QUETTA: More than a dozen towns, cities and districts in Pakistan’s restive province of Balochistan have been without newspapers for the past month. Journalists are too scared to produce them, and vendors are too afraid to sell them. The doors of the local press clubs are locked.
In October, the Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF), a banned separatist group, issued an angry ultimatum to local journalists, whom they blamed for collaborating with the media wing of the Pakistan Army.
The BLF accused the journalists of failing to print its claims of responsibility for attacks.
“If you do not stop publishing one-sided propaganda we will take strict action,” the group warned in a statement.
Balochistan, in the west of Pakistan, has been the scene of a long-running nationalist insurgency. Foreign journalists need to seek special permission to visit the majority of the province, while the Pakistani media is often wary of reporting on what is considered to be one of the most sensitive issues in the country.
According to the International Federation of Journalists, 29 media workers were killed in the province between 2007 and 2015.
The Pakistani military has been accused of torturing and “disappearing” dissidents. Insurgent groups have also killed members of non-Baloch ethnic groups.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, local reporters told the BBC that earlier this year they had been warned by civil and military authorities in the province they would not “tolerate the version of militants in newspapers.” They were ordered not to publish anything attributed to the insurgents.
One reporter told the BBC he had attempted to argue that it was a journalistic right to at least publish the claims of responsibility for attacks. “How can we stop the news?” he asked.
But under pressure, media outlets agreed to what one editor described as a “blackout” of the insurgents. He described the government as treating journalists like “facilitators” of terrorism.
The BLF set a deadline of October 24 for newspapers to begin publishing their claims. Caught between the authorities and the militants – the “stick and the gun”, as one journalist described it – print media in the province ground to a halt.
In the days immediately after the deadline, newspaper distributors in the majority of the province refused to collect newspapers. Grenades were thrown at a press club in the town of Hub and at a news agency in the city of Turbat, injuring a number of people.
Since then newspaper deliveries have resumed in the provincial capital, Quetta, and in areas mainly populated by Pashtun rather than Baloch communities. Newspaper offices in Quetta are protected by soldiers stationed outside.
But the BBC spoke to members of 18 different press clubs in areas dominated by the Baloch ethnic group who said they all remained closed, with no newspapers being delivered at all – suggesting distributors aren’t working in about half the province.
One senior journalist told the BBC that circulation of his newspaper was down by about 80 per cent, and that initially “bundles of newspapers were left at the roadside” with distributors too afraid to collect them so they had simply cut the numbers of copies they publish.
“It’s a frustration, people should be informed,” he said. “In the interior of the province there is no electricity, no internet. People read newspapers.”
Another, also on condition of anonymity, said the authorities were encouraging editors “to be brave” and to keep publishing, offering them as much protection as they wanted. A number of journalists told the BBC that officials were concerned the issue was creating the impression of a poor security situation.
Balochistan lies along the route of the multi-billion dollar China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which was designed to link the province’s Gwadar port with western China, turning it into a major regional trading hub.
Pakistani politicians and the army have repeatedly praised the CPEC, calling it a “game changer” for development in the country. But Baloch insurgent groups have vowed to disrupt the work and an unstable security situation could scare off foreign investors.
Reporters in Balochistan repeatedly complained that because of the sensitivities in the province, “investigative journalism” was impossible, citing fears of reprisals from militant groups and from the intelligence agencies.
“The press know well” about allegations of abuses by both sides “but we can’t publish… I’ll not be alive if I do,” said one editor.
The independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan recently expressed concern about freedom of press in the region, noting that the provincial government had stopped publishing advertisements in three newspapers perceived to be sympathetic to Baloch nationalist politics, depriving the papers of much-needed income.
An editorial in one newspaper stated: “From day one the government has been opposed to the media, and in particular local newspapers… The reason is newspapers believe in the right of freedom of speech.”
Pakistan is routinely ranked as one of the most dangerous countries for journalists, and local reporters described Balochistan as being the most dangerous place to be a reporter in Pakistan.
One journalist compared working in the province to “crossing the Bridge of Siraat”. In Islamic belief, the Bridge of Siraat must be crossed before reaching heaven. It is as thin as a strand of hair, and passes over the pits of hell.