Pakistan: When journalists are a part of the collateral damage

TARGET: Competition and inadequate training often force journalists to take life-threatening risks, as they had to in Quetta after a suicide bomb attack.   | Photo Credit: BANARAS KHAN

A little over eight months into the year and Pakistan has already matched its toll, in 2009, in journalists killed. It seems to be well on the path to lead the list of such incidents across the world. While three of the seven killed were targeted and gunned down, four journalists were part of what is often dismissed as collateral damage — among those killed in a suicide blast or crossfire.

A journalist among the dead or injured has become a fairly regular footnote in reports on major terror strikes; the most recent one being the suicide bomb attack on a Shia procession on September 3 in Quetta. One cameraman was killed and six journalists were seriously injured in the blast that was followed by crossfire. A driver of a television van was also killed.

Despite these frequent reminders of how risky reporting has become for Pakistani journalists on the field, no concerted effort at course correction – both in terms of the nature of coverage and better work conditions — has emerged from either the journalists' fraternity or media establishments which have otherwise become more assertive in the nation's mindscape.

Media growth explosion

The exponential growth of the media is flagged as evidence of democracy taking roots in a country that has spent more than half its lifespan under military rule.

Indeed, numerically, the media has grown: From just one channel and one radio station in 2002, Pakistan now has 90 television channels of which 26 provide round-the-clock news and cover current affairs. There are 132 radio stations; 40 of them dealing in news and current affairs. And pluralism has also grown with channels offering programmes in various languages and addressing the country's little-known diversities.

Naturally, the media fraternity has also grown. There are 10,000 journalists accredited with the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) today with a 7,000-strong waiting list as against 2,000 scribes in 2002. All this growth has, however, not translated into better working conditions for journalists. Each incident, of a mediaperson being killed in a blast/firing, drives home the point but gets little attention.

“Barring a few notable exceptions, the service conditions are terrible. There is no institutional mechanism to offer support to journalists. Because of the five-fold increase in the number of journalists, media establishments say it is not possible to insure all of them for fear of class action. In fact, we have a strange situation where very often the camera is insured but not the cameraman,” laments Andan Rehmat, executive director of Intermedia (an organisation working for capacity building of journalists).

While it is no one's case that media houses demand life-threatening risk-taking by reporters and cameramen on the field, the cut-throat competition and the breaking news/first-with-the-news phenomenon is being held to blame for many of the 52 journalists killed and over 400 injured since the media boom began. Despite the fact that it has more or less become a trend here in terrorist attacks for the first blast to be followed by another, or firing, the competition forces cameramen, in particular, to take risks. The Quetta blast is a recent example.

Untrained staff

Next, is the absence of trained hands. So rapid was the growth of the media that the majority are untrained, let alone in conflict reporting. In fact, local journalists point out that most cameramen have graduated to TV journalism from commercial photography/camerawork ( wedding and family photography). Often they work with the same cameras; forcing them to move closer to the scene of action and at grave risk. A producer recalled how when she assigned an event to a cameraman who provided footage to her channel, he pleaded helplessness as all the available cameras were spoken for that day.

This may be no different from what it is in India where, too, the television media grew equally fast. Here, it takes on dangerous proportions because of the scale of violence across the country. Because the turnover is so large and quick, media houses are, according to Mr. Rehmat, unwilling to provide in-house training, apprehensive that they could be training the competition.

Inadequate compensation

When scribes in towns – and sometimes even in the cities — are left to their own devices, providing protective gear, like flak jackets and pay packets that cover risk, are a dream. Barring some of the bigger organisations, even compensation is rare to come by. Many of the journalists killed/injured in the line of duty get the amount that the government gives out to others who have died in similar circumstances, says Sadaf Arshad, executive editor of the South Asia Media Monitor brought out by the South Asia Media Commission.

The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting is now trying to set up a Journalists' Victim Fund to address this situation as attempts at raising the question of inequality and injustice as a labour rights issue are often seen as a bid by the government to curb media freedom. But such a fund will only address a part of the problem.

“Today's media empires are thriving on the strength of a handful of selected ‘star-value' winners who are given good salaries, privileges and insurance coverage. If you can bargain these for yourself, you are in the club. Otherwise, you become part of the big, unprotected, underpaid, under-represented herd that is working at the frontlines while being most vulnerable.” Indeed, an official perception but nonetheless true of an industry that demands accountability from the other pillars of Pakistan's fledgling democracy.

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Printable version | Jun 21, 2021 9:32:42 AM |

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