Editorial
In Pakistan you can’t remain cut off for long. You may be in a seminar, your cell phones switched to the silent mode, but the flashing screen would announce to you the news of Ilyas Kashmiri’s death, along with the source, BBC that is, in real time.
Strange times. FATA is closer to the rest of Pakistan than Balochistan, it seems.
The murder of professor Saba Dashtiyari in Quetta last week was not a subject of text messages the way every other news is, till someone on Facebook announced it. The website offering you the news and a bit of analysis was blocked sooner than anyone knew it.
It is tricky saying that Balochistan is not being covered by the mainstream media. Technically, the news keeps trickling out -- of mutilated corpses, of lawyers or academics gone missing, of gas pipelines bombed, of Aghaz e Haqooq e Balochistan Package and so on. It is the manner in which these news items are treated -- by the journalists, editors and analysts -- that makes Balochistan a special case.

reporting
Shooting the
messenger
Most of the local newspapers do not editorialise the news. An opinion piece is not the best survival tactic in such an environment
By Naziha Syed Ali
The bullet-riddled body of 31-year-old Siddiq Eido, bearing marks of severe torture, was discovered in Ormara, Balochistan, in April this year. The journalist and human rights worker had been missing since December 2010, abducted on his way back from a court hearing in Gwadar in the presence of several police officials and eyewitnesses.
In the incendiary mix of political and ethnic tensions roiling the province, journalists are in a particularly vulnerable situation. On the one hand, there are nationalist groups such as the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA), and on the other are the intelligence agencies and the Frontier Corps. “We are at the mercy of a double-edged sword,” says Saleem Shahid, bureau chief of Dawn. “One side accuses us of being RAW agents, the other of working for the intelligence agencies.”

Cautious and selective
Why is the otherwise hysterical electronic media unusually silent?
By Nabeel Arshed
Balochistan has become Pakistan’s Achilles heel. The eerie silence in the media on the subject of extra judicial killings remains to be questioned.
An analysis of the reporting done by Pakistani electronic and print media on Balochistan’s insurgency shows that when the ‘kill and dump’ incidents are indeed reported in dailies (mostly English), they are not properly detailed and almost never followed up.
In the Urdu press, one hardly sees an opinionated article by any renowned columnist on the issue so that a major chunk of readers is left ignorant about the state of affairs.

comment
Not even a cold statistic
Is this blackout wilful, under coercion, or what?
By Muhammed Usman
Balochistan, the empty quarter of Pakistan, has never been the most lawful place on earth.  The tribal setup, left to nurture -- rather supported -- by the colonial masters and their later day successors, has been administering its own crude code of revenge and justice from times immemorial.
Killing of one’s opponent to level a feud has been the rule in the rural areas, but there was always a method to this seeming madness. The person killed would always know that he -- it was always a he, as women were not considered worthy of revenge count -- has been earmarked by the opponents for some action that befitted the death penalty under the prevailing code of honour.

Sending false air waves
The programmes on various radio channels in Balochistan deal mainly in fluff, avoiding core political and social issues
By Javeria Tareen
Transistor radio remains a very popular -- and, therefore, powerful -- medium in Balochistan where the senior citizens are still hooked on this cheap, age-old battery-driven gadget for information and entertainment. Especially, this is true of the rural areas where the print media is, obviously, not so effective and TV and cable are not easily affordable. But the sad fact is that the world that radio shows to its listeners here isn’t all that ‘real’. In the words of Chaudhry Raffat Ali, Chief Executive, Chiltan FM 88, “Core political and social issues are glossed over”.

Wana and Waziristan in Balochistan?
There is very little about the province that is known to a common Lahori
By Aoun Sahi
Balochistan has probably been the most-talked-about province in domestic politics since 2006 when Sardar Akbar Bugti was killed in a military operation. This scribe roams the streets of Lahore, the capital and the most cosmopolitan city of Punjab -- Pakistan’s most populated and settled province -- to randomly test the common man’s knowledge (or lack of it) about Balochistan. The findings are interesting, to begin with.
“I don’t know anything [about Balochistan],” says Muhammad Shakir, a 42 years old shopkeeper in Garhi Shahu, almost unapologetically.
Shakir can’t tell the name of a single city of Balochistan. But he knows that “our Muslim brothers are living there”.

