Balochistan: A minefield for journalists

Nowhere else in the country do media persons confront such a multi-dimensional threat landscape.
Published May 3, 2023

KHUZDAR: Outside the Khuzdar Press Club stands a column topped with the likeness of a hand cast in iron and holding a pen. The imposing structure seems to celebrate the notion of a free press. The reality could not be more different.

In 2014, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranked Khuzdar, the capital of Khuzdar district in central Balochistan, among the world’s 10 most dangerous cities for journalists.

The same year, Amnesty International described the area as a “graveyard for journalists”, after at least six media persons were murdered here in the preceding few years. Among them were two of the press club’s presidents and its general secretary. It was a chilling message to the journalist community as a whole.

The threats were unrelenting.

“Some of my colleagues in Khuzdar stopped answering their phones,” recalled a journalist in Quetta. Several reporters moved to other towns for safety; some gave up journalism altogether.

Twice, the press club was shut down: the second time for a year. Khuzdar Press Club President Mufti Siddique Mengal told Dawn: “We closed it out of fear because we realised we couldn’t do journalism any longer. When [the state was] faced with recrimination from the outside world, they forced us to open.”

Khuzdar district, indeed Balochistan as a whole, still remains a graveyard for journalism.

Entrance to the Khuzdar Press Club.
Entrance to the Khuzdar Press Club.

Today is World Press Freedom Day, an occasion to recognise the importance of the media in strengthening democracy. To hold the authorities accountable, the media must be independent and free to report on abuses of power, corruption, anti-people policies, etc.

But in Pakistan, an increasingly securitised state led to a weakening of civil institutions; and that, coupled with the corporatisation of the news business, began eroding hard-won media independence. Journalists that refused to toe the line were silenced, sometimes with deadly force.

In 2022, Pakistan ranked 157 out of 180 countries on RSF’s World Press Freedom Index, a drop of 12 places since the previous year. According to a report by Freedom Network, an independent national media watchdog, at least 53 journalists were murdered in the country from 2012 to 2022. Only in two cases have convictions been obtained.

But if journalism is a dangerous profession in Pakistan, nowhere do journalists have to navigate the kind of multi-dimensional threat landscape as they do in Balochistan. Unsurprisingly, most media persons Dawn spoke to in Quetta and Khuzdar for this report did not want to talk on the record.

“There are so many actors now that it’s easy to kill anyone and put it on someone else. Security forces, separatist outfits, tribal sardars, anyone can take offence at what we say or report,” said a reporter in Quetta. Most conceded that they were reduced to paper-pushers: “We write what the authorities want us to write. We can’t present the real facts.”

Enforced disappearance is among the burning issues many journalists say they cannot cover.

“When [Supreme Court Chief Justice] Iftikhar Chaudhry was holding hearings into missing people’s cases until 1:30am in Quetta, we’d take shelter of the court to report the statements that victims’ families gave before the bench. Sometimes their words would even move the judges to tears,” a senior correspondent recalled. “We can’t even do that now. In fact, on electronic media we’re not allowed to do so at all.”

Another reporter in digital and broadcast media said that when missing people’s bodies are found, CTD Balochistan often claims they were killed in police encounters. “But journalists here will report it as though they saw the encounter with their own eyes; they won’t even bother to say this is the CTD’s version.”

What underscores the glaring gap in the coverage of enforced disappearances in Balochistan is that the protest camp for missing persons is right next to the Quetta Press Club.

One journalist said: “When Mama Qadeer [founder of Voice for Baloch Missing Persons] comes here to hold a press conference in the hall, even the journalists on the premises don’t attend it because they know the news won’t be carried.”

He added with a sardonic laugh, “Though a few journalists will turn up, those whose job it is to report to the intelligence agencies.”

Their poor working conditions rub salt into the wounds of Balochistan’s journalists. “Many media persons are not even getting minimum wage,” says a senior correspondent. “Sub-editors are getting Rs8,000 to Rs12,000. Even reporters for bigger papers get no more than Rs25,000 at most.”

That is if they get paid at all. Very seldom are district correspondents paid by their news organisations. These reporters have no choice but to moonlight as journalists while holding paying jobs.

Many are public-sector employees; quite a few are contractors; some are even members of political parties. There is an obvious conflict of interest in such a situation. That is why the Balochistan Union of Journalists (BUJ) has only 145 members, including four women.

“Only full-time journalists with an appointment letter from their employer can be members,” explained BUJ President Irfan Saeed. “Nevertheless, we always take a stand if something happens to any journalist, whether he’s a member or not.”

BUJ General Secretary Manzoor Ahmed believes press clubs in Pakistan should be strengthened by treating journalism as a profession, much like medicine, law or engineering.

