry out against the government.
The government believes the coverage of these groups amounts to glorifying violence and demoralizing the security forces whereas the media insists that people have a right to know what is happening in their surroundings, who is doing and what has caused such break-down of law and order.
Secondly, the Balochistan High Court has also warned to imprison newspaper editors for at least six months if they publish the statements of the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi.
Once again, the government justifies the ban saying that it amounts to depicting the Lashkar as a heroic force.
Our argument, as the media, is that if the government fails to protect the people’s lives then our readers and viewers at least have a right to know who is behind these killings and what they want to achieve by carrying out such attacks.
I do not think there is any element of glorifying violence in the media coverage of the armed groups. After all, they are a reality of the society and we have to cover them as a part of our job.
Is there any division between Brohi and Bloch tribes?
No. There are no apparent divisions between the Baloch and Brohi tribes. The separatist movement comprises of people from tribes that speak both the languages.
What is the role of local media organizations in the current situation of the province?
The local media works under extraordinary circumstance. It multitasks in a situation when the mainstream Pakistani media does not sufficiently cover Balochistan. So, there is a lot of dependence on the local media to highlight people’s issues.
In the recent years, journalists have come under remarkable pressure and physical threats. At least 22 local journalists have been killed in Balochistan since in 2009 and these figures are increasing day by day. So, the media directly faces the heat of the conflict.
Lastly, what is the future of the province?
If the federal government and the military establishment continue to run Balochistan on ad hocism and through a policy of divide and rule, I see a very bleak future for the province and its people.
Such policies can convert Balochistan into a deadly battle field where a civil war can erupt which will entail pro-establishment Baloch tribes versus anti-establishment Baloch tribes, Balochs versus Punjabis, Balochs versus Pashtuns, Shias versus Sunnis, moderate Muslims versus Talibanized Muslims.
In addition, lack of human development and economic opportunities is making Balochistan a very frustrated society.
The educated Balochs are far more anti-Pakistan than their elders. They see no hope in the country. The challenge ahead is how Islamabad chooses to address this myriad challenge.
On December 25th, 2012, the Pakistan Frontier Corps launched a military operation in southern Balochistan’s Mashky area, in Awaran District. The operation has received little or no attention in the Pakistani media. Tanqeed speaks to Malik Siraj Akbar, editor-in-chief of the banned online paper, The Baloch Hal, to get an update on the situation, and a take on why the Mashky atrocities have been ignored.
Tanqeed (TQ): What is the status of the Mashkey operation right now?
Malik Siraj Akbar (MSA): On its fifth day, the operation has relatively slowed down as far as firing and door-to-door search operations are concerned. The heavy deployment of the Frontier Corps (F.C.) is still in place. According to local residents, the security forces have established at least 12 new check posts. The deployment of the F.C. has restricted civilian movement and caused a shortage of edible supplies in the area and also blocked road communications. At least 20 people, including women and children, have been killed in the operation. The Baloch insurgents have also inflicted losses on the F.C. and the F.C., on its part, says most of the people killed in the operation were ‘terrorists’, a charge the locals deny.
The claim of the security forces cannot be trusted because the operation is taking place in a populated area which cannot be the same place from where the Baloch insurgents operate. The insurgents mainly hide in and operate from mountainous areas. Dozens of local residents have also been whisked away by security forces and taken into custody for interrogation. Their whereabouts are still unknown. The local communities are in a state of shock and male members of various households have gone into hiding because they fear being arrested by the F.C. as a part of their tactic to spread terror among the citizens. During the operation, several houses have also been burnt.
TQ: You have criticized the Pakistani media of carrying out a blackout of the operation. Please elaborate.
MSA: The Pakistani media, mainly the broadcast media, have pretended not to know what has been happening in Mashky although they were given a heads-up by the local politicians through their press conferences and also through the social media. The Mashky operation entails several levels of human rights abuses at the same time. It included killing of civilians, burning people’s homes and whisking away unarmed citizens. It also has deep implications on a political and peaceful resolution of the Balochistan conflict. The media did not cover the operation, the protests and press conferences that ensued in the wake of the operation and kept the whole nation in darkness. The Pakistani media is known for its immediate and aggressive adoption of position on almost every issue. It was not seen asking those tough questions as to who sanctioned the military operation in Balochistan and what caused it this time. There were no talk-shows about it either. After all, the operation was carried out at such a time when the nation was either marking the birthday of the founder of Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Jinnah or, two days later, mourning the death anniversary of Benazir Bhutto. Our media should have played a role and put into question what was actually happening in Balochistan during these days. It was a quick operation which remained unnoticed by the Pakistani media. Worst still, the media was more obsessed with Pakistan-India cricket match and the domestic issues of a Pakistani singer at a time when people were being killed by the forces in Balochistan. This shows how badly misplaced the Pakistani media’s priorities are.
