Here is the spoiler alert: The answer is extremely biased.
When I talk about the Pakistani media, I am not referring to the staunchly pro-military or overtly religious media organizations like Bol, ARY, or Ummat. I am talking about the respected mainstream outlets like Dawn and Jang that are widely read by most Pakistanis. They significantly influence policymaking and shape public opinion in the country. They pose as the most prominent crusaders of press freedom and are the first to agitate should the government twist their arms. In recent times, both Dawn and Jang have accused Imran Khan’s government of trying to muzzle their voices, but they continue to do bizarre things to win the government’s trust and validation.
While I had discussed this issue in a previous article, let’s revisit the question by looking at it slightly differently.
Instead of solely addressing the volume of the coverage Baluchistan or the Baluch nationalists get in the Pakistani media, let’s focus on the extent to which media outlets promote the military’s narrative on Baluchistan and kill news stories that should otherwise be published today for the awareness of our future generations. To what extent do these organizations intentionally keep the Pakistani public in oblivion about the situation in Baluchistan and also support the security forces, regardless of their problematic presence and actions in the province against fellow citizens?
The recent Karima Baluch episode makes a great case study of how the Pakistani media have covered the whole story and protected the establishment whenever necessary. While the establishment is probably not responsible for her death as no such evidence has surfaced yet, there is sufficient evidence to prove that its policies compelled Ms. Baloch and thousands of others to leave Baluchistan and apply for political asylum elsewhere.
In recent times, we have seen the rise of a new practice in the Pakistani media. News organizations do not cover an original story critical of the country’s powerful elite but readily publish a rebuttal that comes after the publication of the news elsewhere. One interesting example was the explosive Fact Focus investigations into the wealth Lieutenant General (retired) Asim Saleem Bajwa has amassed in the United States. While most of the Pakistani news media did not publish the news itself, they prominently carried Bajwa’s rebuttal.
When the BBC listed Ms. Baloch as one of the world’s 100 most inspirational and influential women of 2016, Dawn, for example, published a story, “Two Pakistani women made it to BBC’s 100 Women 2016 list”. The report did tell us that the other Pakistani was an e-commerce startup manager, and also attributed a quote to her. On the other hand, the same report did not utter a word about Ms. Baloch’s activism, why she was even featured by the BBC and the rallies she had led against police brutality, and the human rights abuses in Baluchistan.
Ms. Baloch’s mysterious death has sparked worldwide protests. Astonishingly, Dawn and other significant publications have not published even a single editorial or any article on their op-ed pages about the incident. This cannot be a coincidence because Dawn’s Baluchistan watchers did publish an editorial after at least seven Frontier Corps (FC) personnel were, as the newspaper wrote, “martyred” in Harnai area. The Pakistani media awkwardly uses “martyr” for the security forces but “killed” for the rest. From the Islamic point of view, the Quran does not explicitly say that you have to be a soldier to qualify as a ‘martyr.’ It is just the newspapers that go overboard in sycophancy by awarding these glorifying labels to the security personnel. They do so by trying to win the military’s support in the name of ‘patriotism.’
If Pakistan were a country with the rule of law and a system that could hold law enforcement personnel accountable for the excessive use of force, many of these personnel would probably be found guilty of crimes against humanity in Baluchistan due to their involvement in whisking away unarmed citizens, subjecting them to enforced disappearance and torture for months and years and, in worse situations, killing them in the government custody. If God read Dawn (and others), He wouldn’t be happy with this kind of reporting.
Calling the soldiers martyrs and others as ‘killed’ is a disservice to journalism. No matter how the security establishment characterizes people fighting the FC and other government forces and their motivations, it is important to note that those who are being killed by the security forces with absolute impunity and no accountability are also Pakistani citizens. Even if the government believes it is acceptable to kill them, their families still have the right to ask why their loved ones were not arrested and put on trial. We need to step back and realize that normalizing violence or treating this as the new normal is unacceptable.
Baluchistan’s bloodshed is the culmination of a broken system that must be repaired, and the ongoing cycle of killings must stop by enacting sound public policy. We should not leave the situation in the hands of the armed groups and the soldiers alone. The participation of lawyers, human rights activists, judges, journalists, peace activists, and civil society members must increase to promote peace, tolerance, and respect for the rule of law to counter violence and extra-constitutional methods and practices.
The glorification of security forces and their operations in Baluchistan amounts to encouraging further violence. Most soldiers are brainwashed and falsely guided that they are in the province to hunt for “Indian agents” or the “enemies of Pakistan,” which is why they are so wildly and blindly motivated to kill people in Baluchistan. They get applauded, promoted, and presented as ghazis or martyrs (for ironically killing fellow citizens in Baluchistan).
Soldiers do not fight without any incentives or emotional blackmail. Remember why so many Pakistani soldiers did not fight the Pakistani Taliban and instead surrendered before the enemy on several occasions? The apparent reason was that the Pakistani media always reminded them that the war on terror was “America’s war,” and it was morally wrong to fight their Muslim brothers. On the contrary, the Pakistani media has united to convince the soldiers that they are doing the right thing in Baluchistan by going after the so-called Indian agents. The media continues to feed his madness instead of remaining impartial and refusing to use emotive and partisan terms like “martyr” for one side and ‘killed’ for the other side.
