Three reporters missing in Pakistan’s restive Baluchistan province

New York, March 6, 2008—The Committee to Protect Journalists is concerned about the fate of three reporters for Azadi, an Urdu-language daily in the unstable southwestern province of Baluchistan. Two have gone missing in the past several days, while the third disappeared on November 30.

Reporter Hameed Baloch disappeared on Monday from the town of Taftan on the Iranian border. A few days before, on or around February 29, colleague Khalil Khoso went missing after covering a press conference in the central town of Nasirabad, according to Azadi editor, Asif Baloch. 

The third Azadi journalist, Javid Lehri, disappeared on November 30, said Baloch, who spoke with CPJ by telephone today from the provincial capital of Quetta. One published report said Lehri has been seen in government custody.

“Reports that journalists are disappearing in this volatile region are disturbing,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “We call on the government of Pakistan to investigate these cases immediately.”

The reasons for the disappearances are not clear, Asif Baloch said, although he believed the men had been targeted because of their work for his newspaper. 

Hameed Baloch reported on crime in Taftan, the editor said. He said Taftan police were investigating a criminal complaint against his reporter on Wednesday afternoon; although the editor did not know details of the complaint, he said he feared it was a tactic intended to discredit the missing reporter. He said he has been unable to determine if Hameed Baloch is in police custody.

Baloch said local reporters told him that Khalil Khoso’s disappearance might be related to photographs the reporter had taken on his mobile phone that showed possible parliamentary election irregularities. Baloch said he had not seen the photographs and they had not been published. Khoso disappeared soon after the February 18 elections, Baloch said. The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists reported the date of his disappearance as February 29.

The third case, now months old, has generated growing public attention.  Journalists in Quetta demonstrated on Saturday after the Lahore-based Daily Times reported that Javid Lehri, a news reporter and secretary of the local press club in the town of Wadh, had been seen in a jail run by a government antiterrorist force in Quetta. Authorities have not confirmed Lehri’s status, Baloch said.

Baluchistan is the site of ongoing strife between ethnic Baluch militant groups and government forces. Journalists are often caught up in the violence surrounding militants’ push for political independence and control of local resources. Veteran Punjabi columnist and photojournalist Chisti Mujahid was shot and killed outside his Quetta home in a targeted attack on February 9. Riaz Mengal, a journalist with the Intikhab newspaper, has been missing since he failed to return to his home in Khuzdar’s district capital in October 2007.

“The whole area is in the grip of tribal lords,” said Ehsan Sehar, head of the Rural Media Network a journalist association based in southern Pakistan. “It is difficult to report independently in Baluchistan.”