When the prominent Baluch political activist Karima Baloch died mysteriously in Canada in December 2020, the news of her death at a young age sent shockwaves across Baluchistan. Thousands of supporters and admirers in her native Baluchistan province replaced their Facebook display pictures (DPs) with hers. In a male-dominated society like Baluchistan’s, men do not readily accept women as their leaders and heroes and to the extent of matching their profile pictures with that of a woman. This was unprecedented in the short history of Baluchistan’s engagement with social media.
Interestingly, not everyone among these users fully agreed with Ms. Baloch’s political views, approach, and strategies. Some of them even work for the Pakistani government as school teachers, doctors, bureaucrats, etc. Doing this could easily lead to their termination from their jobs or being summoned by the government intelligence agencies for investigations. This moment also ‘outed’ many silent Facebook and WhatsApp users in Baluchistan who do not generally post political stuff online because of the fear of known and unknown consequences.
Within hours, the news of Ms. Baloch’s death made headlines in the international media: The Guardian, Al-Jazeera, the BBC, the Voice of America, the Independent, Reuters, etc captured the story and prominently disseminated it across the globe. Meanwhile, I told myself, “wait a minute. Let’s see how the Pakistani media are covering the story.” I knew the answer but still kept looking at all of Pakistan’s major news sites: Dawn, The News International, Jang, the Express Tribune, and Geo. Unsurprisingly, none of these major news sources reported this critical story about a Pakistani national speculated to be killed or dead under mysterious circumstances in Canada.
While I did not find a story about Ms. Baloch on the Express Tribune, I was awkwardly greeted with another post on the newspaper’s Twitter page, “Who is Mia Khalifa?…Who is she engaged to?”. Not that there is anything wrong with posting not one but four pictures of a porn star on the newspaper’s social media page but it clearly indicated the Tribune’s priorities and the editor’s news judgment of what makes a vital news story. Jang, Pakistan’s most widely-read newsgroup, did not publish a story about Ms. Baloch on its home page. But it certainly had a report on whether Sara Ali Khan, the Indian actress, loves her mom over dad Saif Ali Khan.
The cry and the debate over the so-called Pakistani mainstream media not sufficiently and fairly covering Baluchistan have been going on for years. The Pakistan-based journalists have complained about it, and foreign reporters have also repeatedly grumbled about the lack of access to ground reporting in Baluchistan. Different people (reporters, editors, and media owners) have provided a different interpretation for this situation, depending on who you ask. You wouldn’t probably pose this question to Prime Minister Imran Khan, who insists that the media in Pakistan is freer than the media in the west. That mindset does not help in addressing this serious matter. You can Google a bunch of old articles debating the lack of media coverage of Baluchistan but what I am interested in discussing here are some of the trends that merit attention on the media landscape observed in recent times in general and after Ms. Baloch’s killing in particular. I’d like to focus on how the media landscape has changed and how it has altered the conversation dynamics on news stories, their treatment, and distribution.
Two Baluch newspapers, the Balochistan Post and the Baluchistan Times deserve credit for breaking the news about Ms. Baluch’s death. Until a few years ago, no one would imagine rushing to a Baluch news site for a breaking story. People would go to the usual suspects, the Dawns, the Jangs and the Mashriqs or the Geos and the ARYs to get their news. But the reporting of Ms. Baloch’s death by these relatively new sites reminded us about the fact how technology has liberated and democratized the field of news gathering and publishing. Neither the traditional newspapers, stations, or reliable journalists have a monopoly over the truth anymore. Today the truth belongs to anyone with a story, a phone, some courage, and, most importantly, credibility to be able to prove and defend one’s report as accurate.
We don’t know for sure (of course, we do) why many Pakistani newspapers did not run the story about Ms. Baluch or waited too long to publish their first nominal piece to compensate for not being accused of killing the story. I have a few theories: First, most Pakistani news organizations treat almost every news story on Baluchistan as ‘sensitive”. When a story lands on an editor’s desk, the first question they ask is who the stakeholders or players involved in the story are. Who the apparent winners and losers (or the good and the bad guys) are. Is this a story about some “terrorists” or some soldiers who were “martyred”? When it is hard to make a decision, editors just pretend as if nothing has happened.
Interestingly, in Ms. Baluch’s story, Dawn and others had an interesting approach. They did not publish the story on their home page when some activists speculated that the Pakistani spymasters were involved in what they viewed as the “killing” of the Baluch leader. After all, this was the second time within a year that a Baluch who sought asylum overseas has died in mysterious circumstances. As the dust settled down and the Canadian Police said they were treating her case as ‘non-criminal’, these newspapers began to publish the story more visibly emphasizing two things: She was not murdered and that the Pakistani government was not involved in her death as alleged by the Baluch nationalists.
