It was an image that ought to have stilled hearts nationwide: A small group of individuals making the 756-kilometre journey from the press club in Quetta to the press club in Karachi on foot over 26 days, holding placards and pictures of their loved ones.

All this started way back in November 2011, when Mama Qadeer Baloch, a retired employee of a private bank, received his son Jalal Reiki’s bullet-ridden body, almost three years after Reiki, who was the information-secretary of a Baloch nationalist party, was picked up by security agencies. Qadeer, who is now vice-president of the Voice of Baloch Missing Persons, embarked on a long march alongside roughly 20 others, all of whom have had one or more family members picked up under dubious circumstances, ostensibly by law-enforcement agencies. According to Qadeer, more than 18,000 people have gone missing, 1,500 mutilated bodies have been discovered and at least 500 people have been killed in target killings.

Speaking in Karachi upon the march’s culmination on November 23, Qadeer described the difficulties that they had encountered. “As we speak, our homes are being raided,” he said, adding that one of his fellow activists was “sitting like a captive” inside his own home, having been threatened with death if he joined the long march. “My feet are still burning from blisters,” he added. “And on our way from Hub, a car tried to hit me thrice, scattering other members … as well.” The march was a drastic attempt to highlight an issue only sporadically covered in the media — but rather than leading to any sort of instructive debate (although the Supreme Court did summon the newly appointed defence minister, Khwaja Asif, on the matter) the prevailing discussion on the topic was limited to a collection of observations that it hadn’t received adequate coverage.

Lack of accessibility, physical and otherwise, is often cited as one reason why not enough news emerges from within Balochistan, with mainstream media being limited to Quetta and its environs. The recent earthquake in Awaran and the subsequent activities of the military in the area, for the purposes of relief and (as it turned out) otherwise, are one example of the difficulties of reporting from (and on) a region roiling with internal conflict. Baloch news sources are also often clamped down upon, with a large number of Baloch websites and blogs blocked by the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority.

In an interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation last year, Malik Siraj Akbar, editor of the online Baloch Hal, which is inaccessible from within Pakistan, described the intimidation and threats that forced him to move to the United States. “I became the bureau chief of a national daily [Daily Times] at the age of 22,” he said. “I thought I had a bright future in Balochistan. Balochistan was my story. But I’ve lost my story.” Qadeer also addressed the attendant dangers of reporting on Balochistan when he spoke at the press club in Karachi, saying that although the long march was not given much coverage in the media, the activists did not have any complaints. “Around 27 to 28 journalists have been killed in Balochistan for writing the truth, so we understand your apprehensions and limitations,” he said. But there may also be a structural reason for the lopsided media coverage. In a seminar on media ethics in Karachi, journalists Mazhar Abbas and Afia Salam lambasted the ratings system “There is not a single meter in Balochistan [to determine viewership numbers]. In fact, there are 365 meters in Karachi alone. You have completely ignored Balochistan. As a result, channels are not pushed to discuss Baloch issues on their shows,” argued Abbas.

Interestingly enough, however, whilst Qadeer and his fellow marchers were slowly making their way to Karachi, media attention was focussed on another, equally inaccessible region of the country: The Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata), just north of Balochistan, where drone strikes have become increasingly controversial, more so after one killed Hakimullah Mehsud, head of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). What explains the imbalance in coverage, then? One reason could be the persisting ambivalence regarding the nature of the conflict in Balochistan — who are these individuals who continue to go ‘missing’? Are they citizens with genuine grievances or are they ‘enemies of the state’? By contrast, it is easier to take sides in situations where there is an external actor involved (the United States in the case of drone strikes, for instance).

The participants of the long march had an answer to this, though: Produce our family members in court and try them through legal means, they argued, adding that they would accept the judgment of the courts even if they sentenced their loved ones to death. Surely the campaign to curb illegal detentions and extrajudicial killings is one that the media should wholeheartedly endorse.

— Compiled from news reports