By Malik Siraj Akbar
“I told the forces deployed outside my office that I was a journalist not a “terrorist”,” recalls Rashid Baloch [name changed], a reporter affiliated with Quetta-based daily Balochistan Express. Rashid, 25, was on his way for the morning shift at the newspaper office located a few hundred meters away from the office of Daily Asaap which was forced to shut down by the Frontier Corps (FC), a federal paramilitary force, earlier this week.
“We will trust you only if you say Pakistan Zindabad [long live Pakistan],” a skinny Rashid mimicked the security officer with a toothless smile.
“It was funny,” he recollected.
“Say Pakistan Zindabad,” irately yelled the FC officer deafeningly as Rashid delayed complying with the officer’s instructions.
“For a while I, honestly, felt very sorry for this poor country which now needed my pronouncement [of Pakistani zindabad] for its survival,” he maintained, “however, I carried on.”
“”Pakistan Zindabad,” I said halfheartedly as more than a dozen FC men clapped and allowed me to walk inside my office,” Rashid narrated his encounter as many of us from different newspapers surrounded him to listen to his ‘amazing story’.
The FC put under siege the offices of two more popular newspapers, Daily Balochistan Express (English) and Daily Azadi (Urdu), on Friday morning. These newspapers are owned and edited by an extraordinary Baloch journalist Siddiq Baluch. It is very appalling to see such treatment being meted out with the newspapers edited by a much respected professional journalist who has spent five decades of his life bring nothing but truth to his readers. He has been instrumental in presenting Balochistan’s case in the national and international media.
Siddiq Baluch and his newspapers do not deserve such undemocratic and arrogant attitude as this man has enormously contributed to promoting the cause of a free press.
Mr. Baloch joined Dawn, Pakistan’s most respected newspaper, in 1966 and served as Sub-editor, Edition Incharge, Roving Correspondent, Political Correspondent and Special Correspondent and Crime Reporter. He was elected Member of the Governing Body of the Karachi Press Club for over a decade. He was elected President of Karachi Union of Journalists (KUJ) for two consecutive terms in 1981 and 1982 and remained an active member of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) till 1988.
Mr. Baluch was elected President of the Balochistan Editors Council for two consecutive terms. At present, he is the senior Vice-President of the Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors (CPNE) and Member of the Executive Committee of the All Pakistan Newspapers Society (APNS). Over resigning from Dawn, he brought out Daily Balochistan Express from Quetta, in 1990. Balochistan Express was the first newspaper of Balochistan to go online but its website was forced to shut by the government during the second Afghan war in 2001.
Mr. Baloch is the Chairman of the Balochi Academy, the biggest literally organization of Balochi language in all over the world. He also served as the press secretary of late Ghose Baksh Bizanjo, the then governor of Balochistan. Over the undemocratic removal of the National Awami Party (NAP) government in Balochistan in 1973s by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the most autocratic face of all Pakistani politicians, Mr. Baloch spent four years inside the jail under Hyderabad Conspiracy Case along with Sardar Attaullah Mengal, Balochistan’s first ever elected chief minister, Mir Ghose Baksh Bizanjo, the ousted governor and illustrated nationalist leader Nawab Khair Baksh Marri.
According to Asif Baloch, the editor of Daily Azadi, the siege of his offices began on Friday morning. Several staff members and workers of the printing press were barred from coming to the office by the FC. They were stopped and investigated about a number of things ranging from the newspapers policy to their sources of finance.
“We believe this is now a step towards Asaap-ization of our newspapers,” he said. The security forces had forced Asaap, a widely circulated Urdu newspaper, to shut down earlier this week after its office was brought under siege for more than two weeks. The newspaper had to take the decision saying that it believed uninterrupted publication of the newspaper could harm the safety of its workers.
The Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) said in a statement issued on Friday that it urged “the government of Pakistan to order an immediate withdrawal of the FC from Balochistan province. It also urges the government to allow the Daily Asaap to resume its publication and to respect the rights of media professionals to free speech and free press. The government should prevent state agencies from interfering with the media and take effective measures to ensure a safe and liberal environment for journalists to work in. The government is strongly advised to observe the International Covenant on Cultural and Political Rights (ICCPR), of which Pakistan is a signatory.”
