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Politicians Clamor For Media Attention In Restive Pakistani Province

A boy who was injured in a roadside bomb blast is brought to a local hospital in Quetta, Balochistan Province on August 11.
A boy who was injured in a roadside bomb blast is brought to a local hospital in Quetta, Balochistan Province on August 11.

Nightly news bulletins on Pakistan's burgeoning television news channels are dominated by fluff reports about the prices of animals that most adults in the predominantly Muslim country are required to sacrifice to mark the festival of Eid al-Adha this week.

But politicians in the country's southwestern province of Balochistan have called on them to instead cover their homeland, where tens of thousands of civilians, soldiers, and militants have died in separatist attacks, government crackdowns, and sectarian violence during the past decade.

"You [the Pakistani electronic media] have enforced a complete blackout [of Balochistan]. I know that I am not as pretty as [Pakistani film actresses] Meera and Veena, but I am not worse that the bulls, cows, goats, and donkeys that you show all the time," lawmaker Akhtar Mengal told supporters in the provincial capital Quetta on September 21.

"You should at least show the picture of those orphans who have been protesting in front of media offices for the past decade," he added. "I know you don't like what I'm saying, but we deserve some coverage."

Mengal's ethno-nationalist Balochistan National Party is a leading proponent of the region's rights. Resource-rich Balochistan constitutes nearly half of Pakistan's population but its 10 million people are a mere 5 percent of the country's estimated 200 million.

Hard-line nationalists among the Baluchis have launched five insurrections against Pakistan to demand autonomy and rights. Islamabad has attempted to crush these insurgencies by military might.

Activists, human rights campaigners, and journalists in the region say the Pakistani crackdown against Baluch separatists has been particularly harsh during the ongoing unrest marked by enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings. Sectarian attacks mostly targeting Quetta's tiny Hazara Shi'ite minority and high levels of criminality add to Balochistan's image as a lawless backwater.

All this should turn Balochistan into a major national story constantly dominating headlines and news bulletins, but the coverage of the region has shrunk to the extent that most incidents in Balochistan are hardly even reported as simple news stories.

Politicians and activists say this is because the country's powerful military has enforced an implicit ban on covering Balochistan. In addition, the Pakistani government controls a large chunk of advertising revenues, which can be used as a carrot for securing favorable coverage.

Lawmaker Maulana Abdul Wasey, opposition leader in Balochistan's legislature, says despite numerous protests and approaches by media companies, the region is still being neglected by Pakistani television stations.

"Balochistan is frequently the scene of major incidents but television channels ignore them completely," he told Radio Mashaal. "Even if they cover something, it is frequently limited to a [one-liner] news ticker on television."

Balochistan's journalists backed politicians in decrying the lack of media coverage of their homeland. Kazim Mengal, a journalist in Quetta, says news television stations in Pakistan are primarily for-profit entities where money often trumps journalism.

"We have been told we should be grateful for whatever coverage we get because the TV channels receive nothing from Balochistan in advertising revenues," he said.

Balochistan is one of the world's most dangerous regions for journalists. Since 2001, at least 40 journalists have been killed in Balochistan, and authorities have largely failed to prosecute those responsible for murders.

Abubakar Siddique wrote this based on Khudai Noor Nasar's reporting Quetta, Balochistan.