“There should be a service structure for journalists to be promoted from junior reporter [all the way up] to bureau chief, shift in-charge and director news,” he told Dawn.

“Similarly, there should be experience criteria to qualify them to become [current affairs] analysts. That way journalists from Balochistan will have more of a presence in important positions in mainstream media.”

In recent years, media houses have reduced their outlay and, in a province that gets short shrift in so many respects, the fallout has been brutal. At a gathering of journalists at the Quetta Press Club, they can barely contain their resentment.

“Before I had an office, a DSNG, a SIM and a mobile. Now I get only a SIM with data,” said one reporter.

“Today I was asked to do the filming with my mobile, because our camera is out of order and the one they sent as a replacement is in even worse condition,” claimed another.

Bureaus are being run with two individuals, sometimes even one. Considering there is no ‘beat’ system in Balochistan, which means a reporter must cover everything — from bomb blasts to sports and prices of vegetables — it makes for an exhausting and demoralising existence.

The lack of basic knowledge about the province among assignment editors at head offices elsewhere in the country also rankles.

“When Chinese engineers were attacked in Gwadar, an assignment editor called their reporter in Quetta to ask how much time would it take him to get there. I told him, it takes 12 hours. Put up a map in your office.”

Then there is the one-dimensional view through which news about Balochistan is filtered.

“The province’s coverage is limited to bomb blasts,” said a correspondent bitterly. “Media house owners say ‘What business do we get from Balochistan that we should give it more space’? It reflects their attitude to Balochistan in general.”

Some days earlier Irfan Saeed, the BUJ president who is the Quetta bureau chief for a TV channel, had painstakingly put together an informative and entertaining package, complete with dinosaur graphics, about the fossil collection in Quetta’s Geological Survey of Pakistan Museum.

The report ran only once, at 6:50am.

While Balochistan has never had a vibrant media, the profession was not quite as sterile and restrictive as it has now become.

A bureau chief in Quetta recalled that during the trial for Justice Nawaz Marri’s murder, which was carried out in 2000 allegedly on the orders of Khair Bux Marri by his sons, journalists would freely report Mr Marri’s views. Things changed when the Baloch insurgency broke out. As the security footprint in the province expanded, the right to free speech was slowly but surely throttled.

The state did not only respond militarily to the insurgency. Violent extremist groups and pro-establishment tribal militias were given carte blanche to hunt down Baloch militants, a strategy that pitched the province into years of hellish violence.

The extremists began targeting Balochistan’s Shia Hazara community in horrific acts of sectarian violence while the militias evolved into ‘death squads’ that killed people for political as well as non-political reasons.

Among the most notorious of these outfits was the Baloch Musalla Difa Tanzeem (BMDT) led by a native of Khuzdar named Shafiq Mengal. Along with his brother, Attaullah, Shafiq unleashed a reign of terror in the district, looting coaches travelling between Quetta and Karachi, kidnapping people for ransom, etc. Journalists, teachers, doctors and intellectuals died in target killings.

“It was a way to spread fear in society, and to prevent anything from being reported,” said a journalist in Khuzdar.

Mohammed Khan Sasoli was president of the Khuzdar Press Club when he was shot dead on Dec 14, 2010, by two gunmen outside his front gate around 7pm.

“He was returning from the press club,” his nephew Hidayatullah Sasoli told Dawn. “I picked up his body myself. The sight will forever be etched in my mind.”

At the time, Mohammed Khan’s sons were three and two years old; the youngest was four months. Hidayatullah is a teacher at a private school; his income supports his own family, as well as that of his slain uncle. Educating his young nephews is his biggest worry, he said.

Slain journalist Mohammed Khan Sasoli’s three sons.
Slain journalist Mohammed Khan Sasoli’s three sons.

According to him, Mohammed Khan’s widow received no compensation from either the provincial government or the journalist community. (Mohammed Khan was not a member of the BUJ and his family was hence not eligible to receive anything from the journalists’ welfare fund.)

Hidayatullah claimed his uncle hadn’t received any threats. But according to a source, Mohammed Khan had been very active in demanding action against the BMDT, especially when members of the group had allegedly abducted another journalist, Riaz Mengal. (Riaz obtained asylum in Europe some years later.)

Nadeem Gurgnari, also a Khuzdar-based reporter, paid the ultimate price for his journalism: the murder of his two sons, young men who had been married only a year. The older one, Siraj Ahmed, was working in an NGO and the other, Manzoor Ahmed, was a physics teacher at a local college. On Oct 25, 2012, the brothers were on their way to do some Eid shopping when they were targeted by two armed men on a motorbike. Siraj died on the spot while Manzoor was mortally wounded.

