Blog   |   Pakistan

Why I fled Pakistan

Pakistani police and supporters of the Baluchistan National Party clash in Quetta, Pakistan on July 14, 2010. (AP)

In May 2006, at the age of 23, I joined the Daily Times, Pakistan's most liberal English-language newspaper, as a bureau chief. I was perhaps the youngest bureau chief to cover the country's largest province, Baluchistan, and its longstanding, deadly insurgency. I covered fierce military operations, daily bomb blasts, rocket attacks, enforced disappearances, torture of political activists, and high-profile political assassinations.

In 2008, I got an exclusive interview with Bramdagh Bugti, Pakistan's most wanted separatist leader. I also spoke to top civil and military officers. In November 2009, I founded the Baloch Hal, (Hal means "news" in English) the first online newspaper in Baluchistan, the country's most impoverished region.

When the U.S. Department of State selected me for the Hubert Humphrey Fellowship Program in 2010, I was one of the youngest among 218 Fellows from 93 different countries. While in Washington, I remained professionally affiliated with the Center for Public Integrity, and interviewed some of the world's best journalists and veteran diplomats for Dawn.com, one of Pakistan's most prestigious English-language newspapers. All signs pointed to a successful journalistic career awaiting me back in Pakistan.

Yet, I put aside that career in the interest of personal safety by seeking political asylum in the United States. While I know the life of an asylum-seeker is often marked with extraordinary hardships, the demise of one's professional career, and complete disconnection with friends and family, I believe no story is worth dying for. This is some of the pressure I was facing:

In the summer of 2007, military intelligence personnel took me from the Quetta Press Club against my will to its office in Quetta's restricted military cantonment. I met with a major and a colonel, whose table was covered with fresh copies of the anti-government Daily Tawar and Daily Asaap newspapers. Most of the papers' stories were marked with a green highlighter. The two men said they wanted to give me "friendly advice." In what was to last for several hours, the meeting began with bizarre questions such as on the sources of funding of different Baloch newspaper editors, but ended with threats of death if I did not stop reporting on enforced disappearances.

The next week I met again inside the same white-painted, old compound, with the same officers. This time the atmosphere was more hostile. Worried by the continued threats and offers of "friendly advice," I asked for an interview with the governor of Baluchistan, Awais Ahmed Ghani. I wanted to tell him about my situation and the growing threat I felt.

When we met, the governor encouraged me to do "positive journalism." I had never heard the term before and asked if he could explain it to me. It took him less than fifteen seconds to make clear that positive journalism was journalism that supported government policies.

Without support from the government, I knew I was in trouble. I drastically changed my routine. I stopped going to the Quetta Press Club or having lunch at the nearby Abbasi Restaurant on Jinnah Road, because plainclothes intelligence police regularly monitored journalist's movements from those centers of activity. But the pressure did not stop.

In 2009, my reporting of the presence of Taliban in Quetta -- and the alleged support the Pakistani military agencies offered them in an effort to counter the secular Baloch nationalist movement -- led to a number of threatening calls from phones with blocked numbers.

In January 2010, a Pakistani secret agent approached me at a hotel in Lahore, where I was staying a day before leaving for New Delhi to speak at the India-Pakistan Conference: A Roadmap to Peace. The agent, who said he had been told to 'take care' of me, spoke perfect Balochi, my native language. And he knew almost everything about me. He warned me of dire consequences if I attended the conference in Delhi. The agent wasn't a totally bad guy. He offered me a night ride to show me around Lahore. I politely declined the offer. I lied to him about my return plans after the convention.

Nonetheless, when I returned to Lahore's Allama Iqbal International Airport a week after the conference, where I had spoken about human rights violations in Baluchistan, I was met by the same agent, waiting for me at the immigration counter with a distasteful smile. In what appeared to be an attempt to take me away, he was joined by a couple of other men in plain clothes. I immediately grabbed the German organizer of the conference, who had travelled back with me to Lahore.

