Baluchistan has become one of Pakistan's 'hubs of hazard' for journalists in recent years. (AFP/Banaras Khan)
Baluchistan has become one of Pakistan's 'hubs of hazard' for journalists in recent years. (AFP/Banaras Khan)

Baluchistan latest epicenter of attacks on Pakistani press

It is one step forward and two steps back in Pakistan’s restive Baluchistan province. The nation’s highest court has acknowledged the dangerous climate journalists face in Baluchistan, but it has also affirmed a directive that only adds to the pressure cooker conditions that journalists work under.

Last week, Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry affirmed the Baluchistan High Court’s order to bar news coverage of banned groups, which has caused tension among journalists. The order restricts the media from publishing or airing news items that cover banned groups or project their views. Journalists, however, are under intense pressure to report in line with the views of various militants and separatists. Now, pressure is being exerted from the other side as well.

“It has become very difficult to work in such a stifling climate of threats,” Essa Tareen, president of the Baluchistan Union of Journalists, told CPJ by phone. “Just today, we received news of a case where a journalist named Nadeem Garginari, a senior journalist and the president of Khuzdar Press Club, was targeted by miscreants just minutes ago. One of his sons was killed and another injured in the incident,” he told CPJ. CPJ is investigating possible motives in the attack to determine if it is connected to Garginari’s work as a journalist.

Instead of providing relief to journalists, authorities recently lodged complaints to the police (or first information reports, as they are known in much of South Asia) against them for staging a sit-in to protest the murder of Abdul Haq Baloch last month in Khuzdar and the breakdown of law and order in the region, Tareen said.

Noting this lack of law and order, Pakistan’s Supreme Court issued an interim order last week asking the federal government to take effective measures to protect the lives and property of the people in Baluchistan, stating that the provincial government has been unable to maintain control. Chief Justice Chaudhry said incidents of targeted killings were taking place on a daily basis and that journalists were not safe there, according to news reports.

Baluchistan–Pakistan’s largest province by area, but smallest by population–is mired in a separatist movement, a conflict that has existed since the inception of Pakistan in 1947. The province is plagued by sectarian strife, tribal feuds, and criminal activity, with daily disappearances and targeted killings. On top of that, the capital, Quetta, and its surrounding towns are rearguard headquarters and staging areas for the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and other groups fighting in Afghanistan. According to official figures, at least 868 people have been killed, 619 kidnapped, and 2,390 gone missing from the province since 2010.

Journalists there face pressure from a number of sources: pro-Taliban groups and Pakistani security forces and intelligence agencies, as well as Baluch separatists and state-sponsored anti-separatist militant groups. The province receives scant international media attention amid the rest of Pakistan’s political turbulence. But if Pakistan is one of the deadliest countries for journalists, then Baluchistan has become one of the country’s hubs of hazard. CPJ research shows that this year alone, five journalists have been targeted and killed for their work in Pakistan–three of them in Baluchistan. More than a dozen journalists have been killed in the province since 2008. Local groups tend to put the numbers of journalists killed higher, but because of the political turmoil it is often impossible to discern the reason for an attack as many journalists straddle the line between political activism and reporting.

Just last month, Baloch, also a longtime local correspondent for ARY Television, was shot by unidentified assailants. Hamid Mir, a prominent Pakistani journalist, wrote after Haq’s death that the journalist had been threatened by the state-sponsored Baloch Musalah Diffa Army in November 2011 and had subsequently been named on a hit list issued by its spokesman.

Haq’s family declined to discuss widespread assertions by his colleagues that he was killed because security forces were angry that he was working with the families of missing Baluchis on presenting cases before a court.

While the government announced that a judicial commission will be set up to ascertain the facts about Haq’s murder, no information has surfaced to date. Past instances have shown that commissions and inquiries such as these are mainly symbolic, and few, if any, concrete steps are taken to address the impunity that exists in Pakistan. The country is ranked 10th on CPJ’s Impunity Index, which spotlights places where journalists are murdered regularly and their killers go free.

Conditions continue to look bleak for journalists operating in the province, as they do across Pakistan. Earlier this year, CPJ expressed concerns that the issues faced by journalists are inextricably linked to larger endemic problems in Pakistan, and applauded efforts by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan to draw attention to the “constant cloud of intimidation and violence” under which journalists live. The chief justice’s recent acknowledgment only adds to the resounding chorus demanding a change in the forecast.