Why I Fled Pakistan

By Malik Siraj Akbar

In May 2006, at the age of 23, I joined the Daily Times, Pakistan’s most liberal English-language newspaper, as a bureau chief. I was perhaps the youngest bureau chief to cover the country’s largest province, Baluchistan, and its longstanding, deadly insurgency. I covered fierce military operations, daily bomb blasts, rocket attacks, enforced disappearances, torture of political activists, and high-profile political assassinations.

In 2008, I got an exclusive interview with Bramdagh Bugti, Pakistan’s most wanted separatist leader. I also spoke to top civil and military officers. In November 2009, I founded the Baloch Hal, (Hal means “news” in English) the first online newspaper in Baluchistan, the country’s most impoverished region.

When the U.S. Department of State selected me for the Hubert Humphrey Fellowship Program in 2010, I was one of the youngest among 218 Fellows from 93 different countries. While in Washington, I remained professionally affiliated with the Center for Public Integrity, and interviewed some of the world’s best journalists and veteran diplomats for Dawn.com, one of Pakistan’s most prestigious English-language newspapers. All signs pointed to a successful journalistic career awaiting me back in Pakistan.

Yet, I put aside that career in the interest of personal safety by seeking political asylum in the United States. While I know the life of an asylum-seeker is often marked with extraordinary hardships, the demise of one’s professional career, and complete disconnection with friends and family, I believe no story is worth dying for. This is some of the pressure I was facing:

In the summer of 2007, military intelligence personnel took me from the Quetta Press Club against my will to its office in Quetta’s restricted military cantonment. I met with a major and a colonel, whose table was covered with fresh copies of the anti-government Daily Tawar and Daily Asaap newspapers. Most of the papers’ stories were marked with a green highlighter. The two men said they wanted to give me “friendly advice.” In what was to last for several hours, the meeting began with bizarre questions such as on the sources of funding of different Baloch newspaper editors, but ended with threats of death if I did not stop reporting on enforced disappearances.

The next week I met again inside the same white-painted, old compound, with the same officers. This time the atmosphere was more hostile. Worried by the continued threats and offers of “friendly advice,” I asked for an interview with the governor of Baluchistan, Awais Ahmed Ghani. I wanted to tell him about my situation and the growing threat I felt.

When we met, the governor encouraged me to do “positive journalism.” I had never heard the term before and asked if he could explain it to me. It took him less than fifteen seconds to make clear that positive journalism was journalism that supported government policies.

Without support from the government, I knew I was in trouble. I drastically changed my routine. I stopped going to the Quetta Press Club or having lunch at the nearby Abbasi Restaurant on Jinnah Road, because plainclothes intelligence police regularly monitored journalist’s movements from those centers of activity. But the pressure did not stop.

In 2009, my reporting of the presence of Taliban in Quetta — and the alleged support the Pakistani military agencies offered them in an effort to counter the secular Baloch nationalist movement — led to a number of threatening calls from phones with blocked numbers.

In January 2010, a Pakistani secret agent approached me at a hotel in Lahore, where I was staying a day before leaving for New Delhi to speak at the India-Pakistan Conference: A Roadmap to Peace. The agent, who said he had been told to ‘take care’ of me, spoke perfect Balochi, my native language. And he knew almost everything about me. He warned me of dire consequences if I attended the conference in Delhi. The agent wasn’t a totally bad guy. He offered me a night ride to show me around Lahore. I politely declined the offer. I lied to him about my return plans after the convention.

Nonetheless, when I returned to Lahore’s Allama Iqbal International Airport a week after the conference, where I had spoken about human rights violations in Baluchistan, I was met by the same agent, waiting for me at the immigration counter with a distasteful smile. In what appeared to be an attempt to take me away, he was joined by a couple of other men in plain clothes. I immediately grabbed the German organizer of the conference, who had travelled back with me to Lahore.

A politician and a writer friend reached out to help me too. Both of them are prominent in Pakistan. With my German friend, they told the agents they would go public with my abduction if I was taken away. Within one hour, my friends flew me from Lahore to Islamabad to spend the night at the politician’s house.

I returned to Quetta, but my professional life completely changed. I lived in low-profile; changed my daily routine; self-censored my reporting. The conference in India was followed by another session of scolding debriefings and threats with the other intelligence agents.

Those sessions were bad, but the untraceable phone calls were worse. When an anonymous caller tells you the color of your T-shirt or the jeans you are wearing and comments on your new haircut, the fear grips more deeply.

What happened to me was nothing unusual. Secret agents regularly shadow journalists in Baluchistan. They tape phone calls and regularly jot down diary entries while watching journalists’ activities, contacts and engagements. The hide-and-seek with agents and the unknown callers were chilling, but exciting as well. But it became more than an adventure as Baloch journalists were increasingly killed and dumped in remote areas.

I founded the Baloch Hal to promote online journalism and report on human rights issues, democracy, and media -what would have been seen as an innovative and entrepreneurial move in another country. But the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority blocked the site, apparently only because it contained the prefix “Baloch” in its Internet address. Around a hundred Baloch news sites, blogs and portals are currently blocked inside Pakistan.

Despite the restrictions, the Baloch Hal has continued to demand justice for all the slain journalists, particularly those killed in Baluchistan. The trend of target killing journalists who criticize the government policies is increasingly alarming. It does not seem likely to fade away in the near future because of absolute lack of accountability for the authorities who are blamed for these killings.

I have lost about a dozen journalist friends in one year in Baluchistan. It is time the international human rights and media freedom watchdogs stood by Baluchistan’s media corps and helped journalists and media organizations in Baluchistan get justice within Pakistan’s courts — which is why we continue to press the government to probe the killings. The tactic has not worked yet, and attacks on journalists continue.

I chose to seek asylum because some of us must live to tell the untold story from Baluchistan.