On the contrary, one does not see any reaction by the Pakistan Peoples’ Party government in the province and at the center against such undemocratic attacks on newspaper offices which are clearly meant to tarnish the image of a democratically elected government. The Balochistan government has been overpowered by the Frontier Corps (FC) which is calling the shots in Balochistan. The FC can not be treated as a friend of democracy and freedom of expression. If they are out to close newspaper offices today then chief minister Nawab Aslam Raisani must not grumble by the time a truckload of FC men will one day attack the CM house and humiliate him. It is the very right time to control the expanding powers of the FC.
It is very unfortunate that many of reputed Pakistani media outlets have not supported the Balochs to condemn the closure of Asaap and siege of Balochistan Express and Azadi offices. Even the closure of the newspaper was not reported in many leading Pakistani newspapers while TV channels did not air the news either. Only the BBC Urdu Service reported courageously about this shameful official act. Journalists’ bodies all over Pakistan and abroad must take notice of this derogatory attitude of armed men towards the freedom of Press. We have to prove it with our deeds that we are reporters without borders. We all have struggled for our right to freedom of expression. No one has the riht to silence our pens by the help of guns.
We believe the only fault of Mr. Baloch Siddiq Baluch alas “Lala” and his newspapers is their commitment to the rights of the Baloch people. Both the newspapers never compromised on the rights of the oppressed masses of Balochistan. Even both the papers fearlessly condemned the military operation during the gruesome martial law days of General Pervez Musharraf. Such freedom of expression understandably entails its cost.
We sincerely hope President Asif Ali Zardari takes notice of the cycle of attacks on the Baloch media outlets in Balochistan. This seems to be a deliberate and selective campaign only against the Baloch newspapers. The president must know that history is a subject which is alien to forgetting the past. Nawaz Sharif as the prime minister got Najam Sethi, the editor of the Friday Times, kidnapped and beaten in 1999. Ten years, down the line, Sharif becomes embarrassed every time he talks of a free press and is then suddenly reminded of his own attitude with Najam Sethi. Likewise, history will surely ask the PPP what it did in Balochistan with Asaap, Balochistan Express and Azadi newspapers.
Several journalists of the Balochistan Express and Azadi have been kidnapped while their Khuzdar bureau chief Haji Wasi Ahmed was gunned down in March this year.
I got a chance to interview Javid Lehri, the Wadh correspondent of Daily Azadi who had been picked up by the intelligence agencies. His ordeal was very touching. I wrote the following piece about him.
“Four months after his release from a nine-month long official detention, twenty-one-year old journalist Javid Lehri travels on every fortnight from his native Khuzdar district to Karachi for his medical treatment. Lehri had been whisked away by masked officials of a shadowy force from room No. 2 of Bugti block at a college hostel, where he was staying, at around 21:00pm on November 29th, 2007 and released on August 22, 2008. The government was apparently displeased with his reports and wanted Lehri to soften the reports in favor of the government. Since his release, the journalist working with the Quetta-based Urdu newspaper, Daily Azadi, complains about insomnia, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), deep depression and eating disorders.
“I have no money to bear the expenses of my medical treatment. But I have to regularly go to Karachi for treatment. I am still not the old Javid that I used to be. I regularly have nightmares. I keep receiving threatening phone calls that I should not disclose to the media what had actually happened to me inside the torture cell,” he told Daily Times after much persuasion for his first ever interview to the media.
Around twelve truckload of officials, eye witnesses say, had raided the boys’ hostel in Khuzdar district to arrest Javid Lehri. As he was overpowered by the officials and forcefully a mask was put on his face, Javid was immediately taken to Quetta the same night.”Previously, whenever I used to receive threatening phone calls, I used ignore them by believing that my friends were just fooling me with their phone calls. But this time, it was no longer a joke. I was indeed in the custody of uncivilized officials who abused and beat me. It took me three months to know that the place that I had been moved
to was Quetta. I was kept in a fully dark 5X3 room. Later on, I came to know that I was at the Quli Camp inside Quetta cantonment area,” heinformed.
Lehri recollected that in the first three days and nights of detention, he had been hung upside down and beaten up ruthlessly. “I became unconscious time and again. After three days, I was enchained and further tortured. The torture was so unbearable that I prayed for death. I wish I could find anything inside the torture cell that I could use to commit suicide. I begged to Allah to give me death because I was too young to bear the indescribable torture,” stated a tearful Javid.
