Reprinted from Islamabad Dateline,June 10, 2011
Pakistan’s troubled province of Balochistan is never out of news but little news is available about the state of media there. The media in the province in general and provincial capital Quetta in particular has visibly expanded since 2000 in a trend that largely reflects the shifting media landscape in the rest of Pakistan. With the doors thrown open to private ownership of the airwaves, independent TV channels and FM radio stations have come to be a part of daily life for many. And with competition has come the rush for news, to be the first to break news.
Even though one still has to see a critical mass private, independent TV channels and radio stations, locally owned and voicing local concerns in languages of Balochistan – something needed and often stridently demanded – media has crept into the consciousness of the people, if not through independent news and analysis then through the sheer volume of its presence. In a province long engaged in a monologue with itself - cut off as it is from the rest of the country through huge distances, lack of infrastructure and the Pakistani state’s Orwellian control over news and information from Balochistan - the proliferation of media in recent years has fueled a hunger for information, a desire to have a say and be heard.
As the rest of Balochistan waits to plug into the vibrant media scene, Quetta is generating and consuming information quite regularly. It has become the provincial hub of media activity. National publications and networks like The News, Jang, Geo, ARY One World, Samaa, Express, Dawn, DawnNews TV, Daily Times, The Nation and Nawa-i- Waqt maintain offices in the city. Ranks of veteran print journalists eager to make the switch from print to electronic media are joined by fervent young turks raring to leave an imprint on the growing size of audience in the province. There are even two Baloch language independent local TV channels boasting current affairs and entertainment in local languages.
The preponderance of TV news networks and availability of cable service in Quetta has revolutionized the way people access information since 2002 when the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) issued its first licenses for private TV and radio in the country. There is an addiction to real-time, daily news which is especially acute in the politically charged province that has seen much violence and conflict lately. The recent shooting in public view by the police and paramilitary of 5 foreigners in Kharotabad, including three women, is a case in point whereby the sensational local news has become national news.
Perhaps more vibrant in terms of representation of local needs and aspirations is the local print media with more than 150 newspapers and magazines published daily, weekly or monthly even though a large number of them are “dummy” publications, drawn to the lucre of the provincial government’s huge advertisement quotas. Years of troubles and a resurgent and assertive media has made the politically conscious polity of urban Balochistan information-savvy. From a city on the fringes of national politics and consciousness before the state’s monopoly on airwaves was abolished, media presence in Quetta has made the city and the province a regular fixture in the national news scene. No more is Balochistan the backyard of Pakistan ignored in matters of policy and governance. Voices that would have sent the state and the media it owns on a scissor-snipping spree some years ago now regularly feature on the private media based in Quetta, more so due to volatile struggle for rights and military operations to suppress the nationalist movement.
The Quetta Press Club, once an exclusive domain of print journalists, now attracts TV journalists who have joined the news networks that have come up in recent years. From a derelict building surrounded by government offices and courts, it was shifted to an impressive new one inaugurated in July 2007, built with generous support of the authorities.
However, where media’s glare is focused on Quetta, the hub of political activity and home to provincial decision makers, the rest of Balochistan is where it blinks. Outside the city limits - where poverty, anger and discontent with the Islamabad’s neglect of the province and widespread deprivation is as stark as the harsh landscape of the province – there is a virtual absence of organized media activity and news coverage. Due to lack of interest and resources, huge distances, absence of organizational support to journalists and the forbidding labour and cost-intensive exercise that is news gathering, stories from the rest of Balochistan often fail to make it to the news bulletin.
Notwithstanding major developments – such as the assassination of charismatic former provincial governor and chief minister Akbar Bugti and other nationalist leaders, military operations and the killing of women in the name of honor etc. – to which publications and TV networks can only stay indifferent at the risk of losing audience loyalty, the human face of Balochistan remains eclipsed by political activities at Quetta, breaking news and tickers reporting strikes, bombings and target killings. Whether Quetta or the rest of Balochistan, news analysis and local voices – especially those opposed to discriminatory state policies – are in general absent from the national media discourse.
