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The Baloch Hal Editorial: Balochistan’s Forgotten Saleem Shahzad (s)

By Malik Siraj Akbar

Saleem Shahzad, the Asia Times journalist, who was allegedly killed by the Inter-Services Intelligence, today epitomizes journalistic courage. His name is also intertwined with reporters’ extraordinary reactions in Pakistan to the murder of a fellow colleague by the country’s invisible soldiers.

When the investigative reporters’ dead body was recovered two days after his mysterious disappearance from Islamabad in May this year, it triggered massive reactions from all over the country. Private news channels, media watch dogs and even the international governments took up the issue and strongly demanded investigations into the murder.

There are no more such angry reactions throughout Pakistan over the killing of Baloch journalist, Munir Shakir, who was gunned down on Sunday in Khuzdar district. According to the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), he is the seventh journalist from Balochistan to be killed on the line of duty since 2010 although the IFJ statistics are less accurate than the actual number of reporters who have been targeted in the conflict-stricken province.

Once again, fingers are being pointed toward the government-backed underground groups for this gruesome assassination of a committed rural journalist.

Mr. Shakir’s murder has not been widely covered in the mainstream national media nor has it been mourned by the country’s elite-dominated urban civil society. No major newspaper has written an editorial to pay tributes to a gallant reporter who risked his life on the line of duty at a time when three of his colleagues had been murdered in recent times. Shakir was a brave reporter who endangered his life in spite of repeated threats. He knew his fate could be similar to two of the former presidents of the Khuzdar Press Club (Mohammad Khan Sasoli and Faiz Mohammad Sasoli). Both the former presidents of the local press club, of which Mr. Shakir was a senior member, had been brutally killed for bringing out the truth to their readers. Up till now, their murderers are at large.

The disappointing response of the Pakistani news channels to a Baloch journalist’s killing simply reiterates the disconcerting fact that the so-called champions of press freedom and human rights based in principal cities have double standards when it comes to speaking up for the rights of rural and urban journalists. Similar to Saleem Shahzad, Mr. Shakir deserved equal solidarity and condemnation from the journalists community. Such double standards will only embolden the enemies of press freedom and encourage them to target more journalists working in remote parts of the country because the urban journalists refuse to stand by the more vulnerable rural reporters.

The fresh killing is a disturbing reminder to us how reporters and journalists have become soft targets of the government-backed underground groups and the security forces. This is a clear message to all correspondents who dig out the truth from remote areas of the province that they will eventually have to sacrifice their lives if they persistently pursue their investigations into certain controversial stories.

It is an unrealistic and unprofessional demand by some of the journalists that the government should provide them protection. This is not a possible option. However, what the government can and must do is to bring the murderers to justices. In response to a protest organized by the Balochistan Union of Journalists (BUJ) outside the provincial assembly on Tuesday, the Balochistan government promised to investigate Shakir’s killing. Based on the lackluster official response to similar killings of other Baloch journalists in the recent past, we do not see light at the end of the tunnel.

Personal and professional lives of reporters in Balochistan have become traumatic. Press is no longer free to operate. Reporters face threats from multiple directions, worst of all is, of course, the government and its intelligence agencies. While we urge all stakeholders of the conflict to respect journalists’ right to report independently, they should also remember that attacking reporters will not win them respect and support in the society.

With these killings and related cases of harassment and manhandling, the chances of the Balochistan conflict being reported fairly and objectively further fade away. At a time when Pakistan’s deplorable state of human rights in Balochistan has received international criticism from human rights groups such as the Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, attacks on journalists will come as a setback to those who are trying to identify brazen cases of enforced disappearance and extrajudicial killings.

MALIK SIRAJ AKBAR

Editor-in-Chief

The Baloch Hal

The writer is a Hubert Humphrey Fellow and a visiting journalist at a Washington DC-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), a project by the Center for Public Integrity. Email: maliksirajakbar@gmail.com

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