x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

'A bullet in the head or a jail sentence' the fate of Baluchistan journalists

The telephone call to local journalists generally comes in the late evening. The voice on the other end is harsh: "Report our messages without making any changes or we will kill you."

Journalists demonstrate against the killing of colleagues in the violent Baluchistan capital of Quetta, Pakistan.
Journalists demonstrate against the killing of colleagues in the violent Baluchistan capital of Quetta, Pakistan.

QUETTA, Pakistan // The telephone call to local journalists generally comes in the late evening. The voice on the other end is harsh: "Report our messages without making any changes or we will kill you."

Messages such as these are sent to journalists and warn of upcoming violence or assassinations, sometimes naming an intended victim, or claim responsibility for atrocities already committed. The calls come from Sunni militants notorious for violence against minority Shiites or members of secessionist groups that routinely blow up police stations and attack government facilities in the province of Baluchistan.

But the late-night calls put journalists in a bind. If the messages are not printed, they could be killed. If they are printed, they could face three years in prison under Pakistan's anti-terrorism laws. At least 20 journalists have been killed in Baluchistan in the past six years.

"If you are a journalist here in Baluchistan you have a choice: Either a bullet in the head or a jail sentence," said Ashiq Butt, a bureau chief with the News Network International (NNI), a Pakistani news agency.

Last month, the Baluchistan government for the first time charged 21 news organisations, their owners and several journalists under the anti-terrorist law, which permits a three-year jail term for journalists carrying information supplied by outlawed militant groups.

Pakistan is one of the most dangerous places in the world to work as a journalist, according to the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists. In the last six years, 41 journalists have been killed in Pakistan, although 12 of those deaths are still under investigation to determine whether their deaths were linked to their jobs.

"If I want to live in this city I have to write what they say," Butt said.

The statements can often be cruel and explicit, detailing those who have been killed, he said. Sunni militants' messages are laced with vitriolic attacks against the minority Shiite Muslims.

Just last week, he was called by a member of the Baluchistan Liberation Army, a self-declared secessionist group fighting for an independent state for Baluchis against what they see as domination from Punjabis. The group has already claimed responsibility for the deaths of three journalists. The caller had a message and said, use it verbatim or die.

Butt did exactly that, publishing the statement, "The Punjabis have captured our lands and we will kill the Frontier Corps and Police . . . We will continue our struggle until Baluchistan is liberated from Pakistan."

Aryan Khan, another journalist in the Baluchistan capital Quetta, said Lashkar-e-Janghvi militants even dictate the language newspapers and broadcasters should use in their normal news reports whenever they report on the death of a Shiite, whether in an attack or from natural causes.

"They say we should use the same word we use if an animal dies," he said.

Activists and international aid workers operating in Baluchistan have also been attacked by militants. The international Red Cross suspended its operations in May after one of its workers was killed in Quetta.

"For us Baluchistan has become a source of great concern," said Bob Dietz, Asia Program Coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists. "The situation in Baluchistan looks set to continue for a long time - the issues are deep seated and don't lend themselves to easy solutions. For media support groups, the region has emerged as a new front line."

"The government seems to be quite happy that there is little or no independent monitoring of the situation," he said. He also criticised the Baluchistan provincial government for laying charges against journalists and news organisations covering both sides in the conflicts ravaging the region.

The provincial police chief Omar Ibne Khitab justified the charges, saying the anti-terror law was clear. He also said his force does not have the equipment to trace the threatening telephone calls to journalists and locate the culprits.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan issued a report last month criticising the government. The report said local journalists feel threatened from all sides and neglected by the government.

"Journalists in the field felt threatened from the security forces, militants and insurgents," said the report. "If they said one thing they were traitors to one side and if they did not they were traitors to the other side.

From within the HRCP's heavily guarded office, Shamsul Mulk said rights workers risked their lives investigating the killings of journalists.

"I wouldn't be here if there wasn't a guard outside the door," he said. "People are afraid. They are not even attending our meetings anymore."