Journalists all around the world constitute a professional bracket that is almost consistently at odds with those in power. The nature of their job takes them to some of the most volatile places on earth where they are engaged in investigating facts and deep-seated social issues. Although journalists face threats to their lives almost everywhere in the world, some countries eclipse others in being especially hostile for them.

Pakistan, unfortunately, falls into this category. According to Reporters Without Borders, Pakistan has fallen from being 138th to the demoralizing rank of 145thout of 180 most dangerous countries for journalists in 2020. The Committee to Protect Journalists has consistently ranked it as one of the deadliest countries for journalists.

Among the high profile incidents involving attacks on journalists is an assassination attempt on leading TV anchor and journalist Hamid Mir in 2014. More recently, the abduction, torture, and subsequent release of Mati Ullah Jan in July 2020 is also on the list. This, however, reflects only a tiny fraction of violence against journalists that somehow makes it into national headlines and stirs up public concern.

Nevertheless, scores of cases go unreported regularly and demonstrate the fact that reporting from Pakistan is an extremely dangerous assignment. It is doubly so for Balochistan. The province has been in the throes of militant insurgency for decades and armed groups pose an existential threat to reporters in far-flung areas. Anwar Jan Khetran, a journalist from the Barkhan District of Balochistan was killed on July 23 this year. A veteran Pakistani journalist Chishti Mujahid was gunned down by the insurgent group Balochistan Liberation Army in February 2008 for his reporting in Balochistan. That same year in April, another noted journalist Khadim Hussain Shaikh was killed in Hub.

Journalists have been at the receiving end of violence in Balochistan and have paid for their reporting with their lives. Most of these tragic deaths have been claimed by insurgent groups in Balochistan while others have occurred under mysterious circumstances. Journalists have to maintain a precarious balancing act with militant and insurgent groups, and other powerful stakeholders in the region vying for favourable narratives.

It is understood that in the face of conflict, meticulous investigative reporting and the freedom to inform are indispensable resources for dialogue and resolution of disputes. If this medium goes under, it heralds anarchy for all. Reporters in Balochistan have to tackle the dual-threat of disgruntled armed militia and avoiding inviting the wrath of other non-state actors if they fail to report their desired angles. In the end, journalists suffer and democratic dialogue never materializes.

Violence against journalists is tied to the larger social and economic instability in Balochistan. Therefore, journalists and their rights in the province can only be safeguarded if some of these deep-rooted issues are solved through concerted efforts of central and provincial governments. Another way we can trigger change is through education. Raising a highly competent and well-informed human resource could develop the social consciousness needed to nip violence against journalists in the bud.

On the other hand, if this inhospitable environment for journalists persists, it would deprive the masses of unbiased independent reporting. An ill-informed public would be easy prey for twisted narratives from terrorist organizations. Countries like India, with a long history of sowing distrust and sponsoring acts of violence in Balochistan, will take advantage of that.

Threats against journalists should be taken very seriously and stringent measures should be taken to ensure that journalists in the country can do their jobs without any external control mechanisms. In the long run, it would be extremely detrimental if journalists continue to self-censor for fear of violence. Enlightening public discourse is only possible when journalists can present events from all angles and do not have to fear for their lives when their reports do not conform to the directives from power brokers.

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Leena Shah Mir is a freelance analyst from Gwadar, Balochistan.

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