On August 8, 2016, a suicide bomber struck the entrance of a hospital in Quetta, leaving 70 people dead and 120 injured. The attack was claimed by both the Islamic State and the TTP’s splinter group Jamat-ul-Ahrar. Present at the scene when the bomber struck was journalist Shehzad, whose voice was recorded on camera just as the explosion occurred. This is the last footage his family has of Shehzad alive.
The August 8 suicide bombing was a planned twin attack. First, lawyer Bilal Kasi, president of the Quetta Bar Council was killed in a targeted attack. Later, when lawyers gathered around his body at Sandman Civil Hospital, the suicide bomber struck.
Shehzad reached the hospital to cover the incident and a possible protest rally by the lawyers after their president was killed. Like him, nobody knew that the bomber was coming. Mehmood Khan, another journalist, was also killed in the attack. At the time of his death, Shehzad was 30 years old and left behind a young widow and two sons and a daughter.
“I am only breathing now; I died the day Shehzad died. I can never forget him. Every day starts with his memories and ends with his memories,” says Gul Bibi**, Shehzad’s mother.
“I used to tell him to leave journalism. I told him it was a dangerous job. But he had never seen an economically stable life, so his earnings brought some stability to the house. His departure shook the entire family. If I knew he will be killed, I would never have let him become a journalist,” she said.
A white paper by the International Federation of Journalists states that 2,658 journalists were killed between 1990 and 2020 across the world. According to this white paper, the worst country for journalists was Iraq, where 340 journalists killed. Pakistan stood at the fourth position where 138 journalists were killed. Reporters Without Borders places Pakistan on 145th, Iran 174th, China at 177th while Afghanistan at 122nd out of 180 countries on its World Press Freedom Index 2021.
According to the Federal Union of Journalists, 42 journalists killed in Balochistan from the list. As many as 24 were shot dead, and the cause of these killings in the province was cited as the insurgency and journalists not being properly trained to cover the conflict in a professional manner.
Balochistan is the largest geographic unit of Pakistan, comprising 43 percent of the land area of the country. The minerals-rich and strategically important province bordering Afghanistan and Iran while having a large coastal belt and Gwadar port has remained ridden with conflict and various uprisings.
Here the Baloch insurgency, religious militancy, the TTP and the Islamic State have claimed the majority of the attacks in the post-9/11 era when the international community, NATO and ISAF forces were present in Afghanistan.
“When journalists are not safe in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, then how can it be safe for journalists to work in tribal areas and Balochistan?” asks Shahzada Zulfiqar, president of Pakistan’s Federal Union of Journalists.
“We have been asking governments to provide security to journalists and we try our best to push the government to provide support to families of journalists lost in the field,” he says.
Zulfiqar says press freedom was facing many threats and that the government regularly pressurizes media houses through financial pressures. “If this practice continues, journalism will remain in the pages of books but will not be practiced on the ground,” he says.
The local culture, traditions and customs in Balochistan have restricted mobility of women. “If journalists are killed, their orphaned children and widows face many hardships because they have no other way to earn their livelihood, nor does the government provide much support,” he adds.
In the recent takeover of Kabul by the Afghan Taliban, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, once reported to be working under the umbrella of Al-Qaeda, has been emboldened.
They have threatened journalists through their statements released and warned media houses not to refrain from calling them “terrorists” and extremists. One statement says that “Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan” should be spelled out entirely, otherwise the journalists would be deemed biased and seen as an enemy of the organization.
Journalists’ bodies say the Taliban statement is an obvious threat to their members and the press as a whole. “There is an open threat through the TTP statement. Journalists are sandwiched between militant organizations and the security forces,” says Shahzada Zulfiqar.
Spokesperson of the government of Balochistan Liaqat Shahwani perceives the warnings by TTP as general statements. He says the government is committed to providing security to journalists who are threatened as individuals. “The government is always in support of press clubs and journalist unions. We have also announced a housing scheme for journalists,” he says.
He declined to comment on questions regarding support for widows and children of slain media personnel.
After the United States and its allies withdrew from Afghanistan, an alarming situation is being faced by journalists in the region. Two Afghan Eitla e Roz journalists were beaten and tortured by the Taliban regime in Kabul and two Pakistani journalists covering Kandahar were detained for days.
“Journalism is one of the basics of freedom of expression in the list of the universal liberties through UN Human Rights conventions and a building block of democratic states in the world. We lost journalists like we lost lawyers when terrorists attacked the Civil Hospital gathering. The Constitution of Pakistan’s Article 9 gives everyone the right to live with peace, so it is the duty of the government to provide security to the citizens,” says advocate Jamila Kakar, a vocal rights activist.
Jamila says the government should legislate provision of security to journalists, lawyers and citizens. “As journalists and activists are at the forefront of a society, both the federal and provincial governments should take further steps to secure them,” she says.
“Our province and the country have become a security state. No one is safe here on a daily basis with target killings and bomb blasts. The government is incapable of providing security to journalists,” says MPA Nasrullah Khan Zairy. “The country is being run through a civil martial law and journalists are censored. Media houses are being pushed to downsize. It is a responsibility of the government to provide security for journalists and let media houses remain vocal and uncensored,” he adds.
** the name has been changed to protect the privacy of Shehzad’s family.