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Jan 8, 2009


State of the Press freedom in Balochistan in 2008

By Malik Siraj Akbar
Balochistan Bureau Chief, Daily Times/ Daily Aaj Kal

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 29 th , 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 this writer 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," he informed.

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." 

2008 was not a media-friendly year in the conflict-ravaged Balochistan province by all standards. As the conflict between the State and the Baloch separatists continued unabated this year, journalists reporting in or from Balochistan had to pay a very high price for their job. While reporters like Javid Lehri had to undergo extrajudicial arrest and severe torture, the others had to face a more unfortunate fate.

For instance, Dr. Chishti Mujahid, 55, the  Quetta  bureau chief of the weekly, Akhbar-e-Jahan, was murdered on  February 9, 2008  by the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA). His murder came in the wake of a controversial headline the weekly had printed along with the slain journalist's write-up on the killing of Baloch fighter, Nawabzada Balaach Marri. The headline ridiculed Marri and irked his supporters until they avenged the 'partial journalist' by killing him on broad-day light in the provincial capital.

Mujahid's younger brother, Tariq Chishti, told this scribe that his family was "very disappointed" with the organization that his brother was working for because the owner and the editor of the magazine even did not make a phone call to condole with the family over the murder of Mujahid.

The government also did not hesitate from applying old tactics of muzzling the freedom of expression by banning some books. On  20 March, 2008 , the government banned two books written by popular Baloch scholar Dr. Naseer Dashti " The Voice of Balochistan ' and " In a Baloch Perspective " saying that both the books posed a threat to the integrity of the country. The banned author reacted to the official ban by saying: "If a book is to disintegrate a country then there is nothing that can integrate a country."

As many as four journalists were injured in Turbat district on August 25 when the Frontier Corps (FC) personnel opened fire on a political rally which was marking the second death anniversary of Nawab Mohammad Akbar Khan Bugti. On October 21, two other journalists from Daily Awam were injured when their office in  Quetta 's Universal Complex was attacked in a severe explosion. On November 16 th , an underground organization, the Baloch Liberation Front (BLF) issued threatening letters to the newspapers and journalists to prepare to face 'deadly consequences' in case they did not give 'deserving coverage' to their activities.

Yet, the only positive thing for Baloch journalists seen during this year, says Shahzada Zulfiqar, the president of Quetta Press Club, is the decline in the intelligence agencies' unnecessary influence on the journalists. "Since the ouster of former president Pervez Musharraf, the kind of harassment newsmen had to face by the agencies has now largely diminished," says Zulfiqar.