“The mainstream media is … defending the national interest”
-- Alia Amirali, a researcher on the Baloch National Movement and a lecturer at Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad
By Farah Zia
The News on Sunday: The mainstream media is unusually quiet about Balochistan. Is the media scared or lazy or are there genuine capacity issues which prevent news from coming out?
Alia Amirali: All of the above are true in part. Having recognised the power that “making news” has in forming public opinion, the media has indeed become lazy and in many cases corrupt. It is also true that journalists in Balochistan (particularly the honest ones) do fear for their physical safety, wary of both the state and the guerrillas. Media groups have not adequately equipped their Balochistan desks; they are limited to Quetta. But the major hindrance to coverage on Balochistan comes from the mainstream media’s acquiescence to the state’s position of keeping mum en-masse on state-perpetrated atrocities against ordinary Baloch people and on invisibilising the intensity of the resentment that has arisen in the Baloch people for the state and its ruling classes. The mainstream media, as the term itself belies, is by no means politically or ideologically ‘independent’ of the status-quo. On the contrary, it becomes “more loyal than the king” in defending the “national interest”.

 

 

Editorial

In Pakistan you can’t remain cut off for long. You may be in a seminar, your cell phones switched to the silent mode, but the flashing screen would announce to you the news of Ilyas Kashmiri’s death, along with the source, BBC that is, in real time.

Strange times. FATA is closer to the rest of Pakistan than Balochistan, it seems.

The murder of professor Saba Dashtiyari in Quetta last week was not a subject of text messages the way every other news is, till someone on Facebook announced it. The website offering you the news and a bit of analysis was blocked sooner than anyone knew it.

It is tricky saying that Balochistan is not being covered by the mainstream media. Technically, the news keeps trickling out -- of mutilated corpses, of lawyers or academics gone missing, of gas pipelines bombed, of Aghaz e Haqooq e Balochistan Package and so on. It is the manner in which these news items are treated -- by the journalists, editors and analysts -- that makes Balochistan a special case.

The news of a mutilated body is not followed by an analysis of what the tally (of mutilated bodies) stands at for this month or year or the last five six years. Nor is it shared with the reader or viewer that the organisation that claimed responsibility did not exist on the planet Balochistan before. Within the province, the media has decided to stick to this position; survival instinct, perhaps, because journalists have borne the brunt of freedom of expression.

Outside the province, Balochistan is as neglected. There is no demand for an investigation for all bad news. Balochistan is not on newspeople’s agenda. Today, journalists cannot set foot in the province because it is a ‘conflict area’. By choosing to not cover it the way it should have been covered, we all let it slip into becoming one. By not picking the news or blowing it up, the media put no pressure at all on the law enforcement agencies which weren’t pushed to act, even if as a cover up.

Over to the silence today. There is follow-up in Balochistan of disappeared men and women; it is complete when the dead bodies of these disappeared men and women are found.

Yes, we did have creative ways of covering this beautiful land turned ‘conflict’ area -- like the BBC Urdu’s documentary by Sharjil Baloch filmed on a road crossing in Lahore. But we did not. Not as much and as well as we should have.

One least desirable way of covering an issue is by saying that it is not being covered. This is what we have done in our Special Report this week.

 

reporting
Shooting the
messenger

The bullet-riddled body of 31-year-old Siddiq Eido, bearing marks of severe torture, was discovered in Ormara, Balochistan, in April this year. The journalist and human rights worker had been missing since December 2010, abducted on his way back from a court hearing in Gwadar in the presence of several police officials and eyewitnesses.

In the incendiary mix of political and ethnic tensions roiling the province, journalists are in a particularly vulnerable situation. On the one hand, there are nationalist groups such as the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA), and on the other are the intelligence agencies and the Frontier Corps. “We are at the mercy of a double-edged sword,” says Saleem Shahid, bureau chief of Dawn. “One side accuses us of being RAW agents, the other of working for the intelligence agencies.”

According to Eido’s colleagues, the security agencies were angered by his reports about the disappearances and extra-judicial killings of hundreds of Baloch political activists and he had been warned to desist from reporting on “sensitive” issues.

“Journalists are also in peril from pro-government, anti-nationalist groups who were responsible for the murder of the Khuzdar Press Club president, Mohammad Khan Sasoli,” says Malik Siraj Akbar, editor-in-chief of Baloch Hal, the province’s first online English newspaper. “These groups are believed to have close contacts with the intelligence agencies.”

