“There is no developing Pakistan without developing Balochistan,” an exasperated Siddiq Baluch insisted back in the mid-2000s after reading a white paper on Balochistan’s fiscal year budget. I was sitting next to him at his office on Saryab Road in Quetta and I remember the look of frustration on his face as he perused the document. A long-standing critic of the federal government’s economic policies towards Balochistan, he would wonder aloud how the federal bureaucracy could talk about development on the national scale while all but ignoring the country’s largest province. He took exception to the position posited by officials in Islamabad that the development of a vast, sparsely populated area like Balochistan made no sense, given the high cost and the small number of people who stood to benefit in comparison with more densely populated regions such as Punjab. In his last book — “Balochistan: Its Politics and Economics” — Baluch argued that Balochistan had no need to rely on the resources of other provinces. Indeed, if Balochistan’s infrastructure were fully developed, far from needing external help, it would be in a position to extend help to Pakistan’s other provinces, and even neighbouring countries. What was needed, Baluch insisted, was for other provinces to recompense Balochistan for their ruthless, decades long plundering of its natural resources. He once famously remarked that while most people in Balochistan had no access to gas at all, in parts of Punjab and Karachi gas from Balochistan was so cheap that people were more careful about using a matchstick than about how much gas they consumed.
Siddiq Baluch, was one of the greatest Pakistani journalists of our time. Born in 1940, he was witness to more than his fair share of history in his 78 years, rubbing shoulders with many in Balochistan’s political, governmental, and cultural elite. He was a fascinating conversationalist, often regaling staff at his office with anecdotes about conversations he had with such personalities as Nawab Khair Buksh Marri, Nawab Bugti, and Sardar Akhter. Today marks the second anniversary of his death. It can be a challenge to come up with fresh material on each anniversary of a person’s passing. This is not the case with Baluch. He is surely one of the few people in the province about whom one could write an entire Ph.D. dissertation. His take on the socio-economic problems of Balochistan and his exploration of possible solutions alone would fill a book.
Baloch earned a degree in economics from the University of Karachi and stood out as perhaps the only journalist with a complete grasp of the economic and social landscape of the province. He could speak as an authority on just about any issue facing Balochistan and his command of the facts was undisputed. Politicians and senior government officials always spoke highly of him and respected his point of view even when they did not agree. His skills as a journalist and an economist were second to none and his coverage of provincial budget sessions was always thorough and cogent. Since his death, such detailed commentary and analysis on the economy of the province has been sadly lacking. The vacuum his death has created is hard to overstate and will be difficult to fill.
Siddiq Baluch’s passion for journalism was legendary. His work was a true labour of love. In truth, though, Balochistan has not been a fertile breeding ground for good journalists. There are a number of reasons for this. Among them are low pay – journalism rarely provides a living wage –, a lack of appreciation for the role of good journalism, concern for personal safety, and lack of protection. Recently, however, the government of Balochistan has taken a significant step to address this, announcing the establishment of the Siddiq Baluch Media Academy and allocating Rs. 2 million towards its funding, a move that has been welcomed by the journalist community. Journalism in Balochistan needs innovative ideas. Establishing such an academy would be a strong, positive first step toward improving the quality of reporting in the region. In order for the proposed academy to build successfully on the legacy of its namesake and raise the profile of journalism in the province, it is critical that it be affiliated with the University of Balochistan’s journalism department, as well as journalism institutions in Karachi and in other parts of Pakistan. It will thus serve as a bridge for students in Balochistan to explore journalistic opportunities with media outlets not only within the province but also in other parts of the country. Another goal of the academy should be to build diversity in media headquarters and central newsrooms so that Balochistan receives wider coverage nationally. The academy will also be strengthened through using the services of senior journalists from other parts of the country.
Journalism in Balochistan is poorly paid and often dangerous, making it hard to attract students to the field. While the profession is under attack across the world, the situation in Balochistan is particularly challenging, more so even than elsewhere in Pakistan. Most media outlets are dependent on revenue from advertisements that are regulated and distributed by government officials. They in turn expect the media outlets to paint a positive image of the government. The ruling parties and politicians conveniently forget that this money belongs to the people, and people have the right to know the truth. Spending a small portion of the public exchequer’s money to create an academy that will improve the quality of journalism in Balochistan is an entirely appropriate way to begin to address this state of affairs. It is equally important, however, that the government cease to expect “positive reporting” in exchange for revenues and instead empower journalists to hold the government accountable for its actions. Up until now, tight government control of advertising meant that journalism sometimes appealed to people who were more adept at taking bribes than at actual reporting of the facts. This is one of the reasons why, traditionally, neither government officials nor media outlets have inspired much public trust. This is, even more, the case since the rise of social media. But traditional media still has an important role to play in the creation of an informed electorate and a financial investment in quality journalism in the province would go a long way towards that goal.
In his lifetime Siddiq Baluch often struggled to run his newspaper operations smoothly. On several occasions, he was tempted to shut down operations altogether rather than allowing them to fall victim to the whims of semiliterate government officers. His views sometimes invited severe punishment from the government, but he was never afraid to speak truth to power. As he would often say in defense of his principled approach to journalism, “If our job is only to paint a positive picture, then there is no need of us to exist.”
Shezad Baloch, a research journalist, graduate student at UW-Madison, WI, USA, chief editor Azadi digital media.