A politician and a writer friend reached out to help me too. Both of them are prominent in Pakistan. With my German friend, they told the agents they would go public with my abduction if I was taken away. Within one hour, my friends flew me from Lahore to Islamabad to spend the night at the politician's house.

I returned to Quetta, but my professional life completely changed. I lived in low-profile; changed my daily routine; self-censored my reporting. The conference in India was followed by another session of scolding debriefings and threats with the other intelligence agents.

Those sessions were bad, but the untraceable phone calls were worse. When an anonymous caller tells you the color of your T-shirt or the jeans you are wearing and comments on your new haircut, the fear grips more deeply.

What happened to me was nothing unusual. Secret agents regularly shadow journalists in Baluchistan. They tape phone calls and regularly jot down diary entries while watching journalists' activities, contacts and engagements. The hide-and-seek with agents and the unknown callers were chilling, but exciting as well. But it became more than an adventure as Baloch journalists were increasingly killed and dumped in remote areas.

I founded the Baloch Hal to promote online journalism and report on human rights issues, democracy, and media -what would have been seen as an innovative and entrepreneurial move in another country. But the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority blocked the site, apparently only because it contained the prefix "Baloch" in its Internet address. Around a hundred Baloch news sites, blogs and portals are currently blocked inside Pakistan.

Despite the restrictions, the Baloch Hal has continued to demand justice for all the slain journalists, particularly those killed in Baluchistan. The trend of target killing journalists who criticize the government policies is increasingly alarming. It does not seem likely to fade away in the near future because of absolute lack of accountability for the authorities who are blamed for these killings.

I have lost about a dozen journalist friends in one year in Baluchistan. It is time the international human rights and media freedom watchdogs stood by Baluchistan's media corps and helped journalists and media organizations in Baluchistan get justice within Pakistan's courts -- which is why we continue to press the government to probe the killings. The tactic has not worked yet, and attacks on journalists continue.

I chose to seek asylum because some of us must live to tell the untold story from Baluchistan.

UPDATE: This author's biography has been corrected to reflect that he is no longer with the Center for Public Integrity.

More on
Published

Like this article? Support our work

Comments

We all know how hard India and other foreign forces are funding to separate Baluchistan from Pakistan.
Everyone has a "reason" behind asylum. Wish you peace there.

Every Baloch journalist needs safety. Thank you America for protecting one of our best journalists.

Abdul Ghafoor Baloch November 17, 2011 2:57:44 PM ET

Absolutely right: No story is worth dying for. Stay safe my friend and keep up the inspiring work. Balochistan needs you.

You have chosen a right way to be the part of baluch movement & keep other nations aware about Baluchistan situations and hardship facing our baluch nations including journalists too. I have to keep continue your efforts to work for Baluchistan and its peoples right. Good luck to you.

I feel sorry to hear your story but the question comes in my mind is if The top leaders, journalists like you and other wealthy people of Balochistan seek asylum in America or other countries than what will happen with the son of Pashu and Dasu (the common Baloch People,) they even can’t afford to feed their family two times. You guys will find best jobs, beautiful girl friends and bungalows in other countries but the person who dies by Pakistani agencies is the only son of a poor old Baloch man. You guys spread the words, start the game with agencies and victim is a common young Baloch man because he can’t get asylum in America. The life is for once for everyone, so please don’t let the people to destroy their life. They deserve to live as much as you do as a journalist. Please don’t create hatred among human and play a role to build a peaceful life for everyone in Baloch, fight against the poverty and illiteracy. Don’t go away from your mother land if you love it, stay with your people and help them. They need the help of people like you

I know what you have been through Siraj. May you live long to narrate the stories of Pakistan's brutal policies in Balochistan. Good luck!

Qurratulain Zaman November 18, 2011 12:03:46 AM ET

Malik Siraj you took a good decision otherwise one day we were crying on your death after finding your mutilated dead body like the other Baloch journalists. Now you must do an honest and dedicated job.

