Balochistan is known as the information blackhole in the Pakistani news industry, as news from the province rarely makes it out to the local mainstream and/or global media. The province suffers from an ongoing insurgency, rising sectarian violence and is a safe haven for many local and international militant groups. Along with this, the military is carrying out unannounced operations in many areas while also trying to convince China that its investment in China-Pakistan-Economic-Corridor (CPEC) is safe. But the reality on ground is far from it. However, the real picture of Balochistan never makes its to the mainstream media and rarely to the international media. We at safenewsrooms.org speak to journalists in Balochistan province about the environment they currently work in and how the military controls the narrative of the region with threats, intimidation and money. Following is an account of the different kinds of pressures the journalists in Balochistan face when working in newsrooms located inside the province.
The pen should be yours, but the words ours…
In Balochistan, journalists are being increasingly targeted and it is not just about the topics that were once considered taboo. “In past we were strictly advised not to cover militancy, religious extremism and human rights abuses but now even local governance issues are to be censored,” a journalist from Gwadar tells SAFENewsrooms.org. Gwadar city is the lynchpin of Pakistan’s much talked-about economic corridor and for that reason, the military ensures that there is no negative reporting from the port town. The journalist working there complains how he was questioned by Pakistan military officials for covering a protest by locals from the city. “I was stopped and ask to not report a protest. It took me three hours to try to convince a major from Military Intelligence why I had to cover a protest in Gwadar, but he would not let me,” he claims, saying that the military personnel warned him to be careful in the future. “The protest was against non-supply of drinking water through tankers in the port city. I asked him is it a crime to cover social issues too?”
TERRORISM CHARGES TO SILENCE JOURNALISTS
According to local journalists, the military not only pressures them by direct threats but also uses draconian laws against to silence the press. A senior journalist working in the province points out that the situation to report freely has become worse since the launch of CPEC. “Several journalists who I know personally have been assaulted and even detained, and are being placed in the fourth schedule, an anti-terror law for covering social issues.” But many do not even come forward and report it, fearing further reprisal.
Giving an example of this, the journalist claims one his younger colleagues was placed in the anti-terror watch last year after he reported from Gwadar about the water crisis in the city. “We approached the provincial home secretary and demanded an explanation. Finally, we managed to get his name removed from the list,” he adds.
Later, it was found that the request to put the journalist in question’s name on the list came from the military in a letter written to the Balochistan home secretary. The letter was sent by Military Intelligence of Gwadar, and a copy of it is available with safenewsrooms.org. It read: “MI [Military Intelligence] seeks the inclusion of Shahid [name changed]in the list of the Fourth Schedule of the Anti-Terrorism Act (XXVII) 1997 due to his links with anti-state elements working to sabotage mega development projects in Pakistan”.
Another journalist from the Dalbandin area of Balochistan was also placed in the anti-terror watch list commonly known as The Fourth Schedule. Why? Apparently because he reported on an issue of sectarian violence.
DO NOT REPORT ABDUCTIONS
Recently, five journalists from one of Balochistan’s districts were asked to come and explain their work at Frontier Corps’ District Headquarter, after they reported about a local counselor going missing in a high-security zone. “We were grilled for about three hours for reporting the story and were told to stop covering such ‘negative’ topics,” a journalist who was present at this meeting claims.
NARCOTICS TRADE IN THE PROVINCE
Many journalists have similar tales of how they were asked to not report on issues. “Freedom of press does not exist in Balochistan,” says a journalist from Turbat, whose colleague was killed a few years ago.
After going missing, the body of Razzaq Gul, a local stringer for Express News was found dumped in a deserted area near Turbat town in Kech district in 2012. His colleagues suspect he was killed for a story that he was investigating at that time. “Gul was shot 15 times. He was working on a story about how narcotics made their way into the province with the help of Pakistan military. He complained to us of receiving threats and then one day he was murdered,” claims the Turbat journalist, who was a close friend of Razzaq Gul.
LAND GRABBING MAFIA
Another taboo topic to report is “land grabbing”. A journalist who was following such stories from Gwadar explains that since the government announced plans for a deep-sea port in the area, land prices have skyrocketed as demand for property goes up. This has attracted the mafia to get involved and locals have accused the military of patronizing such groups, which at times are referred to as death squads.
Recently, locals from Makran belt protested outside a local newspaper office and claimed how their land was being taken away from them by such death squads and the people involved were supported by the military. The journalists of the paper were warned to not report the protest and investigate the story – and they never did.
FINANCIAL BLACKMAILING OF NEWS ORGANIZATIONS
While reporters in the field receive direct threats from the military, for the bigger newspapers and the publishers running them, the provincial government of Balochistan is used to cripple them.
An example of this is the financial squeezing being carried out through taking away advertisement revenue. Given lack of sources for revenue in the province, traditionally the government has been the single largest revenue provider for local dailies like Intekhab and Azadi publishing from Balochistan. Insiders say the government has stopped placing ads with them at the behest of the military.
“The provincial government is not allowed to advertize with us because we cover stories about Baloch separatists and local activists accusing the military of human rights violations,” a journalist working for one these local dailies complains. This takes away a major chunk of their income, and has almost pushed them out of business. Due to such financial pressures, recently Intekhab and Azadi decided to close down their print editions but the Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors (CPNE) and All Pakistan Newspapers Society (APNS) came to their rescue and intervened, pushing government to star advertising with the papers again.
To resolve the issue, CPNE held a meeting with the government where ISI officials from the Pakistan Army were also present. They made it clear to the working editors during the meeting that the advertisements would only be given to newspapers which don’t undermine “security of the state”. Upon further deliberation, the editors found out that the people actually negotiating with them during the meeting were from the ISI, upon which the editors expressed concerns and the officials were asked to leave. The meeting’s participants later found out that their meeting subsequent to that was recorded via a hidden device in the room.
Even though the ad revenue of these two big newspapers has returned to some extent, they continue to face other problems. “Military personnel are always lurking outside our offices. Operatives from intelligence agencies even force us to send them the paper before it goes for publishing. It is similar to how it was during General Zia’s military regime,” says the journalist from Azadi, drawing a parallel between the present and the eighties when General Zia-ul-Haq had imposed a martial law in the country. “There are still personnel outside our office all the time collecting details of every visitor and journalists,” he adds.
“Military dictates us and says the pen should be yours, but the words should be ours. They want us to publish their versions and not allow the other side of the story,” says another Quetta based journalist. “And on the other hand, when we do not carry out the version of the insurgents, militants and other such groups, they attack us too,” he adds.