Inside the jail, Javid was asked why the newspaper he worked for was called Azadi [liberation]. His captors wanted him to clarify whose liberation the paper actually was struggling for. He was asked to get the newspapers’ name changed. “I helplessly replied that I was merely working with the newspaper as a correspondent. I could not change the
name or the editorial policy of the paper. But they didn’t trust me and kept on beating me.”
While Lehri was undergoing callous suffering inside the torture cell despite the restoration of democracy in Pakistan, his family members were constantly threatened by his official captors that the former should keep quite or get prepared to receive Lehri’s dead body.
“Journalism has been my passion since childhood. Now, I am back to my job but I regret that no one, including my own media house and the media watch-dogs, came to my help during the hard time. All that I urgently need today is protection and assistance for my medical treatment at this point in my life.”
Yet, such tactics could not deter team-Azadi and Balochistan Express from pursuing their mission. I am confident that this shameful siege of a newspaper office during a democratic government will soon be lifted. Chief Minister Nawab Mohammad Aslam Raisani and Governor of Balochistan, who flaunt their democratic credentials, should apologize with the management of both the newspaper.
The media house that brings out Balochistan Express and Azadi has been the first school of many top journalists and writers of Balochistan including Shahzada Zulfiqar, Syed Fazal-e-Haider, Kazim Mengal, Manzoor Baloch, Javid Noor, Zahoor Baloch, Babar Baloch and many others. I worked for Balochistan Express as a staff reporter and an editorial writer in 2005 before I left for India to undertake a post-graduation course at the Asian College of Journalism (ACJ). My Urdu column, Gosha-e- Chasham, often appears in Azadi. The last piece I wrote for the paper was about the Baloch children who sold their kidneys, which was later on reprinted in Daily Tawar (which I believe is going to become the next victim of State repression).
Journalism aside, for many working journalists like us the office of these two newspapers is very memorable. I have adopted this place as my home. I joined Daily Times in May 2005 when the military operation against Nawab Bugti was on its peak. I had newly returned from India. I had no place to stay in Quetta. Asim Kaleem, a friend from Panjgur was kind enough to offer me (illegal) accommodation at Room Number 64 at Block # 13 at boys’ hostel at the University of Balochistan. Since I was not a university student, my stay out there was illegal. The room had been allotted to Asim and another friend of his Ghaffar, a student of MA English literature. Yet, they were kind to a let me stay with them.
At day times, I worked in the field as a journalist and in the afternoons, I would come to the Balochistan Express office to file my stories to Daily Times. I would go to the university hostel only to sleep. My stay at the university hostel was enlivened with Lata Mangashkir’s classic songs. Ham bol gaye her bath magar tera pyar nain bolye was my favorite while Asim insisted on listening to Arif Baloch’s Zabadi thi.
One evening I return to my hostel. Tired. Sleepy. Hungry. Thirsty. I receive a phone call.
“Hello Siraj. They have killed him. File the story with reactions. Immediately”
The man on the other side of the line was Najam Sethi, my editor.
“Killed him? Killed who?” I asked desperately.
I was stunned. This was a turning point in Balochistan’s history. No exaggerations: it was the 9/11 of Balochistan. I knew Balochistan would never remain the same again.
As I walked back inside my hostel room, I told my friends in Balochi.
“Day Ishi [Pervez Musharraf] wathi mass band ko]” (Do Balochi abuses also need translation. ??? Ok it goes like this….Musharraf finally proved himelf as a motherfucker!]
My friends shouted back, “chy boo? [what happed?]
“Bugti ra koshtish [Bugti has been killed].
While I had barely disclosed the news to my friends, we felt something very powerful hitting the hostel room’s windows. It was very dominant. Broken pieces of windowpanes violently scattered everywhere in our room. We narrowly escape unhurt as we quickly turned the light off and hid under a bed. There were around eight of us. My friends suggested that we turn the light off so that our room does not get much attraction.
We felt as if rockets were being fired on the university hostel. As a matter of fact, Baloch students had begun to react as the news of Bugti’s assassination flashed on TV screens. My friends insisted that I must stay inside the room. I disagreed. Like every journalist, I was thinking about tomorrow’s lead story with my byline. I knew the ball had come to my court and it was my turn.
“Are you mad? You mean you want to leave the hostel now? The city must be under fire now,” said Aftab, a visiting friend.