The question is to what extent is this self-censorship helpful? What is the goal here? If the goal is to keep the public uninformed, social media has taken that power away from the traditional news media and they have to reconcile with that sad reality. They no longer have control over what the public gets to know or is kept in dark about. The other question is what factors should a newspaper consider when trying to draw the attention of their readers? Two things: Public interest/ proximity and timeliness. Dawn and others obviously do not lose much if readers in Baluchistan stop reading their stuff but, at the same time, editors in these newspapers should at least know one thing: readers in Baluchistan or elsewhere primarily look for news stories related to their areas. When they don’t find stories matching their interests on one website, they go to the next one. This search continues until the reader gets whatever is available online. Unfortunately, that’s when Tweets and other social media posts begin to substitute for actual news articles. When a reader sees that an established news organization is not providing them with the report of an accident that obviously happened and was widely shared on social media, they switch to alternative sources. That’s when we cannot blame the reader (or the viewer) but the news organization itself for abdicating from its primary responsibility and the commitment to providing their audiences the truth that matters to the public.
Ms. Baluch’s case is one example but this is a consistent pattern. Siding with the deep state might provide a news organization some temporary relief but allowing this to happen consistently undermines a news organization’s credibility as the home to truth and facts. As argued above, in this age of social media, we journalists have to be humble about what we know and how much we can influence the public to give them the ‘truth’ as the rules of engagement have entirely changed. This is no longer one-way traffic. Our readers/followers are now equal partners in setting the agenda.
Indian Media Covering Baluchistan
What happens if you are an academic or a researcher who is interested in Baluchistan but cannot find important stories on the province in the Pakistani media? What if you don’t fully trust social media and cannot use them as a source in your research paper? You are not alone. Over the years, the Indian media has done an excellent job in filling that vacuum. Articles, interviews, and analyses on Baluchistan (and other Pakistan-related topics) by Pakistani writers that cannot be published in Pakistan because they are “too sensitive” conveniently land in the Indian media. Dissenting journalists and academics who are not invited on any of Pakistan’s dozens of news channels, get disproportionate airtime in some of the prime time Indian shows.
I am not so naive to believe that the Indians cover Baluchistan because of their love for the Baluch. Obviously, the dislike for Pakistan or using Baluchistan as a pretext to divert attention from Pakistan’s stance on Kashmir might be one reason why the Indians so regularly and generously cover Baluchistan. It does not matter what the India-Pakistan dispute is all about. The literature on Baluchistan has been the winner in this fight between the two countries. Over the years, serious and credible Indian news organizations have begun to increase their coverage of Baluchistan. You may like or dislike Modi but you can’t contest the seriousness and professionalism of publications like the Indian Express or the Hindu. Over time, the Indians have covered Baluchistan so regularly that now a good amount of results of an online search on Baluchistan brings up stuff from Indian newspapers, academics, think-tanks, and former officials. I can’t say how frequently I visit the New Delhi-based South Asian Terrorism Portal to fact-check my work on violence in Baluchistan.
Pakistanis would strongly disagree with this conclusion. But here is what matters: If you are a student in an American, British or Australian university and you wish to work on Baluchistan, your professor/ advisor is not going to stop you from reading or citing an article or a book only because it was written by an Indian or a Pakistani or a Muslim or a Hindu. What the academic advisor will look at is the quality of the research and the substance in that work. Unfortunately, Pakistan has drastically suppressed freedom of the press in Baluchistan, discouraged and thwarted independent research by Pakistani scholars. Consequently, if you look at the list of some of the notable books and research papers on Baluchistan during the past decade, most of them came from Indian scholars and researchers. How many Pakistani writers have published a book on Baluchistan during the same period? Hardly any that one can count.
Why is this happening?
There is a simple reason for this intellectual decay. This happens when you mix everything with security and patriotism instead of allowing journalists, scholars, and researchers to independently do their job. We don’t often see journalists telling generals how to fire a bullet but the military establishment in Pakistan repeatedly tells reporters what “positive stories” they should write, who they should interview and who to vilify. This fight and control over the media are causing unprecedented damage to the institution of a free press and weakening research. With its imprudent policies, Islamabad is not only losing the fight over the hearts and minds of the Baluch but it is also losing the war on the media and academic research of Baluchistan.
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