While journalism has long been a risky profession in Balochistan’s simmering conflict, it took a deadly turn with the murder of Akhbar-e-Jahan columnist, Dr. Abdus Samad Chishti Mujahid, in February 2008 by the BLA. It was the first target killing of a journalist in the province.

Since then, at least eleven more journalists have lost their lives in Balochistan. Two of them died in the line of duty, one was accidentally killed when his companion, a government employee, was fired upon. The rest were deliberately targeted.

When speaking to journalists here, one perceives a palpable sense of fear laced with bitterness. “I am angry because I can’t do my work properly. I can’t ask the questions that should be asked. Isn’t that my job?” says a reporter.

A reporter for Express 24/7, Mohammed Kazim says; “Whenever nationalist groups target someone they don’t abduct them; they kill them on the spot and accept responsibility with specific allegations against them.”

Another journalist adds; “When it’s the agencies, there’s silence, even when there are witnesses to the abduction.”

In Quetta, journalists are comparatively safer. In the districts, however, they are greatly at risk; most are usually managing one-man operations without the protection, however minimal, afforded by being closer to the regional headquarter of their media outlet.

Stories of threats by vested interests are legion. A few years ago, Shahzada Zulfiqar, bureau chief, Pakistan Today, worked on a story about US-made missiles being deployed by the Pakistan military against Baloch leader Sardar Bugti and his tribesmen. “I learnt through a very reliable source that the head of Military Intelligence in Quetta at the time was told by his superior in Islamabad, ‘You should be able to manage that journalist. If you can’t, then wipe him out!’” recalls Zulfiqar. “During the operation against Bugti, I was summoned by the agencies several times and was shocked when they played back recordings of my conversations with him.”

Papers that stray too close to the nationalist ideology suffer the consequences. Asaap, a Quetta-based daily, had long positioned itself as a defender of Baloch rights. It glorified nationalist leaders and gave front-page coverage to news of the Pakistan army being humbled by them from time to time. Then, in February 2009, its owner-editor Jan Mohammed Dashti was attacked by gunmen in Quetta. He lost an eye and sustained serious injuries in the head and neck. Since then, he has left Pakistan and although Asaap remains in print, it is now a shadow of its former self.

Scores of Baloch websites, including data bases of missing persons and news-related sites, have been banned by the Pakistan Telecom Authority (PTA).

Baloch nationalist groups operate along territorial lines and use their local clout to intimidate journalists. Recently, after a small military operation in the Awaran district did not receive sufficient coverage in the press, the BSO (Azad) used force to prevent buses from transporting that day’s newspapers to Baloch-majority areas of the province.

There are also other pressure groups here that are common to Pakistan’s journalistic landscape, such as tribal chiefs, local politicians and sectarian organisations who can take umbrage at adverse coverage, or lack of it.

Groups will call up newspapers and dictate exactly how they want a story covered, say journalists. Such is the level of intimidation that press releases issued by nationalist or sectarian groups or by the ISPR are reproduced verbatim by most newspapers. No wonder the journalist community here feels that they are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. They risk annoying one party or the other, whether they cover a story or not. As a result, most Balochistan-based newspapers do not editorialise the local news. An opinion piece is not the best survival tactic in such an environment.

Some senior journalists, such as Saleem Shahid, point to the lack of professionalism in journalism as being partly responsible for this state of affairs. “Most journalists have no idea how to write a balanced story and that is especially important in a conflict area like this,” he says. “Balanced reporting would reduce the risk of their being exploited by vested interests.”

However, in an environment where small news reporters are paid a monthly salary that is less than the minimum wage, where a news photographer makes only Rs 1,500 a month, exploitation may well be inevitable, enabling pressure groups to employ some journalists to act as their eyes and ears.

With the writ of the state almost completely eroded in Balochistan, and groups with competing agendas running amok, it will be a long time before journalists here stop looking over their shoulder.

Cautious and selective

Balochistan has become Pakistan’s Achilles heel. The eerie silence in the media on the subject of extra judicial killings remains to be questioned.

An analysis of the reporting done by Pakistani electronic and print media on Balochistan’s insurgency shows that when the ‘kill and dump’ incidents are indeed reported in dailies (mostly English), they are not properly detailed and almost never followed up.

In the Urdu press, one hardly sees an opinionated article by any renowned columnist on the issue so that a major chunk of readers is left ignorant about the state of affairs.

