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Baluchistan Journalists threatened: Death or jail

By Kathy Gannon

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, Sept. 16 2012 2:45 p.m. MDT

In this Monday, Sept. 10, 2012 photo, Pakistani journalist Ashiq Butt, bureau chief with the News Network International (NNI), a Pakistani news agency that feeds its reports to newspapers, gestures in his office in Quetta, Pakistan. The telephone call to local journalists generally comes in the late evening. The voice on the other end is usually a Sunni militant with a statement he wants printed threatening of violence or claiming responsibility for attacks that already occurred. Journalists fear being killed if they don't print the messages.

Arshad Butt, Associated Press

QUETTA, Pakistan — The telephone call to local journalists generally comes in the late evening. The voice on the other end is harsh. He has a statement he wants printed, and he prefaces it with a terse order: "Report our messages without making any changes or we will kill you."

The messages they deliver warn of upcoming violence or assassinations, sometimes naming an intended victim, or claim responsibility for atrocities already committed. The calls come from Sunni militants notorious for violence against minority Shiites or members of secessionist groups that routinely blow up police stations and attack government facilities in the southwestern Pakistani province of Baluchistan.

But the late-night calls put the journalists in a bind. If they don't print the messages, they could be killed. If they do print them, they could face three years in prison under Pakistan's anti-terrorism laws. It's no surprise which risk they'd rather run. At least 20 journalists have been killed in Baluchistan the past six years, their bullet-ridden bodies sometimes found stuffed into sacks.

"If you are a journalist here in Baluchistan you have a choice: Either a bullet in the head or a jail sentence," said Ashiq Butt, a stocky bureau chief with the News Network International (NNI), a Pakistani news agency that feeds its reports to newspapers.

But authorities are putting pressure from their side as well, trying to stem spiraling violence in the province.

Last month, the Baluchistan provincial government for the first time charged 21 news organizations, their owners and several journalists under the anti-terrorist law, which provides for three years in jail if convicted of carrying messages, reports or information supplied by outlawed militant groups. The charge sheet filed by the government accused the news organizations of "spreading panic."

Pakistan is one of the most dangerous places in the world to work as a journalist, according to the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists, because of the numbers of journalists killed there. In the last six years 41 journalists have died violently in the country, although 12 of those deaths are still under investigation to determine whether they were linked to their profession, according to the CPJ site. Last year The World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers declared Pakistan the most dangerous place to be a journalist because of the death toll.

Many of the multiple militant groups and armed factions in Pakistan — such as Lashkar-e-Janghvi, behind many slayings of Shiites — operate with impunity, with police too weak to take much direct action against them. So they are only emboldened to threaten journalists into being their mouthpieces.

"If I want to live in this city I have to write what they say," Butt said.

The statements can often be cruel and explicit, detailing those who have been killed, he said. Sunni militants' messages are laced with vitriolic attacks against the minority Shiite Muslims they revile as heretics.

Just last week, he was called by a member of the violent Baluchistan Liberation Army, a self-declared secessionist group fighting for an independent state for ethnic Baluchis against what they see as domination from ethnic Punjabis. The group has already claimed responsibility for the deaths of three journalists. The caller had a message and added, use it verbatim or die.

Butt did exactly that, publishing the statement, "The Punjabis have captured our lands and we will kill the Frontier Corps and Police ... We will continue our struggle until Baluchistan is liberated from Pakistan."

Aryan Khan, another journalist in the Baluchistan capital Quetta, said Lashkar-e-Janghvi militants even dictate the language newspapers and broadcasters should use in their normal news reports whenever they report on the death of a Shiite, whether in an attack or from natural causes.

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