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More Journalists Are Slain as a Culture of Impunity Thrives in Pakistan

At least two journalists, one full-time and a part-time, have been killed in Pakistan's restive southwestern Balochistan province in the past one week. Unidentified armed men carried out both the murderous attacks in the Pakistan-Iran border district of Panjgur.

The attackers managed to flee after killing the journalists while the district police do not seem to have specific clues about the actual murderers and their motivations. Death squads affiliated with Pakistani military's intelligence agencies and Baloch armed nationalists, who seek a separate homeland for the ethnic Baloch people, have both been blamed for targeting journalists. None of the groups has, however, accepted responsibility for the fresh killings in Panjgur.

A part-time journalist Abdul Ahad Baloch, who also taught science at a public high school in the mornings, was gunned down by unknown assailants on November 15 in the lawless Panjgur district. Mr. Baloch had formerly worked as a news stringer for a number of news organizations, such as the Quetta-based Universal News Agency (U.N.A.) and the Lahore-based Daily Aajkal. He lost his position with the Urdu daily after Aaj Kal shut down its bureau in Quetta, the capital of Balochistan.

It is unclear if Mr. Baloch was murdered because of his reporting of the Balochistan conflict and writings on the precarious political situation. The district government has also not initiated a full-investigation into his murder yet.

A picture of the slain journalist displayed on the official website of the Balochistan Institute for Development (B.I.F.D.), a local non-profit organization that often imparts training among local journalists, shows Mr. Baloch receiving a certificate of participation in a media workshop at the Quetta Press Club. In the picture, he is shown receiving his award from Balochistan's former Law Minister Ms. Rubina Irfan while the workshop had been funded by the Washington DC-based National Endowment for Democracy (N.E.D.) in order to develop journalists' reporting skills and professional capabilities.

Three days later, Dunya News, a Lahore-based Pakistani private news channel, said its reporter, Rehmatullah Abid, had also been shot dead in Panjgur. Mr. Abid was a member of the Panjgur District Press Club and he had also previously worked with the Pakistan's official news agency, the Associated Press of Pakistan (A.P.P.).

He was killed at barber's unguarded shop where he had gone to get a haircut. The assailants managed to easily shoot him and escape from the spot. The journalist instantly breathed his last even before being taken to the hospital.

Abid's colleagues, who were quoted by the local Urdu media, said he had not received death threats from any group nor did he have any known family disputes. The journalists say they are fearful and outraged over the increasing attacks on journalists.

Nawab Mohammad Aslam Raisani, the chief minister of the volatile Balochistan province, who also faces death threats from Baloch insurgents and, thus, spends most of his time outside the province in Islamabad, issued a statement condemning the journalist's killing. He has announced to pay Rs. 1 million to the family of the murdered journalist and ordered the local officials to probe Mr. Abid's killing.

Unlike the murder of the part-time journalist, Abdul Ahad, Mr. Abid has drawn more media attention and public reactions because he worked for a relatively bigger media organization. The killings of journalists in rural Pakistan, particularly in Balochistan, rarely gain ample national and international attention because media owners normally disown these journalists after they are killed because they want to get away with the moral responsibility to pay compensation to the family members of the slain reporters. Working with more widely known organization can guarantee more publicity at the time of an assault, arrest or murder but it is, by no standards, a license to personal safety.

While Pakistan has consistently been featuring as the world's most dangerous place for reporters, Balochistan, within Pakistan, remains the riskiest ground to work as a journalist. The Committee to Protect Journalists (C.P.J.) recently described Balochistan as the "latest epicenter of attacks on Pakistani press". According to Dawn, Pakistan's widely respected newspaper, at least 22 journalists have been killed in Balochistan in the past four years.

The thriving culture of impunity that involves attacks on journalists shows very bleak signs of improvement in working conditions for correspondents in the near future as the conflict in Balochistan continues to escalate.

On October 2, 2012, the Pakistani government had announced to constitute a commission to investigate the killing of another journalist in Balochistan, Abdul Haq Baloch, who served as the secretary general of the Khuzdar Press Club. According to C.P.J., the Commission has not come up with any information ever since it was formed.

"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," said C.P.J., "The country [Pakistan] is ranked 10th on CPJ's Impunity Index, which spotlights places where journalists are murdered regularly and their killers go free."

Besides a dramatic increase in attacks on journalists, recent developments show a more worrying pattern of behavior on the part of the media attackers. Now, they have begun to physically assault family members of the journalists they despise. For instance, in October, unidentified people attacked and killed two young sons of the Khuzdar Press Club in Balochistan.

The Paris-based Reporters without Borders (R.S.F.), while calling upon the Pakistani government to "conduct an independent investigation into the double murder", said one could not "rule out the possibility that it was a reprisal targeting the victims' father, a well-known journalist."

Lack of action on the part of the Pakistani government against those who attack the media is increasingly undermining freedom of the press and also jeopardizing the safety of journalists and their families. Silence on the part of the government authorities empowers the criminals and it translates into tacit endorsement of a deplorable culture of impunity for those who want to muzzle the media.

Malik Siraj Akbar is Editor in Chief, 'The Baloch Hal'; Author; Contributing Writer

Faiz Baluch