Interviewed by Roshan Ghimire
Fate may have moved Malik Siraj Akbar from the bucolic terrain of Balochistan to the beltways of Washington D.C, but Akbar’s fight for Balochistan continues even though he is far from home.
Akbar is a well-known journalist and a blogger from Balochistan, the largest province of the Pakistan. He was granted political asylum in the United States after facing threats for his writing. He is also the Editor-in- Chief of the Baloch Hal , the first online English newspaper of Balochistan, which is currently banned in Pakistan. In an exclusive interview with Story South Asia, Malik spoke about the issues of press freedom, human right violations and the future of Balochistan.
Balochistan has been the epicenter for regional warfare and rivalries. How was Balochistan when you were growing up?
I grew up in Balochistan during 1980s and ‘90s. It was a peaceful time for Balochistan as the province recovered from the worst military operation of 1970s that claimed thousands of Baloch lives. But we lived in poverty, and a lack of basic facilities. There was also an on-going realization among the people of my generation that the Pakistani federal government exploited our province’s mineral wealth and we received nothing in return. We did not feel properly represented in any domain of life in Pakistan.
You worked for a long time in Pakistan, as the youngest Bureau Chief of Pakistan’s leading Newspaper Daily Times for five years. You lived in Balochistan and filed many stories on pressing issues for several years. Can you tell us about your experience working as a journalist in Pakistan?
Working as a journalist in Balochistan is different from working elsewhere in Pakistan. One feels like the very news organizations that you work for sides with the federal government by default.
Balochistan is Pakistan’s largest province but it receives the least amount of editorial space in the mainstream national media. Editors censor the stories filed by Balochistan-based correspondents under the pretext of “national security”. For a reporter covering Balochistan, it is often frustrating that your editors and publishers censor so much of your reporting that the government no longer needs officials to perform this job [of censorship].
After all the years working and reporting in Pakistan, what made you flee to the United States?
I did not flee to the United States. I came here in 2010 when the State Department awarded me a ten-month long Fulbright Hubert Humphrey Fellowship. While I worked here on my fellowship and regularly wrote about the conflict in Balochistan, the Pakistani government officially blocked theBaloch Hal, Balochistan’s first online English language newspaper that I had founded in 2009. Meanwhile, several Baloch journalists were killed by Pakistani authorities. The ban on my newspaper and the killing of fellow journalists in Balochistan alerted me that my life could also be at risk if I returned to Balochistan.
I had received death threats when I was in Balochistan in 2007 but I never thought that someone would be stupid enough to kill a journalist – only because they didn’t like a news story. But now when I turn back and recount the number of 20 plus reporters who have been killed in Balochistan, I realize that killing of journalists has unfortunately become a nightmarish reality of our profession in Balochistan.
I have heard the Pakistani government is ruthless when it comes to censorship in Balochistan. The government banned your website The Baloch Hal on 2010. What exactly is the government trying to hide about Balochistan?
The government, rather the Pakistani military, has too much to hide about Balochistan. The military wants to control the national narrative on Balochistan. For years, the people of Pakistan had been fed a selective state-sponsored narrative about Balochistan, which depicts the Baloch people who want ownership of their natural resources as the “enemies of Pakistan” and “foreign agents”.
Just like the British colonial rulers, the Pakistani military in collaboration with the national media, tells the general public that they are actually in Balochistan to “civilize”, “modernize” and “develop” the Baloch, whereas we see this as a policy to plunder Balochistan’s mineral wealth and treat the province as a Pakistani colony. Hence, we chose to contest that official narrative and launched the Baloch Hal to tell the Baloch perspective on all critical issues. The government and the media try to tell the world that a small minority of people is seeking “provincial autonomy” in Balochistan, which is untrue, because the on-going Baloch movement seeks complete separation from Pakistan.
Our reporting and editorials predominantly focus on widespread human rights abuses in Balochistan that includes forced disappearances, torture and political assassination of political opponents.As journalists, we believe it is our responsibility to show our readers the actual picture instead of keeping them in darkness simply because the government wants us to do so.
Violation of human rights is a big issue in Balochistan today. Thousands of men and women are missing from the province. The government blames Baloch Militants groups and other extremist for this. Others think government is responsible for the missing people. Who do you think is the real culprit?
Among all human rights abuses, currently the issue of enforced disappearance is the most alarming. Thousands of political activists who belong to the Baloch ethnic community have gone missing, while hundreds of them have been killed and dumped across Balochistan. Pakistan’s own Supreme Court has admitted time and again that the country’s intelligence agencies and security forces are involved in these extrajudicial arrests. But the judiciary does not have the teeth to bite the human right abusers. The people who have “disappeared” are severely tortured during custody, denied their basic right to hire a lawyer or face a legal trial. International human rights groups such as the Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have also blamed the Pakistan authorities for indulging in these extrajudicial operations.
There are two other fronts of violence and rights abuses in Balochistan.The Sunni extremists, led by an underground banned terrorist group the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, have claimed responsibility for the killing of hundreds of Shia Muslims. Most Shias in Balochistan belong to the Hazara ethnic community. The Lashkar-e-Jhangvi is believed to enjoy covert support from elements within the Pakistani security establishment and it receives funding from some oil-rich Arab countries.
The Baloch armed groups have also engaged in killing unarmed Punjabi civilians, university professors and journalists as a part of their ‘revenge strategy’ against the government. As a result of these attacks, thousands of Punjabis, locally known as “settlers”, have been forced to flee Balochistan.
People in Balochistan have been fighting for autonomy and local control of the province for a long time. Extremists are fighting for independence. Is separation a solution for Balochistan? What are people looking for?
