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In Balochistan, Violence Continues to Target Journalists

Journalist protest in front of the provincial legislature in Balochistan in September.
Journalist protest in front of the provincial legislature in Balochistan in September.

QUETTA, Pakistan -- Journalism has become one of the most dangerous professions in the southwestern Pakistani province of Balochistan, where 38 journalists have been killed since 2008.

Habibur Rahman Taseer, a stringer for Deusche Welle, is among the latest victims of violence and intimidation against media workers.

"Unknown people phoned me last month and threatened to kill me. They also called my journalist friends and told them that I was a suspicious person," he told RFE/RL’s Gandhara website. "They said that they worked for an [unnamed] organization which considered our radio station suspicious, and that my reporting violated their policies."

Taseer said that the callers repeatedly accused him of working for a foreign intelligence service. "'This is why we will not spare you. We will kill you,' I was told repeatedly," he said.

In early September, days after the threats were made, Taseer, 38, left Balochistan's capital, Quetta, for his native Ghazni province in central Afghanistan. "When they threatened to harm my children, I saw no point in informing the police and hastily left," he said.

"They told me where my eighth-grade son and my daughter, who is in the first grade, went to schools," he said. "So I left Quetta for the sake of my children's safety."

Only days before on August 28, two journalists and a fellow office worker were shot dead in Quetta. Irshad Mastoi, Abdur Rasool, and Muhammad Younas worked for the local news agency, Online.

Shahzada Zulfiqar, a senior journalist in Balochistan, says that authorities have so far failed to make a single arrest in the murder of a journalist. He added that members of Balochistan's police force are reluctant to investigate the killings because of fear that it would imperil their security.

"Without the help of the army and the intelligence services, it will be very difficult for the police to nab a single killer," he told Gandhara. "Those involved in killing journalists are very powerful. They are not common criminals. Such groups are behind sophisticated targeted assassinations and terrorist attacks. They are beyond the reach of the police."

Balochistan, a vast, resource-rich region, has been the scene of a violent, separatist insurgency and sectarian strife since 2004. Thousands of secessionist rebels, civilians, and soldiers have died in the conflict with secular, ethnic Baluch nationalists.

In addition, more than 1,000 Shi'ite Muslims have been killed in attacks by hardline Sunni factions. Amid such lawlessness, criminality has spiked and murders and kidnappings have reached unprecedented numbers.

Zulfiqar said that separatist organizations such as the Baloch Liberation Front and Baloch Liberation Army have claimed responsibility for some of the 27 journalists killed in targeted assassinations since 2007. Many of the other murders remain unexplained, or are attributed to the other side.

"The relatives of these journalists claim that intelligence services, or militant groups nurtured by them to counter the Baloch separatists, are responsible for killing their sons or brothers," he said.

Sayed Ali Shah, a Balochistan correspondent for the English-language daily "Dawn," says that reporting on Baluch separatist violence and the presence of Afghan Taliban in the region have been considered red lines for Balochistan's journalists for a long time, but in recent years covering even routine, local issues can prove deadly.

"Reporting ordinary news, such as reporting one tribal leader or politician speaking against another, can land you into trouble," he told Gandhara. "There are so many powerful people here that if they kidnap or harm a journalist, the state's security institutions are not capable of helping. Apart from reporting on sensitive issues, we cannot even report the true picture of our society, officials, and government organizations."

Jan Mohammad Buledi, spokesman for the province’s top official, Chief Minister Abdul Malik, says that their administration is committed to protect journalists in Balochistan by deploying security guards at media offices.

"We are investigating the people responsible for harming journalists and are also looking into the factors behind such acts," he said. "It is difficult to investigate the murders that are not claimed by known militant groups. It takes time to uncover people involved in such murders."

Asad Shah, a senior police officer in charge of investigating violence against journalists, says their efforts have yet to show results. "We have uncovered the way journalists are killed and kidnapped, but we have to unmask the people involved in such attacks," he said.

But journalists in the province are not optimistic and have resorted to protests. During the past months they have held numerous demonstrations, and waged a week-long hunger strike in front of the parliament in Quetta demanding that the government provide them security and investigate attacks on journalists.

Irfan Saeed, president of the Balochistan Union of Journalists, says the provincial authorities and the central government are not serious about addressing the violence.

"Four months ago the government announced a judicial commission to probe the murders of our colleagues in Balochistan," he said. "But the idea remains buried in government files and we have yet to see any results."

Abubakar Siddique wrote this report based on reporting by Barakwal Myakhel from Quetta, Balochistan.