Guest: The danger and limits to freedom of the press in Pakistan
Guest columnist Mohammad Zafar Baloch reflects on the dangers and limits to practicing journalism in Pakistan.
Special to The Times
AFTER spending hours at American newspaper offices and organizations such as the International Center for Journalists in Washington, D.C., I see that journalists here take many freedoms and facilities for granted. We do the same work around the world: We talk to people who have a story and tell that story. But our worlds are different.
Here it’s a world equipped with all facilities, from journalism schools to computer-filled newspaper offices. Pakistan has only a few schools that train journalists, and most of them lack modern tools.
Standards are different: In Pakistan, news channels often spin conspiracy theories to the masses, hampering our fledgling democracy.
The more evident difference is in working conditions. Journalists here write about anything; they write at will. In Pakistan they cannot. A journalist in Pakistan knows his limitations and those who go beyond face the consequences.
In recent years, Pakistan has become one of the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists. A lack of tolerance for criticism exposes us to violence. And lack of opportunities and good training schools further create problems. Ill-trained journalists are not familiar with the risks involved in conflict reporting.
I do my reporting in Balochistan, in the southwest of the country far from the national capital, Islamabad. Work in my province often comes with risks to life.
There is a decadelong separatist insurgency and military operations occur. There is Islamic terrorism and extremism. All these have made the region a dangerous place.
In the past four years, more than 30 journalists have been killed in Balochistan. Some were abducted, their bodies dumped in desolate places. Some were killed by gunshot or suicide bombing. Most of their killers are still at large because of the culture of impunity that prevails in Pakistan.
In my world, I must be much more careful about what I write than my counterparts in America. Will my writing be taken as an attack on a powerful person? Will it be seen as taking sides in certain conflicts? I must think about these things.
Violence and personal threats have led many of my colleagues to quit their professions. Some have made the difficult choice to live in exile, abandoning their families for fear of death. A few have requested political asylum in the United States. Others set sail from Indonesia in overloaded small boats, risking their lives to seek refuge in Australia.
Those who remain have a difficult life. International news organizations often don’t know that most of the reporters who get killed were not even properly paid.
For some, journalism was a passion and they did it part-time. Yet, media organizations expected them to put their lives at risk. Some of my friends who were killed might still be alive if they had proper training and support from the organizations that employed them.
I want my country to ensure the safety of journalists so we can help create a better and more enlightened society. I would like to say that things are getting better, but I fear they are not.
Eight members of my profession have been killed in Pakistan so far this year.
Mohammad Zafar Baloch is a reporter for Express Tribune, an international newspaper in Quetta, Pakistan. He is spending three weeks in The Seattle Times newsroom as part of an International Center for Journalists exchange program.