” C’mon yar. Its my job. I have to go and cover the reactions and the aftermath of the killing,” I replied.
“Fuck your job. Your job is not more important than you life. We will not let you go,” exclaimed Asim Kaleem. It was the first time I had seen him shout at me.
While we continued to discuss what we should do, my phone was ringing endlessly. Boss was calling. Friends calling. Journalists calling. SMSes pouring.
Lastly, I told my friends in one long sentence.
I knew I would not becoming to my hostel room at least in the next five to six months. It was not a joke. After all, they had killed Akbar Bugti who was a mythical figure even in his life time. I took all the money I had put inside my diary and picked up my passport. I walked out. The scenes at the university hostel were pretty scary. Baloch boys were crying like small kids.
” Bugti…Bugti…Baba Bugti…Baba Bugti…”
They were trying to break and burn everything that came in their hands. I saw one young man single-handedly trying to weed out a power supply pylon as he chanted Naraye Bugti [the slogan of Bugti] and more crying students approached to help him by replying Jiay Bugti [long live Bugti]. They brought the pylon on ground. They burnt the neighboring Habib Bank. They burnt more than a dozen university buses. The police did not come on Sariab Road as it truly knew the magnitude of the students’ anger.
Violence had erupted in Balochistan. History will remember that the real reactionary movement in Balochistan was actually unleashed by the Baloch students. Students awakened Balochistan. They attracted the media. They disturbed Islamabad. They woke the then chief minister Jam Yousaf up. These were the students from Balochistan University, Bolan Medical College, Polytechnic and Degree College.
Since the office of Balochistan Express and Azadi were close to the University of Balochistan, I walked to the newspaper. The newsroom had never been so chaotic. I telephoned. Telephoned. Telephoned. Telephoned. Prepared my reports.
None of us slept the whole night. The next day, an almost a curfew like situation had been declared in Quetta and many other parts of Balochistan. We learnt that the FC and police had raided the boys’ hostels at the University of Balochistan. Hundreds of students were arrested and implicated in false cases. These students had to face the courts for the next coming more than two years. I still know many students till today who have to appear before the courts for these false cases registered against them that night.
I came to know that the hostel had been shut for an indefinite period. I had literally had no place to stay in Quetta. I did not have enough money to stay in a hotel. No friends willing to host me for a prolonged period. I had to stay in Quetta to report for Daily Times. I was running out of options. Finally, I saw one sofa inside Siddiq Baluch’s office. I said I will use this as the place to sleep but I will not give up my job as a journalist. Thankfully, Siddiq Baluch agreed to provide me the space to live. Had he denied me that sofa, I would have to give up my job at Daily Times and go back home in Panjgur.
I spent the next one year in the same office. They were the best of the times. They were the worst of the times. But I was not the only one. There was this Pashtoon guy, Aminullah Fitrat, who served as the Bureau Chief of a leading news agency. Now he works with Pakistan’s most reputed Urdu newspaper, Daily Jang. He too had no place to stay. So both of us used the Balochistan Express office for our residence. I used the sofa and he slept down on the floor. One night, while preparing to sleep, Fitrat laughed and said:
“Malik, can you imagine what will be the reaction of the rulers if they come to know that these two fucking “bureau chiefs” who keep endlessly writing against the government live such a poor life?”
I said, “No. All they can do is to put us in a torture cell in Qili Camp [this notorious torture cell is maintained by the Pakistan army in Quetta]. But can life be worse than this? Do you not feel that we are already spending a life just like the inmates of a torture cell? If they[ the intelligence agencies] take us to a cell, both of us will be very comfortable out there. We have nothing to lose. No family. No soft bed. No comforts of life. So this is almost the same for us wherever we are.”
He laughed and fully agreed with me because he had been kidnapped by the Pakistan agencies around three times.
“I swear the torture cell was just like this room. So, Malik, don’t worry my dear. Close you eyes. Sleep. Chill,” said Fitrat who had been interrogated by the Pakistani spy masters on several occasions and asked where Osama bin Ladan was!
People like me and Fitrat owe Balochistan Express and Azadi a lot. The office of these newspapers served as hostels to many budding journalists.
At this critical juncture, we wish to express our solidarity with Mr. Siddiq Baluch and his team. We have faith in them. They are not alone. We are with them. We are sure they will defeat the autocrats of this shamocracy.