On December 25th, 2012, the Pakistan Frontier Corps launched a military operation in southern Balochistan’s Mashky area, in Awaran District. The operation has received little or no attention in the Pakistani media. Tanqeed speaks to Malik Siraj Akbar, editor-in-chief of the banned online paper, The Baloch Hal, to get an update on the situation, and a take on why the Mashky atrocities have been ignored
Tanqeed (TQ): What is the status of the Mashkey operation right now?
Malik Siraj Akbar (MSA): On its fifth day, the operation has relatively slowed down as far as firing and door-to-door search operations are concerned. The heavy deployment of the Frontier Corps (F.C.) is still in place. According to local residents, the security forces have established at least 12 new check posts. The deployment of the F.C. has restricted civilian movement and caused a shortage of edible supplies in the area and also blocked road communications. At least 20 people, including women and children, have been killed in the operation. The Baloch insurgents have also inflicted losses on the F.C. and the F.C., on its part, says most of the people killed in the operation were ‘terrorists’, a charge the locals deny.
The claim of the security forces cannot be trusted because the operation is taking place in a populated area which cannot be the same place from where the Baloch insurgents operate. The insurgents mainly hide in and operate from mountainous areas. Dozens of local residents have also been whisked away by security forces and taken into custody for interrogation. Their whereabouts are still unknown. The local communities are in a state of shock and male members of various households have gone into hiding because they fear being arrested by the F.C. as a part of their tactic to spread terror among the citizens. During the operation, several houses have also been burnt.
TQ: You have criticized the Pakistani media of carrying out a blackout of the operation. Please elaborate.
MSA: The Pakistani media, mainly the broadcast media, have pretended not to know what has been happening in Mashky although they were given a heads-up by the local politicians through their press conferences and also through the social media. The Mashky operation entails several levels of human rights abuses at the same time. It included killing of civilians, burning people’s homes and whisking away unarmed citizens. It also has deep implications on a political and peaceful resolution of the Balochistan conflict. The media did not cover the operation, the protests and press conferences that ensued in the wake of the operation and kept the whole nation in darkness. The Pakistani media is known for its immediate and aggressive adoption of position on almost every issue. It was not seen asking those tough questions as to who sanctioned the military operation in Balochistan and what caused it this time. There were no talk-shows about it either. After all, the operation was carried out at such a time when the nation was either marking the birthday of the founder of Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Jinnah or, two days later, mourning the death anniversary of Benazir Bhutto. Our media should have played a role and put into question what was actually happening in Balochistan during these days. It was a quick operation which remained unnoticed by the Pakistani media. Worst still, the media was more obsessed with Pakistan-India cricket match and the domestic issues of a Pakistani singer at a time when people were being killed by the forces in Balochistan. This shows how badly misplaced the Pakistani media’s priorities are.
TQ: But the Pakistani media has covered the Baloch cause extensively this year. Do you not think this is an improvement?
MSA: Pakistani media’s coverage of Balochistan is not consistent and professional. It is not research-based but driven by the passionate national narrative provided by the Pakistani military. Most of the what we have seen in the past one year is rather an expression of frenzy or paranoia, which is also not an original product of the media. This frenzy is the brainchild of the military and the Pakistani nationalist journalists. Reporting on Balochistan is spontaneous and reactionary.
From time to time, we see a short-term surge in talk-shows and newspaper columns on Balochistan which is connected to some other development elsewhere.
In February and March 2012, there were floodgates of coverage of Balochistan after the U.S. Congress held a hearing on Balochistan; Congressman Dana Rohrabacher introduced a bill and addressed a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington D.C. calling for Balochistan’s right to self-determination and statehood.
In September, we saw the second round of massive coverage of Balochistan when the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearancesvisited Pakistan and met with the families of the missing persons, including those from Balochistan. There was a frantic reaction to the arrival of the U.N. working group in Pakistan as the Pakistani right-wing journalists and opinion leaders saw it as ‘foreign-sponsored” interference in Pakistan’s internal matters.
In October, there was the next phase of overwhelming coverage of Balochistan after former chief minister Sardar Akhtar Mengal ended his self-imposed exile and returned to Pakistan to present his Six Points before the Supreme Court.
The problem with such inconsistent and reactionary coverage is that our media immediately gets excited about Balochistan and that excitement also fades away within days. The media begins to report on Balochistan again when some more tragedies strike there. Balochistan needs constant engagement from the national media instead of frantic coverage.
TQ: How have the Baloch in Mashkey, and elsewhere, reacted to this blackout?
MSA: Besides the ordinary people in Mashky, there is extraordinary anger among the Baloch people across Balochistan and outside Pakistan. There have been protests all over Balochistan, in Karachi and even in front of the British Parliament in London by the members of the Baloch diaspora. What is remarkably sad, but true at the same time, is the fact that the Baloch hold the Pakistani media, next to the military and security forces, responsible for not covering the operation in Balochistan. They look at the media as a collaborator in the excesses committed against them. I have never seen such amount of widespread anger among the Baloch people across the spectrum against the Pakistani media as is being vented this time against the blackout of the Mashky operation.
TQ: What needs to happen now?
MSA: The media should be provided access to the area and it should cover the operation objectively and impartially. The media owners and editors should know that a complete blackout of the operation and the overall situation in Balochistan will risk the lives of their stringers and correspondents who work on ground in Balochistan. The Baloch nationalists will blame them (although unjustifiably) as “supporters of the government” and exert pressure on these journalists for not sufficiently covering the operation. The Baloch nationalists, just like the military, are not known to have an understanding of how the media should operate. They do not fully respect the reporters’ plea that their job is only to file stories but not to decide their space, length and placement. This issue, in the past, has caused many reporters their lives. Balochistan has become an increasingly dangerous place for reporters where 24 correspondents have been killed in the past 5 years. Such an indifferent attitude of the Pakistani media will increase the problems of local journalists and compromise their personal safety.
Secondly, a blackout of the news has also forced many journalists to depend on social media for the news. It turned out that the Baloch nationalists are taking the social media for granted and they have misinformed the journalists. As I wrote in my Baloch Hal editorial, Baloch nationalists have been found sharing fake and outdated pictures, providing wrong information and distorted statistics to gain more attention and sympathies. As for the media, our job must be to independently verify the facts instead of being overwhelmed or influenced by the government (read security forces) or the opposition parties. They will try to bluff the media. In Mashky, truth has, unfortunately, become the casualty. A lot of media outlets still have the resources to dig out the truth if they now make a professional commitment to do so.
Malik Siraj Akbar is the editor-in-chief of The Baloch Hal, Balochistan’s first online English newspaper. The paper is banned in Pakistan by the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority.