Somewhere among rocky hills and dusty towns, where the scent of juniper wafts through the springtime air or snow grips the land with a cold, wintry hand, a 13-year-old-boy once sat writing stories for children’s magazines. His town was near the Iranian border in Balochistan, Pakistan’s largest province. At 16 he was writing a weekly sports column for an Urdu language newspaper in a land where politics was all but taboo. By the time he was 20, he was reporting on politics in English, and today he is a respected journalist in exile, receiving political asylum in the United States last year. That journalist is Malik Siraj Akbar, who is currently a Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy, where he is focusing on threats faced by the defenders of democracy, such as political leaders, human rights activists, and journalists.
Balochistan may be blessed with beautiful snowcapped mountains and juniper trees, but it is also one of the most dangerous places in the world, especially for journalists. Reporters Without Borders has named Pakistan the most dangerous place for journalists, singling out the Khuzdar region of Balochistan in particular. The Committee to Protect Journalists has documented that 42 Pakistani journalists have been killed since 1992, friends of Malik’s among them. The literacy rate of Balochistan is a paltry 37 percent compared to the national rate of 53 percent, according to journalist and human rights activist Mazhar Leghari. Few newspapers are published in the region, and little industry exists for advertisements that could bring in revenue to sustain them. Most people get their news from radio. Internet penetration is barely 10 percent in Pakistan, and the government has blocked 4,000 websites, according to Malik.
The blocked websites include The Baloch Hal (The Baloch News), Balochistan’s first online English language newspaper, which is founded and edited by Malik. The site is maintained from three different countries and is geared towards a foreign policy audience. Malik also has a blog, All Things Considered.
Malik told CIMA that journalists in Pakistan are in need of training in professionalism, ethics, and basic reporting skills. Media development organizations should promote community radio, especially in local languages. He pointed out that Iran broadcasts two radio stations in the Balochi language, but no American station like Voice of America broadcasts a service in Balochi. He would like to see the U.S. government play a broader role in broadcasting news and liberal values to counter the propaganda coming from Iran.
Further resources on media in Pakistan:
Pakistan’s Media Environment and its Development (AudienceScapes)
Developing Open Media in Pakistan (Internews/USAID)
Follow Malik Siraj Akbar on Twitter.