Even the major English dailies are not raising the question as to where are the bullet-ridden, tortured corpses coming from. If the people who are later found to be killed and dumped are picked up by security agencies, as vehemently claimed by their relatives, then surely this question needs to be raised on their behalf. When most of these killings are attributed to the security forces by the relatives of the slain men, silence is just tacit acceptance. It is media’s role and social responsibility to investigate these killings or to at least inform what is stopping them from doing so.

A usually hysterical electronic media of Pakistan is unusually cautious about news of such gross human rights violations coming from Balochistan. While discussing them, the debate is mostly limited to the economics, energy or the foreign policy aspect whereas the bullet ridden bodies bearing the most inhuman torture are rarely mentioned.

Pakistani news channels haven’t had the sensibility in the past of not showing images of gory violence. Weren’t the video clips of the brothers lynched in Sialkot were shown repeatedly on TV?

Why is it that all of the news channels have simply decided to look the other way when mutilated corpses continue to surface across Balochistan almost daily?

Increase in extra judicial killings in the province is also beginning to catch the attention of the International media. The story ‘Pakistan’s Dirty War’ by Declan Walsh in Guardian (http://www.guardian.co. uk/world/2011 /mar/29/balochistan-pakistans-secret-dirty-war) which was published in March this year, focuses particularly on these killings.

An interesting parallel could be drawn from the incident involving shooting of Chechen women by FC soldiers. The incident shows the trigger-happy attitude of the law enforcement agencies in the province; one could hear the soldiers yell “Pharka do!” as if they were not human beings, that too women (one of the woman is reported to be seven months into her pregnancy). This news story was quickly picked up by all the TV channels and air time conveniently consumed.

While it is indeed the responsibility of the media to bring such shameful and barbaric incidents before the people, the reason behind this extensive coverage was that it involved Chechens who are more linked to religious terrorism and not to the Baloch separatist movement.

The same news channels are nowhere to be seen while the families of Baloch continue to plead their cases carrying the pictures of their slain relatives outside various press clubs.

Pakistan’s media can play an important role in creating a feeling of ‘belongingness’ amongst the disgruntled section of Baloch. It should learn from the debacle of 1971 when the media in the western part of the country was not objectively reporting the events even preceding the war. Creating taboos out of genuine political problems will do no benefit to the country, it will only increase misunderstandings.

 

The writer is an activist and a blogger who writes about social issues

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?

 

 

 

comment
Not even a cold statistic

Balochistan, the empty quarter of Pakistan, has never been the most lawful place on earth.  The tribal setup, left to nurture -- rather supported -- by the colonial masters and their later day successors, has been administering its own crude code of revenge and justice from times immemorial.

Killing of one’s opponent to level a feud has been the rule in the rural areas, but there was always a method to this seeming madness. The person killed would always know that he -- it was always a he, as women were not considered worthy of revenge count -- has been earmarked by the opponents for some action that befitted the death penalty under the prevailing code of honour.

The killings, however, have acquired an eerie air lately, with the terms “target killing” and “forced disappearance” having entered the vocabulary of political struggle. It is hard to put one’s finger on a start date for this phenomenon, but it definitely became the norm under Musharraf’s dictatorship. The nationalist political forces ranging between the proponents of provincial autonomy to complete secession have recorded the disappearance, torture and custodial killings of their workers at the hands of security agencies. A number of non-Baloch civilians as well as some Baloch touted as the agents of “agencies” have been target killed and the responsibility has been claimed by the shady ultra-nationalist outfits.

It is as hard to trace who drew the first blood -- the security agencies or the nationalists -- but the estimated combined number of such politically related deaths easily goes into four figures. Among the first victims of target killings were journalists, and many more joined the unfortunate lot subsequently, so it is understandable that the local press is quite cagey about following up on stories of killings and disappearances, but the virtual silence of the national media, with all the hullaballoo about its newly attained freedom, is very hard to understand. Had it been a blanket silence on cases of political violence, one could have attributed it to a general apathetic trend driven by either corporate orientation or under pressure from the security establishment. A review of virtually all the sections of national mass media -- paper or electronic -- shows that while the disappearance of al-Qaeda related individual and the target killing in Karachi manages to win itself some place, the excesses in Balochistan do not even make it to the level of a cold statistic.

