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The Unending Cycle of Violence Against Balochistan’s Journalists

Mehmood Jan Afridi, president of the Kalat Press Club, is the fourth journalist to be killed in the line of duty in Balochistan since the inception of this year. Mr. Afridi, a seasoned journalist who worked for Daily Intekhab as a correspondent in Kalat, was shot dead by unidentified persons on Friday, March 1st, on his way to the local press club. While no group has officially claimed responsibility for his killing, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (C.P.J.) quoted the Associated Press saying that Mr. Afridi, according to his professional colleagues, had received threatening phone calls from a Baloch nationalist group.

Governor Balochistan Nawab Zulfiqar Ali Magsi has, as usual, condemned the killing while local, national and international organizations fighting for the rights of the journalists have condemned the killing.

Killing journalists has become the ‘new normal’ in Balochistan. It is easier for the stakeholders in the conflict to kill the journalists and then get away with it with absolute impunity while the government has had no past history of punishing those who have killed journalists. On their part, the reporters are left with nothing but to hold mere protests, calls for protection and speculations as to who among them would be the next target of a similar attack. Assaults on journalists are so frequent in Pakistan in general and in Balochistan in particular that protests against these incidents have proven an utterly futile exercise. Several journalists have quit their profession and some others have fled to other cities of Pakistan.

Why do the attackers directly assassinate the presidents of the press clubs? The clear motivation is to intimidate the entire press corps of the area. In the past, the presidents of the Khuzdar Press Club have also been gunned down while, in another case of absolute brutality, two sons of the president of the Khuzdar Press Club were killed presumably because of the father’s reporting from the restive district. In the wake of the attacks on journalists and the government’s failure to bring an end to the cycle of violence directed at the media, several press clubs, such as the ones in the districts of Khuzdar and Panjgur, have already shut down because reporters no longer feel secure to continue their work.

While analyzing different stakeholders in the Balochistan conflict, there are hardly any ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ . When it comes to their relationship with the media, they are all ‘bad guy’. They want to influence the media and make threatening phone calls to the reporters in an effort to enjoin them to write stories supportive of their stance and glorify their actions. These groups cite insufficient editorial space or the use of objective language as justification for their assaults on the media.

In other cases, reporters are shot dead by being accused of being ‘too soft’ or ‘too loyal’ to one particular power center. Journalists are killed because they are accused of being ‘spies’ for one group’s rivals. No one is required to substantiate these allegations because the attackers simultaneously act as the judge, jury and the executioner. This is a deeply concerning situation which does not seem to go away in the foreseeable future. For some groups, attacking the Press is the best way to draw public attention and spread terror among the rest of the media personnel.

One example of such a constant battle between the armed groups and the media can be seen in the dispute between the B.B.C. Urdu and the Baloch Liberation Front, an underground armed group. The B.L.F. has complained with the B.B.C. about insufficient coverage; having a ‘biased reporter’ and also blamed it for unnecessarily spreading ethnic tensions between the Baloch and the Pashtun communities. None of the above B.L.F. allegations against B.B.C. Urdu are true or justified because the B.B.C. Urdu has covered the Balochistan conflict more extensively than any other national and international organization. The problem with the Baloch nationalists is their unrealistic desire to completely control the editorial policies of various media organizations which is a demand no media organization would ever concede to. This demand is similar to if the B.B.C. asked the B.L.F. to give up its armed struggle for Balochistan’s liberation. After all, no organization gives up its policies merely to please the other.

A free media in Balochistan is extremely crucial for highlighting the issues of the troubled province. Besides the ongoing ethnic insurgency and the deadly wave of violence from Sunni extremist groups against the Shia Hazaras, Balochistan’s list of problems, such as poor health conditions, education, water, etc. is too long. The province needs a free media to cover all issues. Balochistan had barely received any attention in the national media because journalists from other cities felt too insure to visit the region but fresh attacks on local journalists are going to further shut down whatever small window is available for the local correspondents to report about the problems from interior Balochistan for the news organizations.

Mr. Afridi’s killing is is another reminder to the government that it should not fulfill its responsibility to punish those who are involved in the attacks on the journalists. This tragedy should not be dealt with similar incidents of the past. The authorities must take action to end the wave of violence against reporters working in Balochistan.

Editor-in-chief The Baloch Hal; Huffington Post writer; Former Hubert Humphrey Fellow; ex-Reagan Fascell Democracy Fellow at National Endowment for Democracy. Washington DC.

Faiz Baluch