Malik Siraj Akbar
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Malik Siraj Akbar
Malik Siraj Akbar
Founder of The Baluch Hal
Malik Siraj Akbar (Urdu: ملک سراج اکبر) is a Baloch journalist based in the United States. He is the editor-in-chief of the Baluch Hal, the first online English language newspaper of Pakistan's Balochistan Province, Enkaar, a liberal Urdu language news magazine, and a contributing writer for The Huffington Post. He lives in exile in the United States.
In 2010–11, Akbar was a Hubert Humphrey Fellow at Arizona State University while in 2012, the National Endowment for Democracy (N.E.D), a Washington DC-based organization, awarded him a Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellowship where he researched the political assassinations, enforced disappearances and attacks on journalists in Balochistan. He was a 2014–15 Edward Mason Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School of Government where he was elected as the Vice President of Communications at the Kennedy School Student Government. He served as the web editor of Kennedy School's student newspaper, the Citizen.
Akbar was born in the town of Panjgur in Balochistan, Pakistan. His mother hails from the Iranian side of Balochistan. He attended the Government Model High School Panjgur for his matriculation degree. He attended the Government Degree College Panjgur for a bachelor's degree in Political Science. In 2005, he became the first Pakistani male journalist to be awarded the Madanjeet Singh South Asia Foundation Media Scholarship that enabled him to undertake a one-year post-graduation diploma at the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai, India, where he studied print journalism focusing on politics, identities politics and gender issues. Akbar got his master's degree in International Relations from the University of Balochistan, Quetta.
In October 2011, Akbar was granted political asylum in the United States owing to threats he said he faced from the Pakistani military authorities due to his outspoken writings that exposed human rights abuses in his native Balochistan. In an interview with Radio Free Europe, Akbar said it was a "painful" decision for him to apply for political asylum in the United States, adding that many Baluch journalists had disappeared and were subsequently found dead for which the Pakistani authorities were blamed. He shared his threats in an interview with CNN and in a blog post "Why I fled Pakistan" he wrote for the Committee to Protect Journalists.
The Washington Post said it was a "highly unusual decision" on the part of the U.S. government to grant political asylum to a journalist critical of Islamabad given Pakistan's status: a strategic partner in Washington's war against Islamic terrorism. BBC News said Akbar was a victim of the tough stance taken by the Pakistani government. On 14 November 2011, Mark C. Toner, the State Department spokesman, when asked about Akbar's asylum case, said the United States had raised the issue of the protection of journalists with the Pakistani government. On 15 November, a Pakistani journalist asked the State Department spokesman if granting Akbar political asylum meant that the United States had actually accepted the Baloch nationalist and separatist movements and legitimized it. Toner said, "we have broader concerns about the situation there and the freedom of the press in Pakistan". The American University Professor and former Pakistani high commissioner to the United Kingdom Akbar S. Ahmed, while wondering if Pakistan was heading for disaster in Balochistan, defended Akbar's political asylum in the United States saying that a policy of "kill and dump" in Balochistan attributed to the Pakistani security forces was causing fear and terror among the Baloch.
Akbar's writings mainly focus on the Baloch nationalist movement, human rights, press freedom, sectarian killings in Pakistan, the war on terror and U.S.-Pakistan relations.
Akbar is a liberal and secular writer. In an interview with the Story of South Asia in 2014, Akbar said he wished to see a secular Balochistan while he also proposed secularism as a solution to end sectarian violence in Pakistan. He has highlighted the rise of radical Islam in Balochistan where he says the Pakistani government supports Islamists to counter the Baloch nationalists. According to him, Islamabad has given a 'free hand' to Jamaat-ud-Dawah, the "relief" wing of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, to operate in Balochistan.
Ban on The Baloch Hal
On 9 November 2010, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority blocked The Baloch Hal, Balochistan's first online English language newspaper Akbar had founded one year earlier in 2009. The PTA alleged that the Baloch Hal had published anti-Pakistan material, a charge Akbar vehemently denied in an interview with German Radio Deutsche Welle (DW). The reported that the PTA was reluctant to release the numbers and types of websites that have been blocked in Balochistan. The banning of the Baloch Hal has become almost a case-study topic on internet censorship in Pakistan.