The killings and disappearances, when they become impossible to ignore, are reported in a most peculiar manner in the local press. The usual news report, often without a by-line, merely mentions the incident of slaying of an individual or the discovery of a mutilated corps, in extremely measured and neutralised words, merely narrating that so-and-so was killed by unknown men in some locality. One has to look elsewhere in the same issue or the issue the day after, to look for a press release in which either the responsibility is claimed by some covert outfit or a condemnation note is issued by some political entity. Such indirect extrapolation is the only way a reader can guess the likely cause behind the killing. Similarly, the coverage provided to the heirs or supporters of “missing persons” from Balochistan, even when they stage a sit-in before the supreme court in Islamabad, is virtually ignored by the press, in a stark contrast to the space and prominence given to the likes of Ms Amna Masud Janjua and the late ex-ISI operative Khalid Khwaja, for instance.

Barring a few exceptions in the English language press, there has been a virtual blackout of the ethnic cleansing in the form of slaying of non-Baloch citizens of Balochistan. This hapless section of the population is a most peculiar one, having only an obscure relation to their ancestors’ places of origin outside Balochistan who came here decades ago, but are being subjected to severe alienation by the ultra-nationalists on the one hand and are also treated as easy prey by the criminal elements. The coverage and reaction to the killings of these so-termed non-locals is even more pathetic than that of the Baloch political activists.

The most severely under reported yet perhaps the most tragic aspect is the shattering of the Baloch social fabric. The Baloch tribal code declares the targeting of women a complete taboo. The grenade attack on the non-local teachers of a girls’ school, followed by the slaying of Professor Nazima Talib of Balochistan University, and the subsequent silence on the part of all commentators on this sea change in ethics all earned nothing but pieces of news for a day or two was most disturbing. A common factor about press reporting in most of these incidents of violence is a total absence of any post-facto analysis by the media people who do not tire of perennially analysing the drone attacks and the slaying of Osama bin Laden.

Is this blackout wilful, under coercion, or what? These surely are “man bites dog” stories and their not being followed by the national media begs explanation.

Sending false air waves

Transistor radio remains a very popular -- and, therefore, powerful -- medium in Balochistan where the senior citizens are still hooked on this cheap, age-old battery-driven gadget for information and entertainment. Especially, this is true of the rural areas where the print media is, obviously, not so effective and TV and cable are not easily affordable. But the sad fact is that the world that radio shows to its listeners here isn’t all that ‘real’. In the words of Chaudhry Raffat Ali, Chief Executive, Chiltan FM 88, “Core political and social issues are glossed over”.

In Balochistan, there are three FM channels currently in the running. Their main focus is on entertainment programmes. FM101, decidedly the first of its kind in the province which began its regular transmission in 2002, is more orientated towards youth and housewives, and the RJs (radio jockeys) discuss ‘pop’ issues concerning mainly health, career, food and society. Social problems of serious ilk are not touched with a barge pole.

The situation is even worse at the state-owned Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation (PBC), headquartered in Quetta. Even though the station caters for a ‘large’ audience in as many as seven languages -- that is, Urdu, Balochi, Pashto, Brahvi, Sindhi, Harazagi and English -- it clearly overlooks issues of target killings, missing persons, problems faced by working women in the region, etc in its news-based programming lineup. But Sohail Khattak, Deputy Controller Programming, PBC, is not willing to buy that. “In our daily shows, we do discuss [these] issues,” he tells TNS. “We invite experts from different fields such as politics, education, bureaucracy etc. We also provide an opportunity to our listeners to participate by calling in. The guests answer the queries of live callers, while the host reads letters and emails. In this way, we get to know about popular opinion and feelings on [different issues related to] Balochistan.

“And, we broadcast news in local, national and international languages so that we can reach out to a larger audience,” he declares.

Akhtar Baloch, senior producer of current affairs at National Broadcasting Service (NBS), also speaks of “the 4pm-to-5pm slot [which is] is reserved for political discussions”.

Both Akhtar Baloch and Sohail Khattak put any misperception on the part of analysts down to a lack of enough research and knowledge of technical issues. For instance, since both the shortwave and medium wave transmitters installed at Saryiab are not working, the people residing in most Baloch areas are not able to receive transmissions and, thus, their participation and feedback on the programmes remains little.

Baloch blames the government for “not taking interest to develop radio. We are provided with sufficient budgets to purchase new transmitters”. For Khattak, “the transmitters of PCB’s Quetta station haven’t been working for the past two years, which is why we are not able to produce any local language shows. ...Out of our eight studios, only two are computerised. And, to think that we have to compete with the newer, more popular private FM channels!”

