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Perils of reporting in Balochistan

August 22, 2011


QUETTA: Aug16 – Journalists hold a demonstration outside the provincial assembly building, against the killing of Online Correspondent Munir Shakir in Khuzdar. – Online Photo

On Sunday, August 14 as the nation celebrated the 64th Independence Day, yet another Pakistani journalist lost his life while performing his duties.

Munir Shakir, 44, a correspondent of the Online News Network and a reporter for Balochi language television channel Sabzbath Balochistan, was covering the ‘black day’ being observed in the province on the call of Baloch National Front (BNF). He visited important constituencies in Khuzdar, Balochistan’s second largest city, which has become the hub of Baloch resistance movement, to measure the efficacy of the strike and interview residents of the area to complete his daily assignments.

On this critically tense day, Shakir, a senior member of the Khuzdar Press Club, was returning home after meeting fellow journalists at the local press club when unknown attackers riding a motorbike shot him three times in the neck at Chandani intersection.

Shakir is the fourth journalist from Khuzdar district to be killed on the line of duty in the recent times following the escalation of the Baloch insurgency. Formerly, two presidents of the same press club, Mohammad Khan Sasoli and Faiz Mohammad Sasoli and a senior member, Haji Wasi Ahmed, were gunned down.

“We are alarmed to learn of the killing of another journalist in Pakistan’s Balochistan province,” reacted the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), an organisation that represents 600,000 journalists worldwide. While quoting the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), the IFJ said Shakir was the sixth journalist killed in Pakistan in 2011 and the seventh reporter from the volatile Balochistan province to be shot dead since 2010. This, the IFJ added, “exposed the failure of the government to protect media personnel.”

The latest killing of a reporter comes only weeks after the disclosure of a respected Baloch newspaper editor that an underground organisation identifying itself as the Muttahida Mahaz-e-Nifaz-e-Iman [United Front for Enforcement of Faith] had threatened to kill him and his son. The threat sounded so potential that the Balochistan Editors’ Council immediately convened an emergency meeting in Quetta and deliberated over the mounting pressure editors and reporters face from different underground groups and government agencies.

An office-bearer of the Balochistan Union of Journalists (BUJ) told that they had already informed the government of Balochistan about the upsurge in threats facing reporters in Balochistan. They have also demanded security against possible assaults.

The government has not punished a single murderer who was responsible for the killing of fellow journalists, said the BUJ official while requesting anonymity. The situation for reporters in interior Balochistan is even worse than Quetta where reporters have to face all forms of threats and assaults from different groups, he lamented.

He also informed that many correspondents had either quit the profession or shifted outside Balochistan for safety reasons. All we can do is to urge the correspondents to report ‘carefully’ and avoid writing and speaking on ‘sensitive topics’ which may jeopardise their lives, he explained.

According to Zohra Yusuf, the chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, her organisation “believes that the sharp rise in killings and other forms of violence against journalists is linked directly to the fact that in almost all cases in the last few years, where journalists have been killed or attacked on account of their work, the culprits remain unidentified and unpunished.”

“The lack of investigations and accountability into the killing of reporters suggests an endorsement of violence towards media personnel at the official and societal level,” said the president of a local press club in Balochistan, “We have protested in our district headquarters as well as in Quetta to demand justice for our colleagues but to no avail.”

Journalism in interior Balochistan is a murky world where press releases and catchy headlines may cost reporters their lives. Different political parties, student groups, armed outfits, underground gangs, government agencies, tribal chiefs, drug dealers, land mafia and rich smugglers dictate reporters to get their press releases and photographs published in newspapers. The next day, these influential stakeholders count centimeters, columns and page numbers to analyse the coverage of their press releases.

For instance, if a political party’s press release is displayed on the front page of a newspaper, the opposite party takes this as an insult if the same newspaper publishes the rival party’s press release on its back page. If the statement of a party or a tribal notable is not published then the district correspondent is very likely to receive a phone call, ironically, to provide accountability for his news editor who did not publish the story.

Most political activists and leaders do not know how news organisations operate and how roles and responsibilities of stringers, copy editors, news editors and publishers are differently defined. Reporters working at district level get abused, threatened, beaten up and sometimes killed only for a headline they had never decided for the newspaper.

Some years back, for instance, the Quetta-based reporter of a weekly Urdu magazine was shot dead reportedly because his copy editor, sitting in the Karachi head office, chose a condescending headline for what the affected group viewed as a “tragic story”.

The district reporter is not a paid staff member of a newspaper or a news channel. He is often a student or a semi-educated government or private employee who adopts journalism as a passion.  For him, journalism is a key to access top government officials and getting people’s minor works done because of the personal contacts he makes with the local police and the administration due to the press card he holds.  Many of these reporters demonstrate extraordinary commitment to their profession. They jeopardise their own lives by exposing the human rights violations committed by the tribal chiefs or the corruption of influential ministers and bureaucrats. In Pakistan’s media history, these rural reporters broke some extraordinary stories such as the Mukhtaran Mai and Dr. Shahzia Khalid rape cases.

On its part, the Balochistan Union of Journalists (BUJ) refuses to grant membership to these reporters. The organisation does not recognise the services of rural reporters because, according to its benchmark, a journalist is he/she whose sole source of income is journalism. No journalist union in the country dissuades these reporters from working without pay or coaxes the owners of newspapers and channels to provide these gallant reporters regular employment. Many ambitious reporters continue to suffer as they fail to choose between their passion and livelihood.

Malik Siraj Akbar, a Hubert H. Humphrey Fellow based in Washington DC, is a visiting journalist at the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) of the Center for Public Integrity (CPI).