In most cases, the journalists fail to gauge the level of threat. But is that a correct assessment?
By Aoun Sahi
Abdul Haq Baloch, a TV reporter and general secretary of Khuzdar Press Club in Balochistan, was shot dead by unidentified men on September 29, 2012. The worst part of the story was that he had been threatened for several weeks before his murder. He had also intimated the district administration, the management of his media group and the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) about the threats, but could not avert the situation.
A majority of the journalists killed (motive confirmed) in Pakistan during the last two decades were aware of the level of threat they had got, yet they failed to help themselves. For instance, Hayatullah Khan, a journalist from North Waziristan who was kidnapped in January 2006 and found dead six months later, is known to carry AK-47 when he was out reporting.
Iqbal Khattak, a Peshawar-based senior journalist and the Pakistan representative of Reporters Without Borders, says that in most cases the journalist fail to gauge the level of threat. “Journalists [in Pakistan] hardly take risks into consideration when they are out to report. Simple, pre-cautionary measures can minimise the threat level by 50-60 per cent,” he says.
“If you look closely into the murder cases of journalists in Pakistan, you would find that at least in 60 per cent cases they crossed the red line knowingly or unknowingly. It is mainly because they were never trained how to handle certain situations and avoid one-sided stories. Most of them were not even trained how to keep a professional interaction with different parties in conflict areas,” he says.
Khattak believes that both trade unions of journalists as well as the media houses should sit together and think up a solution. “Media houses should understand that productivity of journalists is badly affected if they are working in constant fear. The PFUJ and media owners are required to develop a general safety procedure as soon as possible.”
The significance of “red line” varies from region to region, says Rahimullah Yusufzai, a senior journalist based in the conflict-ridden Peshawar. “For conflict areas, even reporting facts would tantamount to crossing the red line for some stakeholders. It is too hard to report in these regions.”
Conversely, he says, if the journalists take care of the so-called “red line” (while reporting), they cannot do journalism.”
Yusufzai believes that a lot of young people who have come into journalism in the last few years like to exercise caution. “In most cases, the attackers give warnings to their targets and the intelligence agencies give signals of displeasure, but the journalists wouldn’t take these lightly.
“It hardly helps to share information with their media outlets. Only some international media houses can facilitate relocating the threatened journalists; the local media houses generally show care for the threat level. Journalists working in conflict zones need to understand that they are on their own,” he declares.
Balochistan where recently two press clubs — Khuzdar and Panjgur — have been shut down because of security issues is seen as among the most dangerous region. “Most journalists working in interior Balochistan not only lack training and education but also exposure. They are unsafe but still cross the red line out of excitement. They need to understand that the militant forces, whether religious, sectarian or nationalist, have not spared the security forces too. They only need proofs to attack the journalists. While on the other hand, the intelligence agencies have their own definition of national interest,” says Shahzada Zulfiqar, a Quetta based journalist and former president of the Balochistan Union of Journalists (BUJ).
According to Zulfiqar, over the years the militants have become “more media conscious. Threats and attacks can be reduced to some extent by adopting a professional approach and doing impartial and unbiased reporting.”
He adds that the role of media owners and the PFUJ becomes too important in the training of journalists especially those coming from rural areas. “Trade unions have been weakened over the years while media group owners are not interested in ensuring the security of their workers. I have never seen any media organisation arrange training sessions on reporting in conflict zones.”
The journalists are also not insured. A few months back, a photojournalist of a leading Urdu newspaper was injured in an attack while covering an event and had to be admitted in hospital. “His paper, instead of providing him medical facility, deducted his five days’ (spent in hospital) salary,” says Zulfiqar.
He also says that journalists are often caught between competing power centres. “The Balochistan High Court recently directed journalists not to report news of banned organisations. On the other hand, these [banned organisations] exert pressure on local media to give them ‘proper’ coverage.”
Safdar Hayat Dawar, President, Tribal Union of Journalists, says that journalism has become too tough a profession over the years. “Journalists are the sole means of information in many parts of troubled tribal areas of Pakistan but many of them have left the profession because of security threats. The ground realities have also changed in tribal areas as war lords and other stakeholders understand the importance of media and try to use it against their enemies.”
Pervaiz Shaukat, President, PFUJ, says that to ensure the protection of journalists in a country where the security forces are not safe is no child’s play. The PFUJ has been striving to train journalists and enable them to work in the face of threats. “We need to fight the menace of breaking news,” he insists. “It forces journalists to take undue risks.
“Over the last few years, we have helped 25 journalists who were under threat, to relocate to safer places for a period of about two months.”
He also stresses on the need for unity among ranks of journalists in tackling the problem. “We lack it badly. Believe me, in the Saleem Shahzad case, the journalist community wasn’t forthcoming in helping the commission established to probe the murder.”
We are ready to sit with the Pakistan Broadcasters Association (PBA) and the All Pakistan Newspapers Society (APNS) to formulate standard operating procedures (SOPs) for journalists’ security. “But in a country where it took 12 years to get wage board implemented, you think it would be easy to convince the owners to provide for the security of journalists?
“It is ironic that camera, technical equipment and Digital Satellite News Gathering (DSNG) vans are insured but the cameramen and reporters using these gadgets are not. It speaks for the owners’ interest in the protection of their workers.
“The journalists should never report in conflict zones without having taken proper safety measures, though a lot of them don’t even care about these things,” says Pervaiz Shaukat.
Originally published in The News on Sunday on 9th December 2012.