Interview by Adnan Aamir & Yousaf Ajab Baloch
Malik Siraj Akbar is the internationally most well known journalist from Balochistan. He was born in 1983 in Panjgur district of Balochistan. He started his career as a journalist at the age of 16 and became the Balochistan Bureau Chief of “Daily Times” at the age of 22. In 2009, Mr. Akbar founded The Baloch Hal, Balochistan’s first online English newspaper. He was selected for Hubert Humphrey Fellowship in 2010. In the same year, the government of Pakistan banned The Baloch Hal. Owing to threats to his life, Akbar applied for and, was successfully granted, political asylum in USA in 2011. At the moment, Malik Siraj Akbar is pursuing a degree in Master’s in Public Administration as an Edward Mason Fellow at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.
The Balochistan Point conducted an exclusive interview with him.
1) You are studying public administration at Harvard Kennedy School. Is this a career change and you have quit journalism?
Master’s Program in Public Administration (MPA) is designed for people with assorted professional backgrounds. The composition of our class is so diverse that you can find politicians, surgeons, lawyers, air force pilots, police officers and journalists in one single classroom. What is common among all of us is that we bring at least eight to ten years’ work experience from our respective professions to the Kennedy School. The reason I chose to pursue a degree in Public Administration is to take my career to a more advanced level in order to learn new lessons about leadership, management, negotiations and conflict management. Since I have already worked as a journalist for ten years, journalism is one profession where I can always go back. With the MPA degree I am trying to diversify my career options.
2) Tell us about the admission procedure of Harvard University and how you got admission in most prestigious institute in the world?
I had been planning to go to school for sometime but I was not confident to apply for a top school like Harvard. One night over dinner, one of my friends asked why I wasn’t applying at Harvard. My instant response was, “because Harvard is not the University of Balochistan where I will get accepted.” My friend said she was serious and I deserved to be at a place like Harvard. I also applied for Columbia Journalism School. Luckily, I got accepted in both the Ivy League schools. I consulted different people and I made the final decision based on the advice of a professor who had written my reference letter for Columbia Journalism School. “Although I wrote your reference letter for Columbia,” he said, “I think you should still go to Harvard.”
3) What are the opportunities, if any, for students of Balochistan in Harvard University?
Every time I am asked this question, my simple response is: If I could get into Harvard, anyone can get there. There are unlimited opportunities at places like Harvard and other big universities in the United States and elsewhere. Prospective students should not give up in case of rejection and instead improve their admission application, essays and reference letters. If you want to come to Harvard, write to the admissions office, talk to current and past students. Ask them for tips and once you start looking around, you will be surprised there are so many good people in this world who are willing to help and guide you.
4) What advice can you offer to the aspiring students who want to study at Harvard University?
My only advice to aspiring students is to work on their math and economics. The better you are at these subjects, the brighter career options you will have. You may say that I am a journalist, lawyer or a doctor and why you should learn math or economics. But trust me; you will need these subjects at any top American school. Do not be afraid to take the GRE or TOEFL. Give yourself enough time to prepare for these exams and then apply at a good school in the U.S.
5) You have been elected “Vice President Communications” in student government of Harvard Kennedy School. Tells us about your election and your role as Vice President Communications?
At the Kennedy School, we have the Kennedy School Student Government (KSSG). Each class elects some representatives based on the total number of students in that class to represent their interests at the KSSG. The President and the Vice Presidents have to be voted by the whole school. I got elected as the Vice President of Communication for a one-year term. My primary responsibility is to communicate student government’s key decisions to the rest of the school through emails, newsletters and other forms of communication. In addition, my job is to improve students’ access to news sources and arrange communications workshops and training programs etc.
6) You dubbed the election of Dr. Malik as Chief Minister of Balochistan as “An Obama Moment” for people of Makran. Are you disappointed by his government after 18 months of rule?
The way Obama’s election as America’s first president did not completely end the black people’s problems in America, it would also be naïve to hope that Dr. Malik’s election as Balochistan’s first middle-class chief minister would solve Balochistan’s all problems.
Am I disappointed in Dr. Malik’s government? Yes, big time. I was not expecting Dr. Malik to bring the insurgency to an end or negotiate a deal with the Baloch insurgents but I am disappointed how Balochistan’s educational institutions, mainly those in his native Mekran region, have been destroyed during this government. Today, Dr. Malik and his government are responsible for purposefully staying silent against elements that are depriving Balochistan’s middle-class of education. We will feel the severe impact of the closure of so many schools across Balochistan only after some years and the current government will be responsible for this.
7) You termed the murder of Zahid Askani as “One of the darkest days in Balochistan.” Do you think his murder is a part of wider plan to disrupt educational activities in Makran region?
Zahid Askani played a remarkable role in the promotion of education in Gwadar. I have no qualms in saying that his role and impact was far better than that of the performance of the state-run Department of Education. The private institutes in Mekran have done the region a great service but the great educators and pioneers of these schools are running from one place to the other for their personal safety owing to increasing threats they are receiving. It is a shame that the government is unable to provide protection to the educators of the nation.
