Today marks the first anniversary of the death of senior journalist Siddiq Baluch. An undisputed authority on Balochistan, his voice is deeply missed in the ongoing debate about the province’s political and economic problems. It was my great honor and privilege to work under Baluch’s leadership. His wide-ranging command of the issues was the envy of his fellow journalists, myself included. A colleague of mine, Malik Siraj, once joked that if the the conflict in Balochistan ever came to an end we journalists would fast run out of stories to cover. But such was Siddiq Baluch’s mastery of all things related to the province that he would never run out of material.
Baluch made a point of visiting every single town in Balochistan, including those towns located inside the Iranian border. Whenever there were reports of an incident, even in the remotest town, Baluch was always able to share an anecdote from his own experience of being there. “It is important for a journalist to travel the entire region and get firsthand information by interacting local people and leaders,” he would say, with that characteristic broad smile on his face.
Baluch published two newspapers, the English-language Daily Balochistan Express and the Urdu-language Daily Azadi. His daily work routine made a deep impression on me. He would rise early, read the day’s papers, and then head out to hunt for news stories until 2pm. After a couple of hours’ nap he would start work again at 6 pm and continue until midnight. The next day he would get up and do it all over again. This was his regular schedule. He devoured news at every opportunity, reading and listening to news upon waking and before going to bed. “It is an insult for a journalist to be uninformed about what is published in the day’s newspapers,” he said.
In his last days he was working on his memoir. In it he shared anecdotes from conversations with a wide array of friends. Among these were his close friend and former Governor of Balochistan the late Mir Ghus Buksh Biznejo, who first encouraged him to practice journalism, former Chief Minister and Governor of Balochistan Shaheed Nawab Akber Bugti, late Nawab Khair Baksh Marri and former Chief Minister Sardar Athaullah Mengal. Baluch was such a larger-than-life personality that almost all senior and junior politicians and bureaucrats knew him and would seek him out, curious to know his opinion on all matters of regional and national politics. And yet despite his close connection to Balochistan’s political elite, Baluch always struggled financially to run his newspapers. Journalism was his life’s work and he was devoted to it, but he certainly didn’t make a fortune from it. “Journalism will never make you rich,” he would say, “but you will earn enough money to feed your family.”
The existence of dummy newspapers in Balochistan is an issue that merits a separate article of its own. Suffice it to say here that while more than 300 newspapers and magazines are published in the province, fewer than 15 of those are published daily, reach a wide audience, and maintain fully staffed offices in Quetta. Baluch’s newspapers were among those few. Not only did Baluch maintain a modern newspaper office, he also regularly edited his English-language paper himself and wrote special reports for his Urdu publication.
Baluch was also a mentor and friend to the younger generation. Students from remote areas of Balochistan, particularly students of journalism, flocked to him, often using his office as a place to stay, since they could not afford accommodations in Quetta. Baluch’s late wife Mariam, a warm-hearted and generous soul, happily cooked for dozens of people every day and was fondly known by many office staffers as “mother-e-Milath”, mother of the nation. In our male-dominated society, where the services of women are barely recognized, her name, like those of millions of hard-working women before her, will likely be forgotten. But I strongly believe that Mariam played a crucial role in her husband’s success, both as a journalist and as a highly respected member of society.
Despite having a Masters degree in economics, and business acumen garnered over many years, Baluch often struggled to pay the bills to get his papers to press, a situation that would at times interfere with the smooth running of his newspaper operations. This fact, however, did nothing to diminish people’s admiration for the man. He was well known and widely admired, and his opinion counted. As fellow journalists would observe, “Siddiq Baluch the man was widely known and appreciated for far more than just his newspapers.”
There were times when the outspoken Baluch ran afoul of government officials and the security establishment. When this happened government advertising revenue, on which the financial survival of his newspapers depended, would be withheld. This state of affairs presents an ongoing problem for newspaper editors and publishers working in the province. It is hard to imagine there ever being a free and independent press in Balochistan when newspapers have to rely on revenue from advertisements regulated and controlled by the government. As his close companion and colleague during the last decade of his life, it was painful for me to see this playing out. A 17th grade government official, someone barely capable of writing a letter in decent Urdu, might at any time threaten Baluch with an advertising ban. What was a man barely literate in Urdu doing in a key government position in the first place? But Baluch was a tolerant man. He always responded with a calm and measured demeanor, declaring, “A newspaper cannot be filled entirely with pro-government content.” Despite the inevitable backlash he faced, he continued to be critical of bad government policy.
In his final years, the ailing Baluch could not afford treatment for his pancreatic cancer and had to resort to loans and government assistance, incurring debts that his family is still paying off. And yet he pressed on even in the face of declining health. He was acutely aware that news stories from Balochistan rarely make headlines in the mainstream media and this served as a primary motivator for him, spurring him on even in his last days. “We have to make every effort to survive and tell our stories,” he said. “Balochistan is a difficult place for journalists, but we have to persevere and do what we can.”
Baluch was a self-made man. He was not born into a wealthy family. There were no rich uncles financing him, nor did he hold a lucrative government position, though he received offers from different political parties over the years. The one exception to this was in 1973, when he served, for a few months, as Secretary to the former Governor of Balochistan, the late Mir Ghuas Baksh Bezinjo. For this he paid dearly however, spending four years in prison after the government was toppled by the PPP in 1973.
Siddiq Baluch was a truly great journalist, but more than that he was a great human being. He was a man of integrity, and a decent, honest, upright citizen who had the utmost respect for the law. “I don’t care what others are doing,” he would say. “Around here everyone must follow the law. I am a journalist. I preach about the supremacy of the law. If I don’t respect the law myself and demand the same from those who work for me, what right do I have to criticize others when they do wrong?” That was the essence of Siddiq Baluch. He led by example and that made him the best kind of teacher for any journalist who had the privilege of working with him. Given his strength of character, his gifts as a journalist and publisher, and his comprehensive grasp of the history, politics and infrastructure of Balochistan, it is hard to imagine the vacuum left by his passing ever being filled.