Samina Ali, a student of MBA in University of Balochistan (UoB), points out that there is a “dearth of informative programmes on radio channels all of which seem to be chasing a target of maximum popularity ratings. Hence, their focus is on mindless entertainment shows, at a time when bomb blasts and target killings are the order of the day. What is the state up to?”

According to Edison Riaz, former RJ Sachal FM105, “As a matter of policy, we don’t deal in such news. The law and order situation is definitely bad, but the listeners don’t want to hear anything that depresses them further.”

In the final analysis, most private radio channels are caught in a wily fight for ratings, resorting in the process to light, entertainment content. While they obviously need to redesign their infotainment policy, it is the role of the state-owned channels that needs to be ascertained. These channels gloss over the core issues of the province while claiming to be the exponents of truth.

Wana and Waziristan in Balochistan?

Balochistan has probably been the most-talked-about province in domestic politics since 2006 when Sardar Akbar Bugti was killed in a military operation. This scribe roams the streets of Lahore, the capital and the most cosmopolitan city of Punjab -- Pakistan’s most populated and settled province -- to randomly test the common man’s knowledge (or lack of it) about Balochistan. The findings are interesting, to begin with.

“I don’t know anything [about Balochistan],” says Muhammad Shakir, a 42 years old shopkeeper in Garhi Shahu, almost unapologetically.

Shakir can’t tell the name of a single city of Balochistan. But he knows that “our Muslim brothers are living there”.

He also claims he watches news headlines on TV regularly but “haven’t seen anything on Balochistan lately. I think some unknown powers want to create disturbances in the country, otherwise there is no problem.”

A young customer of his, named Muhammad Usman, who’s been listening in on this conversation, butts in: “I’ve done graduation from Islamia College and am working in the [Punjab] government’s food department. I can tell you what’s the real issue; the reputation of Balochi people is not good. The Bugtis have been ruling them whereas they do not accept the writ of the state.”

He says he doesn’t care for any news about Balochistan in the media, “because I know the local sardars are responsible for the situation. Army is fighting a war of the people and it’s for peace”.

Syed Suhail Ahmed, 25, a Masters student, says he has been to Balochistan twice and thinks “if we could solve their problems, we could as well put an end to suicide attacks in Punjab. They are sending in suicide bombers because they think we’ve killed their sardar [Akbar Bugti]. We should tell them he was a corrupt person”.

Suhail says he follows news items closely in the media. “I think the killing of six ‘Britishers’ a few weeks back in Quetta was quite astounding. So far, the government has not come up with the correct information. They should tell us whether they were operatives of some foreign agency or innocent people.”

He also thinks the provision of gas and electricity to every household of Balochistan is not feasible: “The distance between their localities and houses is so much that laying down gas pipelines or electricity poles will be too costly.”

“Quetta, Wana and Waziristan are the main cities of Balochistan that are causing troubles,” goes a man standing on a roadside near Shimla Pahari chowk. “They will always have differences with the government and will agree on nothing. …The foreign agencies are also responsible for the situation.”

“Balochistan is a tribal region and the majority of people living there are culturally very conservative,” says Maryam Rafi, 22, a Mass Communication student at Punjab University. However, she can’t tell who is who in the politics of Balochistan, except for Akbar Bugti. She is also not quite aware of the political situation in the province “because I’ve been busy with my exams.” The last thing she says she read about Balochistan is that of the Riko Diq goldmine case.

Maryam’s class fellow Hira Gondal seems all the more uninterested in the discussion. “Ask us about Punjab,” she says, curtly.

Tariq Mehmood Sindhi, another student, says, “If Pakistan is to make progress, it will have to be by managing Balochistan’s resources.

“See, the media has never presented the true picture of Balochistan. We need to first freeze the borders [of Balochistan] in order to tackle the issue because many external forces are involved here.

“There is no communication system in the entire province,” he explains, “so how can it make progress? Then the locals are on a killing spree.”

 

The feature is inspired by Sharjil Baloch’s documentary on BBC Urdu Online, titled ‘Punjab Balochistan ke barey mein kitna janta hai’, dated March 1, 2011

 

“The mainstream media is … defending the national interest”

The News on Sunday: The mainstream media is unusually quiet about Balochistan. Is the media scared or lazy or are there genuine capacity issues which prevent news from coming out?