For decades, Balochistan had been fighting for provincial autonomy while remaining within the federation of Pakistan. Since 2006, when prominent Baloch political and tribal leader Nawab Akbar Bugti was killed, the demand for provincial autonomy has transformed into an organized call for a separate Baloch state. Those who are calling for separation are mostly young educated people who no longer see a future for themselves in Pakistan. Baloch women have also begun to actively participate in the pro-independence movement.
The Baloch nationalist leaders can at best respond to your question whether or not separation is a solution to their problem. However, I am sure about one thing: no one anywhere in the world would want to live in a country where their children are routinely picked up, tortured and murdered by their own army.
The formation of local government in the province may take months and years,” said Sultan Bayazeed, the provincial election commissioner (PEC) of Balochistan. How will this affect the future of the province?
Balochistan, just like the rest of Pakistan, does not have a strong local government because every new government restructures the overall local government system. During General Musharraf’s time, for instance, local governments were formed to provide support to the former dictator at grassroots level. Instead of focusing on building local institutions, Musharraf empowered people who unquestionably supported his regime. Local and provincial governments have also had serious differences on administrative and financial affairs.
There is an urgent need to build strong local government institutions that are autonomous and financially independent. Strong local governments will significantly address at least some of the basic challenges Balochistan currently faces in the area of law and order, health and education. Provincial government should only be responsible for legislation while development should be devolved to local level.
Since 1972, Balochistan’s gross income has grown in size by 2.7 times. Outside Quetta, the resource extraction infrastructure of the province is gradually developing but still lags far behind other parts of Pakistan”. How does outside involvement in the province affect tensions? Do you think the area being resource rich affects local governance, or attempts at a peace?
Considering Balochistan’s distinct social, political and economic dynamic, development is one area that is very likely to evoke tensions. Development has always had different connotations for the local Baloch and Pakistan’s federal government. The Baloch interpret development as an activity that leads to employment opportunities and therefore an improvement in their living standards. For Pakistan, development has been a way to consolidate its military presence, cause demographic imbalance against the Baloch people. It is also a means for them to provide undisputed access to its Chinese allies to the port in Gwadar and to Balochistan’s gold and copper projects in Chagi District.
As long as Pakistan deprives the Baloch of the benefits of the province’s resources, development and foreign investment will have bleak prospects of success. For example, the Baloch nationalists have been blowing up gas pipelines for almost a decade now saying that their gas is being forcefully taken to other Pakistani provinces without giving the indigenous people a share. There have also been frequent attacks on the Chinese engineers working at the port in Gwadar. So, development can cause unrest and tensions in Balochistan, if all stakeholders are not on the same page.
What are the basic challenges that people in the region face – given that it’s practically dessert terrain, life can’t be easy between water scarcity and conflict?
Balochistan is the richest Pakistani province in terms of natural resources but it is still one of the poorest regions in South Asia. It is Pakistan’s least educated province with extremely depressing social indicators on health and education. People do not have access to clean drinking water. Employment opportunities are tight and limited. The conflict has left hundreds of thousands of people internally displaced. The province needs attention and an improvement of infrastructure in almost every sphere of life. The Pakistani government looks at every issue from the prism of “national security” which means Islamabad does not easily encourage or allow international donors and non-governmental organizations to work with the communities in Balochistan.
People who are critical of your work say you are running a blog and not a news site. As a journalist and an editor, how hard is it to maintain objectivity when you are working under constant life threats?
It is unimportant for us whether people describe us as a blog or a news site. What matters is the impact the Baloch Hal has had in terms of spreading awareness, formulating public opinion and reshaping English journalism in Balochistan. It is reassuring that today national and international journalists read our editorials to see what the Baloch have to say about any critical issue.
For example, Al-Jazeera English and Foreign Policy recently quoted our work. CNN has republished our photographs while BBC World, Washington Post and Radio Canada International, have mentioned our work as an impressive example of online journalism from a conflict zone. No online publication in Pakistan has received such widespread recognition for innovative journalism. We have provided a platform to a new generation of young writers and journalists from Balochistan.
As an editor, my job is to write editorials, political analyses and commentaries that are actually based on my several years of field experience. Unlike news reports, editorials are generally subjective as they reflect the newspaper’s policy. I believe in the Robert Fisk school of thought in journalism where I think editorials should clearly distinguish between “good guys” and the “bad guys”. As I said before, we are committed to giving a local Baloch perspective. Therefore, our editorials, by default, keep Balochistan’s interests supreme.
Balochistan is in the middle of a cross fire between government officials, extremists and activists. As a journalist, do you think foreign intervention, or UN involvement is necessary?
The Baloch nationalists and the Pakistani military do not trust each other. Nor are they willing to take a step back from their stated positions. The intervention of international interlocutors such as the United Nations or the European Union has therefore become essential. Unless there are international guarantors, talks between the Baloch and the Pakistani state to bring peace and justice in Balochistan will not succeed.
As a defender of democracy, what is your vision for Balochistan?
I wish to see peace return to Balochistan. Everyone I talk to is now exhausted with this prolonged conflict. Hundreds of precious lives have been lost and thousands are still missing.
I wish to see Balochistan as an extremely secular region where every citizen enjoys equal rights regardless of their ethnicity, color and religion. My vision for Balochistan is totally different from Pakistan’s vision. While Pakistan continues to Islamize its society, I wish to see complete separation of religion from politics. I would like to see Balochistan as the master of its own destiny, a place where our children don’t see security check posts and armed soldiers every morning when they step outside their homes to go to school.