Words have consequences.
When Pakistani officials (such as Dr. Moeed Yusuf —my friend from the Friday Times days) and journalists use terms like “Baluch terrorists”, they encourage the rest of the country to stereotype the Baluch as violent, anti-state, and Indian agents. This has been the single most known cause of provocation leading to conflict and bloody clashes between young Baluch students in Islamabad and elsewhere in Punjab and members of the right-wing Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba (IJT), the student wing of the Jammat-e-Islami.
Imagine, someone as powerful as the former US President Barrack Obama wouldn’t use the term “Islamic terrorist” despite pressure from his opponents to do so because of the fear of offending Muslims, Mr. Yusuf and other Pakistani officials believe it’s okay to use “Baluch terrorists” because his prime minister will not confront or discourage him from this careless selection of words.
Sometimes, these stereotypes often lead to even worse problems.
For instance, Shahdad Mumtaz, a Baluch student at Islamabad’s Quaid-e-Azam University, killed by the Pakistani security forces in May 2020, underwent great transformation/ radicalization after going to school in Islamabad. I asked one of his childhood friends what caused the change in that young man, he said Mumtaz, whom the Baloch Liberation Army claimed as one of its fighters when he was killed, transformed when he was studying in Islamabad.
“I met him in Karachi after the clashes in Islamabad,” the classmate recalled, “he seemed to have changed.” The friend said Mumtaz kept on insisting that there was no life for the Baluch in Pakistan. He had reportedly said, “It does not matter whether you are a farmer or an educated Baluch. The [Pakistani] state treats us all with a stick. I don’t know why and for how long they will continue this against us.”
What can be done about it?
I can think of two solutions here: One, Baluchistan needs an organization like the Middle East Media Research Institute that should document every instance when the Pakistani news media stereotype the Baluch, accuse them of being traitors, blame India for Baluchistan’s problems, or mislead the public through factually inaccurate official propaganda. Secondly, a blog or a social media account, similar to this blog that shames all-male panelists, should document (and shame) whenever the Pakistani news channels host a talk show on Baluchistan without representing the Baluch perspective. I have lately been thinking about the need for such platforms after seeing the clip from one of General Musharraf’s interviews in which he suggested assassinating political opponents overseas. Since the death of Ms. Baloch, that clip has been circulated tens of thousands of times on social media, reinforcing the need for documenting instances of hate or misleading information in the Pakistani media pertaining to Baluchistan.
Recent developments have also highlighted how Pakistani journalists defend human rights globally, particularly in the Indian-administered Kashmir, but refuse to see the same standards in Baluchistan. Since so much happens in Baluchistan, editors know that they can compensate for a killed story by covering another future story. Unfortunately, there is always the option to press the ‘reset’ button for the news organizations and how they get away with intentionally expunging these critical parts of Pakistan’s history. As a researcher, one can fully gauge the consequence of the killed or censored stores months after their occurrence when they begin searching for a particular story. An editor who kills a story actually conspires to delete a chapter of the history. There are several instances regarding Baluchistan that can be used to argue that the Pakistani media are not a victim of censorship alone but they are also a partner of the military establishment in erasing parts of the history that negatively portray the military, the intelligence agencies, and government officials.
The Baluch nationalists have repeatedly protested against the lack of coverage in the Pakistani media and have also boycotted it. Their primary reason for this protest has been the news organizations’ slanted reporting that favors the government and their unwillingness to cover the opposition’s perspective. The boycotts weren’t very helpful because they barred newspapers from being distributed in certain districts. They backfired as organizations fighting for newspaper sellers’ and journalists’ rights termed this as an assault on free speech and their fragile source of income. By the way, local journalists admit that the news stories they send to their headquarters do not get aired and published because of an implicit bias toward stories from Baluchistan, but they also reminded the opposition that local reporters have limited or no influence over their editors to tell them what to air/publish.
News organizations are important not because they can make heroes or villains out of anyone. They are vital because they write the first draft of history. Concerning Baluchistan, the situation is alarming because some of the mainstream news organizations are voluntarily assisting the deep state to delete events that are important for Baluchistan and Pakistan’s history. By dropping important stories instead of fighting for their right to publish, editors undermine the public’s trust in the news media. Journalists are supposed to ask questions that the public cannot easily ask.
Over time, it is becoming difficult to distinguish between the version of the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), the media wing of the army, and private news organizations’ reporting. Several reporters and editors are content with whatever press releases, quotes, and tickers the ISPR provides them instead of using critical thinking and skepticism to question the accuracy of a story. When journalists don’t ask follow-up questions and publish verbatim whatever press release they are given, they become complicit in promoting official propaganda that ultimately leads to misleading the public about Baluchistan. Unfortunately, it does not seem that many reporters, editors, and newsrooms are having this conversation yet as to what extent they should allow the military to dictate the narrative and their editorial agenda on Baluchistan. If they have not discussed this in their editorial meetings yet, it is the time to have this conversation.
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