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Dangerous times

July 23, 2013


THE first thing that strikes you upon speaking with journalists in Balochistan is the palpable sense of fear among them.

A few weeks ago, I met some of them while they were attending a workshop in Quetta. They came from all over the province, including some of the areas where the insurgency is at its height — Khuzdar, Awaran and Turbat. The common refrain was ‘don’t quote me by name or say anything that could indicate my identity’.

Journalists are a beleaguered community in the province. They face intimidation and worse from different quarters: the Frontier Corps, military intelligence agencies, pro-government anti-nationalist groups, sectarian and separatist militants as well as feuding tribes.

According to figures compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists, 13 deaths have occurred in Balochistan between 2006 and 2012. Journalists in Quetta say that the actual death toll exceeds 30 in the past five years alone. No one has been put on trial, let alone convicted, for any of these murders.

In May this year, owners and chief editors of six newspapers were issued show cause notices by the Balochistan High Court for violating an earlier order not to publish statements by extremist organisations.

The papers in question had printed the claim of responsibility by a sectarian group, Jaish Al-Islam, for the murder of a police official the month before. One of the editors said the court told him it was no excuse to say that if he did not follow the militants’ instructions he would be risking his life.

Sometimes militants even insist on newspapers printing names of individuals that are on their hit list, which gets the publications into further trouble with the law.

Press releases from extremist organisations, even political parties who champion press freedom, are common. They often arrive with a note saying “Publish without editing”.

This is generally followed up with instructions as to which page and in how many columns the release should be printed. There is no editorialising of news: making your opinions known in such circumstances would be highly reckless.

As far as possible, Balochistan journalists’ strategy is to report on the most innocuous happenings — the building of a new road, minor local government issues, a health seminar, and the like.

But that is difficult to pull off in a province with a raging insurgency, a state that resorts to unconstitutional and repressive measures to deal with it, and terrorists of all stripes wreaking havoc.

Working in such an environment can be like picking one’s way through a minefield. Journalists speak of having to be careful of every word they use, to the extent of counting how many words they use for each side so as not to seem partial.

‘Mistakes’, however inadvertent, can be deadly. Chisti Mujahid, a veteran columnist for Akhbar-i-Jehan, was gunned down in Quetta in 2008 by the separatist Baloch Liberation Army (BLA), because of an article he had written on the death of their leader Balach Marri.

The sub-editor in Karachi had embellished it with a well-known verse by Bahadur Shah Zafar lamenting his exile, which the BLA construed as an insult to Marri. Such are the risks when editing takes place in distant newsrooms by those without a nuanced understanding of the situation.

There are times when journalists will ask their head office in Quetta or elsewhere to omit the dateline (which describes when and where a story is filed) to make it more difficult to identify them.

And that’s notwithstanding the fact that most of them, especially district correspondents, work without a byline anyway, which is common practice in rural and tribal areas all over Pakistan.

Most such journalists also work without pay or for a pittance. One journalist, who works for a news agency, told me he was expecting to be paid Rs2500 in a couple of months, and couldn’t say when any subsequent pay cheques would materialise.

Compensation lies in the ‘enhanced prestige’ journalists acquire by wielding a press card and thus gaining access to local power circles, which also puts them in a position to get favours — reportedly in cash or kind.

That’s part of the problem. For although there’s little doubt that conditions for journalists in Balochistan are fraught, journalists themselves and media owners also bear some responsibility for their predicament.

A number of journalists, despite claims of impartiality, are said to be aligned with either the government or the nationalist groups, or they take sides in tribal/political conflicts. That leaves them open to allegations of biased coverage by groups willing to make their point through the barrel of a gun. Certain publications that as per policy have never printed press releases, do not find themselves under the same level of pressure.

Much of the time, journalism here, especially for district correspondents, is a part-time profession — as it has to be, given the lack of compensation. Many of them are working as teachers, clerks, even shopkeepers and newspaper distributors while moonlighting as journalists.

The Quetta-based Balochistan Union of Journalists refuses to grant membership to such “part-time” reporters. The provincial government also gives accreditation only to those journalists who work inside Quetta while those based in the remaining 30 districts do not get official recognition.

This deprives them of vital institutional support needed to forge a united front to demand action against coercion, threats and physical harm and also to formulate a policy dealing with ethics and professional practice.

There was a partial attempt towards this when a three-member journalist committee decided that newspapers would only print militants’ claim of responsibility and not the entire statement. After a period of restraint, however, the same practice is back.

Meanwhile there are reportedly more training opportunities for news media, which is important to bring some professionalism into the journalist cadre.

That must, however, be backed up by media houses/owners paying the journalists adequate compensation instead of leaving them at the mercy of circumstances where they are expected make their way as best they can with little more than their press card.

The writer is a member of staff.