“My wife and I found ourselves alone at the Civil Hospital. It was such a lawless time that even doctors weren’t coming to work,” recalls Mr Gurgnari who was the Khuzdar Press Club president at the time. “I told her to take Siraj’s body home while I rushed Manzoor to [another] hospital — but he also died later.”

No one has been held accountable.

Siraj and Manzoor Ahmed, sons of Nadeem Gurgnari who were attacked and killed in October 2012.
Siraj and Manzoor Ahmed, sons of Nadeem Gurgnari who were attacked and killed in October 2012.

At one point, a group of senior journalists met with Lt Gen Nasser Janjua, then Commander, Southern Command. They told him that Shafiq Mengal’s criminality — including his alleged culpability in the Tookak mass graves episode — and his ties with the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi were bringing the security establishment into disrepute.

According to one of the journalists present at the meeting, “We said that if he does 10 things for you, he does 90 for himself, and all under the flag of Pakistan. Revisit this policy.”

Shafiq was subsequently reined to some extent. (However, in 2018 he stood for election as an independent candidate for Khuzdar’s only National Assembly seat, and later for a by-election on a provincial assembly seat.)

Even within Balochistan’s complex dynamics, Khuzdar district is a particularly difficult place to report from also because of its entrenched tribal culture. Some of the most powerful Baloch sardars are based here. As one enters the district when travelling by road, posters of Sanaullah Zehri, Israrullah Zehri, Akhtar Mengal, etc can be seen intermittently along the highway.

As a reporter put it: “Even politics here is the preserve of the sardars … If you write against them or the sardari nizam, they’re not going to do a case of defamation against you. They’ll settle things the tribal way.”

Stories about the impunity of the sardars are legion. One allegedly had several women working in his family home killed after he found they had stolen some gold. Another story goes that one time the police tried to apprehend a number of non-duty paid cars on the highway but had to watch helplessly as the convoy disappeared into the residence of a tribal chief.

Some of the younger generation is also accused of a gamut of crimes, including rape, abduction and murder. None of this has ever made it into the news.

“Those who could write about it are all like us, with no power or money. If we wrote about these things, our bodies would be found the next day,” said a reporter. Incidentally, the land for the Khuzdar Press Club was given by Sardar Akhtar Mengal, and its new building was constructed with Rs10 million donated by Sardar Sanaullah Zehri.

Back in Quetta, the Online International News Network‘s office seems to wear its bloody past with defiance. The walls in the bureau chief’s office are painted red, and the bullet holes in the wall behind his desk have not been plastered over. This was where Irshad Mastoi, when he was the bureau chief, used to sit and where he was shot dead on Aug 28, 2014. Ghulam Rasool Khajjak, a trainee reporter working in the same room was also gunned down in the attack, as was their accountant, Mohammed Younus.

A little over a year later, then interior minister Sarfaraz Bugti called a press conference to announce the arrest of two suspected BLA militants for the crime. Their video confession was played on the occasion. Some of Irshad’s colleagues asked the minister to arrange a meeting with the accused so they could gauge the veracity of the claim. But a few weeks later, the men were killed in what was claimed as a police encounter, leaving Irshad’s family and friends with deep misgivings as to whether the real killers had been caught at all.

They wondered whether Irshad’s conversations with separatist commanders were a factor in his murder. Baloch militant groups would almost invariably contact Online News when they wanted to claim an attack, possibly because giving a statement to a news agency meant wider dissemination. In November 2015, Afzal Mughal, the current bureau chief was also picked up in the middle of the night by the agencies. He was released after over 12 hours of detention.

“They call everyone from time to time to tell us about national interest,” another journalist told Dawn. “Once a [Balochistan Liberation Front] commander contacted me via satellite phone to issue a statement. … Soon a [Military Intelligence] colonel called me from an unknown number to ask for that commander’s number. I stalled him by saying I’d have to speak with my editor first. I was worried that if I gave the number, [the security forces] would trace and kill him, and then I’d be in trouble with the militants. Luckily, he didn’t ring back.”

This is the kind of minefield that journalists in Balochistan have had to walk for years.

In one way, however, the situation has improved. Whether insurgents or violent extremists, lawless elements no longer need to threaten journalists to disseminate their message; they can do that themselves on social media.

But even the fact that the threat to life has somewhat reduced in recent years means little in an environment where journalism remains devoid of vitality. Everyone in the province knows where the many red lines are, and they are careful not to cross them.

Header illustration by Radia Durrani

An abridged version of this article was published in Dawn on May 3, 2023