8) You wrote a rebuttal on The Balochistan Point, to an article that challenged your opinion about factions in Baloch national movement. In the light of possible return of Khan of Kalat to Pakistan, do you think that current Baloch insurgency is about to end?
I do not think the Khan of Kalat has any significant role in defining the future of the Baloch insurgency. He is neither a contributor to the armed movement nor a leader of any pro-independence political party. By accepting Dr. Malik as the Chief Minister, the Establishment has temporarily given all it could to the Baloch nationalists. I do not see any further trade-offs coming from Islamabad for the Baloch nationalists in the foreseeable future. The only thing that can weaken or end the Baloch insurgency is infighting among the armed groups. This was the worst thing that could happen to the nationalist movement and the best thing Islamabad could have wished for. Even the Khan of Kalat has gone in the bad books of certain elements of the pro-independence camp. They are already unhappy with his meeting with Pashtun nationalist leader Mahmood Khan Achakzai.
9) Your critics allege that you wrote pro-secessionist articles in The Balch Hal on purpose while living in USA, so that your online newspaper gets banned and your political asylum application is successful. Your response?
This sounds similar to what General Musharraf once said about rape victims in Pakistan: “They get themselves raped,” he said, “so that they can get a Canadian visa”. When I was in Balochistan, I believed that my job as a journalist is to give all perspectives equal coverage. The Baloch Hal has, in fact, been more criticized for not being pro-secessionist than for being so. We have regularly condemned the attacks on unarmed civilians, mainly the Punjabi settlers, teachers, journalists and fellow Baloch accused of being Pakistani spies. Even leading media organizations such as the BBC Urdu, The News International and The Nation have described the Baloch Hal as an objective and moderate newspaper.
10) How do you see press freedom in USA, Is there press freedom keeping in view the 10th amendment and sunshine laws in USA?
Coming from Balochistan, the United States looks like heaven for journalists to me. After all, you do not have to worry about your personal safety after writing a news story. However, many journalists in the United States are not fully satisfied with the level of freedom they are currently enjoying. The Edward Snowden leaks indicate that the U.S. intelligence constantly monitors journalists and, in some other cases, the government has increased pressure on journalists to disclose their sources. The United States needs more press freedom given its claim to defend democracy and free expression.
11) Who do you consider responsible for professional gaps in Journalism in Balochistan?
There are no incentives for journalists in Balochistan. Educated youth prefer to go to civil services. In the recent years, journalism has become such a dangerous profession that many established journalists have either quit the profession or left the province. Professionalism thrives at a place where there is respect and reward for someone’s work. Unfortunately, Balochistan does not offer any of these incentives to the journalists.
12) How do you see the future of English print and electronic media journalism in Balochistan and what measures can be effective to increase the number of readers and more journalists?
I have seen a significant increase in the number of English language journalists, bloggers, writers, publications and websites in Balochistan in the recent times. I am seeing a lot of young, fearless, talented writers coming out of Balochistan. In the past, they did not have platforms to get their work published but now they are creating platforms for themselves by the virtue of blogs, social media and other online platforms. If journalists’ safety issues are resolved, I see a very bright future for English journalism in Balochistan. I am especially impressed with rise of young Baloch and Hazara writers in English language.
13) Can the online journalism be a good opportunity for journalist to enhance their skills in this field and avail opportunities abroad?
Online platforms have reshaped the world of journalism. They have shrunk boundaries and given the journalists an instant global platform. With so many online blogs and websites, the biggest challenge for any journalist is maintaining reliability and credibility. The biggest challenge is how you make yourself the most trusted journalist that people should come to get an accurate assessment of a situation. So, online journalism provides great opportunities of visibility and accessibility but it also increases competition and responsibility on journalists in terms of the quality of work.
14) What reasons can be behind ignoring Balochistan and human rights abuses in mainstream media in Pakistan and even in Balochistan?
It depends what kind of human rights you are covering. Education is a basic human right and the people of Balochistan are deprived of this right. There are no restrictions on covering the violation of this human right. Likewise, there are no restrictions on covering honor killings that take place in Jaffararbad and Naseerabad. There is, nonetheless, zero tolerance and coverage of human rights abuses directly attributed to the army and the intelligence agencies. The attack on Hamid Mir, for example, and the killing of many regional journalists in Balochistan directly suggest how costly challenging the establishment can be.
15) What are your future plans after graduating from Harvard Kennedy School?
I would ideally like to work for a foreign policy think-tank such as the Council on Foreign Relations or the Brookings Institution. I am also considering a career as a media strategist and communication specialist. Meanwhile, I am sometimes also tempted to do a PhD.
Published in The Balochistan point on January 1, 2015
Disclaimer: Views and opinions expressed are those of the interviewee and The Balochistan Point not necessarily agrees with them.