Alia Amirali: All of the above are true in part. Having recognised the power that “making news” has in forming public opinion, the media has indeed become lazy and in many cases corrupt. It is also true that journalists in Balochistan (particularly the honest ones) do fear for their physical safety, wary of both the state and the guerrillas. Media groups have not adequately equipped their Balochistan desks; they are limited to Quetta. But the major hindrance to coverage on Balochistan comes from the mainstream media’s acquiescence to the state’s position of keeping mum en-masse on state-perpetrated atrocities against ordinary Baloch people and on invisibilising the intensity of the resentment that has arisen in the Baloch people for the state and its ruling classes. The mainstream media, as the term itself belies, is by no means politically or ideologically ‘independent’ of the status-quo. On the contrary, it becomes “more loyal than the king” in defending the “national interest”.

TNS: There is a sense that the anchorpersons of the powerful electronic media decide their own content. What in your opinion stops them when it comes to Balochistan?

AA: For one, these anchorpersons are mostly people who are chosen for the position precisely due to their pro-state/pro-status-quo allegiances, so they wouldn’t be keen to touch the ‘sensitive’ issue of Balochistan. But the other factor here is that for these anchorpersons, as for the layman, Balochistan was never in their ambit until -- sadly -- Punjabis began to be targeted in Balochistan in recent times. That the Baloch have suffered five phases of military onslaught, been bombed, shelled, abducted, tortured, raped, mutilated, harassed and humiliated on a daily basis, was never enough to peak these anchorpersons’ interest. As a result, these anchorpersons are blank when it comes to Balochistan. They simply don’t know enough to be able to lead discussions, to ask informed, relevant questions; and since most of them have no desire to render sacrifices “in the line of duty”, they will not bother to go out and get the information and the familiarity they need to cure their ignorance.

TNS: Media critics think that what is missing in the case of Balochistan is not the news but an analysis of the news or treating each news item as an isolated occurrence. Do you agree and if yes is this deliberate?

AA: Both news and analysis are missing. The fact that various Baloch areas have been made a no-go zone for all “outsiders” (which includes Balochistanis themselves) has severely hampered the quantity and quality of news emerging from the war-torn districts. But the more dismaying aspect is the treatment of the news that does emerge. The focus of mainstream reporting on Balochistan remains on the anti-Punjabi character of pro-independence groups. The coverage of the much larger issues of the military’s unbridled powers, its unabashed use of violence and terror against unarmed people, and its colonial relationship to the territory, resources, and people of Balochistan is either mystified, denied, or rationalised under the guise of “fighting Indian involvement”, “resolving tribal feuds” or “bringing prosperity”.

The Army’s “development initiatives” are given much hype without eliciting people’s responses to them. Corruption and austentatiousness of Balochistani ministers gets a lot of play. People’s voices are deliberately marginalised because our state cannot afford to let us see what it is doing in Balochistan. A politics of hate is being deliberately cultivated by the establishment (of which the big fish of the corporate media are fully a part) by presenting the movement as merely identity-based, so as to ensure that the core issue of internal colonialism does not emerge into public discourse.

TNS: What about the social media? People outside think they don’t see Balochistan on Facebook or Twitter or even in text messaging while some people say that it is much more vibrant than the mainstream media. What is your observation?

AA: I am not sure about Facebook and Twitter, but the internet-based Baloch newspapers and websites have been instrumental in disseminating day-to-day information about the ground situation in Balochistan. Pro-independence groups put up current pictures, videos, speeches of guerrilla leaders onto the internet, which are then disseminated to various sites frequented by Baloch youngsters, many of whom are in the diaspora. Unfortunately, this technological ‘revolution’ in the Baloch movement has gone by the average Pakistani internet-user largely unnoticed.

TNS: Three visible areas that seemingly deserve coverage are the Baloch nationalist movement, the religious-militancy question, and the battle for the goldmine of resources involving international players. Are the three connected and how must they be covered in the media in your opinion?

AA: The three are connected, yes, but often the connections that are made between them serve to obscure rather than reveal. For instance, the religious-militancy question is often lumped together with the Baloch movement though the two are entirely distinct ideologically, historically, and even territorially. Similarly, international players’ interests in Balochistan’s natural resources have been used to dub the movement a “foreign conspiracy” which conveniently side-steps the fact that the call for Baloch independence is a response to decades of oppressive colonial rule.

At the same time, the connections between these ‘areas’ are also not straightforward. One must be cautious, responsible, and certainly well-informed while connecting the dots between these features of the Balochistani political landscape.

 

(The interview was conducted via email)

 

 

 

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