M Siraj Akbar excellent job, hopefully other western countries will come forward and help Baloch journalists, politicians, lawyers, doctors and student against vicious crimes of Pakistan's ethnic army,Pakistan army will become trapped in Balochistan because of ignorant attitude towards Baloch people, every month pakistan army and pakistan's interior minister threaten Baloch people kill and dumped their dead bodies to satisfied their ethnic ego, thats what exactly they did against Bengali people.I wished the best of the best like Abid,Waja Ghulam Mohammad,Habib Jalib,Balaach Marri and Akbar Khan Bugit had lived,but the task they left on us the living one is huge and we should do our best to expose these criminals in uniform.

We are proud of you & your brevity to face the threats & difficulties. Balochistan needs the person like you, to tell the atrocities of the state & its agents to the Baloch people. We've been suffering at the hands of agencies, our youth gone missing, we are receiving their bullet riddled bodies day in & day out. Our mothers our sisters watching the deserted ways of their loved missing sons & brothers. They are dying each passing day. The world must know & act to save Baloch & their homeland from occupiers.

We are proud of you & your brevity to face the threats & difficulties. Balochistan needs the person like you, to tell the atrocities of the state & its agents to the Baloch people. We've been suffering at the hands of agencies, our youth gone missing, we are receiving their bullet riddled bodies day in & day out. Our mothers our sisters watching the deserted ways of their loved missing sons & brothers. They are dying each passing day. The world must know & act to save Baloch & their homeland from occupiers.

Thanks for telling us the method how to get residence in the USA. If Balochistan comes to peace, all our funding and foreign visits, asylums, asylum stipends and external aid will come to an end and we will have to return to live with damned Balochis.

They must live in agony so that we can live good life in the modern world.

I have been deeply touched by your story, as I am aware of the situation of Baluchistan. I worked as you did, on the first news agency to cover Baluchistan issues in Arabic language (occupied Baluchistan news agency), and worked on it for one year, till I had to stop writing, translating, editing news pieces (for my safety, which I did all by my own despite the big name of an agency!
I agree that there is no story worth dying for, and everyone has his own field in providing help to suppressed people of divided and occupied Baluchistan, and to live to tell the story is much more valuable as we are just means and channels or their voices. I mourned the killing of Baluchistan Noam Chomsky (Prof. Saba Dashtyari), and I can forecast the future of this great man if he was still with us and to killed by the Pakistani agencies, more master pieces he would produce and greater awareness would been out there. You are the one of few lucky who had a chance to go to school unlike the 80% of the Baluch nation, and you acquired these great skills in writing wonderful pieces, with your awareness and consciousness, I think you have the huge responsibility to act according to what you know is the greater goodness, to make Baluchistan a part of this world, after it’s been like if it’s in another universe!
Good luck with your new life, and thank you USA for standing for the justice and saving this great man life.
Kind regards,
Hout

After a long time, I am feeling proud of my country i.e. USA. I am glad all is not bad in this country. There are still people in our government who care and show respect to people with an extraordinary commitment to their profession and the regions the cover. This is what makes this country different from the rest of the world. We embrace all brave people of the world. Welcome to America, Malik. Keep up the great work.

Waja Siraj,

Congratulations for making a smart decision: To save your life in order to tell the story (utilizing your journalistic skills) of Balochistan to the rest of the world. Those Baloch who think that you should have stayed in Balochistan and sacrificed your life for your people are naive. Instead, we truly need your courage and journalistic acumen to draw the attention of the world community to the slow genocide of the Baloch people by the bloody hands of the notorious Pakistan armed forces and its intelligence arm.

We, the Baloch Nation, entrust you to tell the global community about the plight of our people, and our aspirations for freedom. Also, you can now unite and organize the Baloch Diaspora to serve Balochistan.

Godspeed my fellow Baloch!

A Patriotic Baloch November 18, 2011 1:46:09 PM ET

Now I know why Jan Mohammad Dasthi, the editor in chief of Daily Asaap, was attacked in Quetta and the newspaper was forced to shut down after the Frontier Corps (FC) besieged its offices. Simply because the agencies would highlight their news stories every day. How sick. The government has always feared Baloch newspapers like Tawar and Asaap.

thank you USA once again for saving our National property, form dictator state .