TQ: But the Pakistani media has covered the Baloch cause extensively this year. Do you not think this is an improvement?
MSA: Pakistani media’s coverage of Balochistan is not consistent and professional. It is not research-based but driven by the passionate national narrative provided by the Pakistani military. Most of the what we have seen in the past one year is rather an expression of frenzy or paranoia, which is also not an original product of the media. This frenzy is the brainchild of the military and the Pakistani nationalist journalists. Reporting on Balochistan is spontaneous and reactionary.
From time to time, we see a short-term surge in talk-shows and newspaper columns on Balochistan which is connected to some other development elsewhere.
For instance, in 2012, Balochistan’s coverage could easily be classified in various frantic phases
In February and March 2012, there were floodgates of coverage of Balochistan after the U.S. Congress held a hearing on Balochistan; Congressman Dana Rohrabacher introduced a bill and addressed a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington D.C. calling for Balochistan’s right to self-determination and statehood.
In September, we saw the second round of massive coverage of Balochistan when the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances visited Pakistan and met with the families of the missing persons, including those from Balochistan. There was a frantic reaction to the arrival of the U.N. working group in Pakistan as the Pakistani right-wing journalists and opinion leaders saw it as ‘foreign-sponsored” interference in Pakistan’s internal matters.
In October, there was the next phase of overwhelming coverage of Balochistan after former chief minister Sardar Akhtar Mengal ended his self-imposed exile and returned to Pakistan to present his Six Points before the Supreme Court.
The problem with such inconsistent and reactionary coverage is that our media immediately gets excited about Balochistan and that excitement also fades away within days. The media begins to report on Balochistan again when some more tragedies strike there. Balochistan needs constant engagement from the national media instead of frantic coverage.
TQ: How have the Baloch in Mashkey, and elsewhere, reacted to this blackout?
MSA: Besides the ordinary people in Mashky, there is extraordinary anger among the Baloch people across Balochistan and outside Pakistan. There have been protests all over Balochistan, in Karachi and even in front of the British Parliament in London by the members of the Baloch diaspora. What is remarkably sad, but true at the same time, is the fact that the Baloch hold the Pakistani media, next to the military and security forces, responsible for not covering the operation in Balochistan. They look at the media as a collaborator in the excesses committed against them. I have never seen such amount of widespread anger among the Baloch people across the spectrum against the Pakistani media as is being vented this time against the blackout of the Mashky operation.
TQ: What needs to happen now?
MSA: The media should be provided access to the area and it should cover the operation objectively and impartially. The media owners and editors should know that a complete blackout of the operation and the overall situation in Balochistan will risk the lives of their stringers and correspondents who work on ground in Balochistan. The Baloch nationalists will blame them (although unjustifiably) as “supporters of the government” and exert pressure on these journalists for not sufficiently covering the operation. The Baloch nationalists, just like the military, are not known to have an understanding of how the media should operate. They do not fully respect the reporters’ plea that their job is only to file stories but not to decide their space, length and placement. This issue, in the past, has caused many reporters their lives. Balochistan has become an increasingly dangerous place for reporters where 24 correspondents have been killed in the past 5 years. Such an indifferent attitude of the Pakistani media will increase the problems of local journalists and compromise their personal safety.
Secondly, a blackout of the news has also forced many journalists to depend on social media for the news. It turned out that the Baloch nationalists are taking the social media for granted and they have misinformed the journalists. As I wrote in my Baloch Hal editorial, Baloch nationalists have been found sharing fake and outdated pictures, providing wrong information and distorted statistics to gain more attention and sympathies. As for the media, our job must be to independently verify the facts instead of being overwhelmed or influenced by the government (read security forces) or the opposition parties. They will try to bluff the media. In Mashky, truth has, unfortunately, become the casualty. A lot of media outlets still have the resources to dig out the truth if they now make a professional commitment to do so.