Many of the Baloch Hal editorials "touch on the dire situation of local reporters, and highlight the hurdles Balochistan faces in being discussed by foreign media." The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said, "at the very least, news sites which have faced such censorship in the past, such as The Baloch Hal, will have to be given reasons for any blocking, and a chance to overturn them in the courts." The U.S-based advocacy group, Freedom House, mentioned the ban on The Baloch Hal in its 2012–13 report on Pakistan. Criticizing the ban on the Baloch Hal, senior Pakistani journalist Beena Sarwar, said banning the Baloch Hal amounted to silencing the "rational, moderate voices from Balochistan". Sarwar, a former Nieman Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School, said, "The Baloch Hal provides a platform where people can express themselves through the pen rather than a gun." Shahzad Ahmed, the Pakistan Coordinator of internet rights group, Bytes for All, said blocking the Baloch Hal was an example of how the PTA exercised blanket bans on content. "Due to a media blackout from Balochistan, we are not fully aware of the situation. We suspect that there are stricter controls on the net and content. The increasing number of murdered journalists and political workers is a testament to this."
Akbar's book, The Redefined Dimensions of Baloch Nationalism, was published in 2011. The book talks about the increasing involvement of Baloch women and youth from the middle class in the nationalist movement. A demand for provincial autonomy within the federation of Pakistan, Akbar writes, has, for the first time,transformed into a full-fledged demand for a free Baloch homeland. "Balochistan is rapidly getting out of Islamabad's control," he warns at the beginning of the book, "schools and colleges [in Balochistan] have already stopped singing Pakistan's national anthem or displaying the national flag." In a review published in The Friday Times, a leading Pakistani weekly magazine, Kiran Nazish, a former Daniel Pearl Fellow at New York Times, said the importance of Akbar's book lies in its discussion of from where issues facing Balochistan originate – "The book establishes that the government, especially post-Musharraf, has deserted the province and the army and ISI have an overwhelming role, because of which the insurgency is now getting out of Islamabad's control." The Redefined Dimensions of Baloch Nationalism comprises articles and interviews. It includes insightful and, often provocative, interviews of important officials and nationalist leaders. Akbar's interviews with Owais Ahmed Ghani, the then governor of Balochistan, Ataullah Mengal, Balochistan's first chief minister, Khair Bakhsh Marri, the pro-free Balochistan nationalist leader, Brahumdagh Bugti, the Switzerland-based head of the Baloch Republican Party, Habib Jalib Baloch, the slain secretary general of the Balochistan National Party provide a great understanding of the dynamics and complexities of the conflict in Balochistan.
The Redefined Dimensions of Baloch Nationalism is regularly mentioned for Akbar's lengthy interview with a former member of the London Group, Asad Rahman aka Chakar Khan. The book is an account of the London Group, a team of some non-Baloch boys from influential Pakistani families who joined the Balochistan resistance movement in 1973 against the Pakistani state. In his revealing interview with Akbar, Rahman, a son of Pakistan's former Supreme Court Chief Justice, S. A. Rahman, disclosed the origins of the London Group and how they,as young boys in their early 20s, quit their studies in London and joined the Balochistan liberation movement. According to Rahman, the London Group consisted of his elder brother, Rashed Rahman,now the editor of Pakistan's Daily Times, Ahmed Rashid, the author of the internationally acclaimed book, Taliban, Najam Sethi, a veteran journalist and a former interim chief minister of the Punjab province, Dilip Das, a son of a senior Pakistani air force official. The young guerrillas changed their names, learned the Balochi language and fought along with the Baloch rebels and also spent time in Afghanistan's refugee camps as they fought the Pakistani forces. While Prize-winning British writer V. S. Naipaul provides a glimpse in the world of the London Group without mentioning the actual names of the young revolutionaries in his book Beyond Belief, Rahman's interview answered several questions about the people and events surrounding the London Group.
Akbar is regularly interviewed and cited by different news organizations on various topics concerning Pakistan and Balochistan. In 2013, CNN profiled Akbar's life as a journalist at risk in Pakistan's dangerous province of Balochistan. He talked about the threats he had faced and journalist friends he had lost in the conflict in Balochistan. BBC World, while describing Akbar a "victim of the tough stance taken by the Pakistani government", interviewed Akbar how he used online journalism to spread the word about the unrest in his native Balochistan. In 2014 Al-Jazeera interviewed Akbar to speak about the threats to journalists in Pakistan and implications of the failed assassination attempt on journalist Hamid Mir. On 8 May 2013, Reuters cited Akbar in a report about the insurgency in Balochistan. The Guardian quoted Akbar in a report about the abduction of John Solecki, an American kidnapped in Balochistan.
The Balochistan Institute
On 20 February 2016, Akbar announced establishing the Balochistan Institute, the first Baloch think-tank based in the United States. According to a news report quoting Akbar, the Balochistan Institute (BI) is committed to independent research and dialogue on Balochistan. The Institute aims to create a global understanding of the contemporary challenges and opportunities offered by the resource-rich Baloch region and promote awareness about its people, history, economy, culture and politics. When the Institute was established, the media in Balochistan reported the news prominently. For instance, Daily Tawar, an Urdu language newspaper, published the news about the Balochistan Institute as its top story with Akbar's picture.
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