Part 2 -- Not full freedom of expression in Balochistan
Reprinted from Islamabad Dateline,June 17, 2011
In Balochistan, national and international television news networks are available to viewers in Quetta and major districts through cable TV distributors. The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) list of cable TV distributors in the province in early 2011 show around 70 companies providing access to TV channels in the Baloch populated areas of Lasbela, Mastung, Khuzdar, Kalat, Kech, Gwadar, Dera Bugti, Jhal Magsi, Jafarabad, Bolan, Naseerabad, Kharan and Sibi. There are none in the Pashtun districts of Pishin, Qila Abdullah, Loralai and Zhob.
While newspapers and periodicals remain a popular medium of information in Balochistan, low literacy and weak buying power is a big hurdle in the way of people accessing and consuming information. Most newspapers play it safe while covering public opinion, mostly acting as a publicity tool for the government wherefrom it draws advertisements. The publication and circulation figures in the interior districts of Balochistan are vague and unimpressive because of illiteracy and low buying power of readers whose numbers are few. Even when there is demand for local papers at the local level, they still don’t reach there in time due to huge distances. Whatever local media there is in the remote districts, is limited in its outreach and representation for want of resources and professionalism.
Indigenous media growth and consumption in the rest of Balochistan, despite a large number of independent publications that come and go depending on their financial health, has been tardy even though there is enormous hunger for information in the highly politicized and turbulent society of the province. Where Quetta is plugged into the mainstream national media, the rest of Balochistan virtually stays under a media blackout. There is perhaps more information coming out of the troubled tribal areas in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province where journalists continue to brave hazardous conditions than Balochistan.
The newspapers, by and large, follow the same mould – covering statements, carrying reports from the news agencies, news conferences and legislative proceedings of the provincial assembly – with nothing in their content, makeup and layout to tell them apart. Analyses and investigative features are fewer still. Perhaps the only saving grace is newspapers and magazines in regional languages – Balochi, Brahvi and Pashto – and journalists that stand up for the cause of the people in the face of brutal state suppression. In Quetta though, readership of national papers (not published in the province but flown in from other provinces, principally Sindh) remain dominant.
This is where radio as an effective and egalitarian medium of information comes into play. Radio in Balochistan province, which constitutes 55% of Pakistan’s landmass but barely 5% of the country’s population, reaches people scattered over great distances, transcending the limits imposed by illiteracy and income indicators. However, Radio Pakistan Quetta - the largest of state-run Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation (PBC) operations - is the only local radio available to listeners far and away from Quetta. Its broadcast footprint covers Balochistan and large swathes of Iran, Afghanistan and the Middle East – with three channels simultaneously relaying programs in local languages that, according to one of its own officials, has “a national mindset, not local” and remains the state’s mouthpiece, translating national news in local languages instead of doing local news, and limiting itself to promoting local languages and culture. In comparison, international radio networks like the BBC, VOA and Radio Kabul are much popular for their hard news and analyses.
Media, more noticeably in the rest of Balochistan but also Quetta, subsists in an environment far from ideal because of scarcity of trained workforce and resources and a near complete stranglehold of the government on information flows and the organizations processing it. While news from the province feature more or less regularly on the networks and newspapers, real discourse and analyses on the troubles of the province is visible by its absence from the national media scene.
In terms of issues hampering media freedoms, Balochistan is perhaps next to the restive tribal areas straddling the region between Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Afghanistan in the northwest where conflict, military operations and a conservative tribal milieu discourage free speech and access to information. Quetta, where most information is generated, remains a garrison city with a mistrustful security mindset shaped by decades of conflict and separatist politics stemming from resentment against the centre’s neglect of Balochistan province, which shares borders with southeast Afghanistan and eastern Iran. Journalists work in an environment marked by fear, rampant obstruction and intimidation. In many cases, information is vetted by security agencies and the state employs coercive tactics like restriction on advertisements and print material to browbeat media into submission. And if that doesn’t work, there are disappearances, killings and shutting down newspaper offices, a trend that has registered an alarming spike in years in the backdrop of insurgency in the province.
Adnan Rehmat is a media analyst based in Islamabad. He can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org