Pakistan Press Foundation


Pakistan Press Foundation

Nearly a decade ago, Shehzada Zulfiqar, a Balochistan-based reporter and broadcaster, was abducted by an unknown armed group from Khuzdar district. Zulfiqar is a veteran war correspondent with over 30 years of covering conflicts in southern Afghanistan and Balochistan. Despite being well aware of the law of the land through his long career of reporting from the field, the experience of his abduction changed him completely and he underwent a significant psychological transformation.

“When we were kidnapped and held for two hours, it was the most distressing event in my life, causing severe agony. [My] thoughts ranged from torture to execution during detention,” shared the Baloch journalist.

After returning to Quetta upon his release, Zulfiqar remained distressed for several days. Indeed, it took him years to overcome the trauma of the abduction.

Working as a journalist in Quetta has always been a distressing and challenging occupation, according to Zulfiqar. You cannot escape the intense psychological stress that comes with reporting in a region as volatile as Balochistan. “During the heightened tension of 2009 and 2010, we were in constant fear of our lives,” he said. Every time a motorcycle passed by, he said, he would be afraid of “whether the rider was an assassin aiming to shoot me,” recounted the journalist.

According to the Balochistan Union of Journalists, 40 journalists fell victim to bomb blasts and targeted killings in the province between 2008 and 2020. However, no psychological support mechanism exists for the journalists reporting in the beleaguered province.

Journalism remains challenging worldwide, with long-lasting psychological impacts on journalists’ mental well-being. A 2019 Dart Centre report from Columbia University in New York revealed that 80 percent to 100 percent of journalists encounter work-related traumatic events.

A similar scenario exists in Balochistan. I spoke to several journalists in Quetta, and all of them shared experiencing anxiety, burnout, trauma, and distress. However, very few have received any psychological training or emotional support.

“Balochistan remains a conflict zone with multiple psychological challenges which I did not recognize when I was young, but its impacts are becoming visible now as I grow older,” noted Muhammad Akbar Notezai, an investigative reporter for a leading English daily paper. “I recognize that Balochistan is among the most dangerous zones in the world. The psychological challenges are huge and immeasurable. When a journalist is killed, the immediate thought is that I might be next. These thoughts are unsettling.”

Balochistan is beset with the violence of a nationalist insurgency and militancy. Then there are influential tribal lords and politicians, including gangsters, and state-backed groups, all exerting pressure on journalists, leading to distinct psychological effects.

“Pressure comes from all sides. Crossing the line with anyone places you on their watch list, and they can threaten or kill you in the worst cases,” explained Zulfiqar. “We are sandwiched between militants and the state,” said Notezai. “This has its own psychological repercussions.”

Balochistan has been the scene of militant attacks for two decades. The state has used all its power to crush the militancy. The attacks in Balochistan and retaliation attacks by security forces turned the region into a war zone where people go missing, get killed, or are kidnapped. Writing their stories is no easy task.

Somaiyah Baloch, a young female writer from Balochistan, is currently documenting the stories of missing persons. “Writing about the families of missing persons is a big challenge. Narrating their experiences impacts the families and leaves a deep mark on your mind when you listen to them,” she said. “I am currently working from home, conducting interviews and conversations with them over the phone. My family overhears me talking to families of missing persons, and get concerned for my security, which in turn disturbs their peace of mind.”

Another significant challenge impacting the mental well-being of journalists in Balochistan is the absence of financial security and life insurance. Journalists working in conflict zones in the world, including other parts of Pakistan, receive better salaries. The inadequate pay in Balochistan’s media industry is a concern that contributes to stress for the journalists there.

“The first step for a journalist in a conflict zone that needs to be taken is to stabilise him financially. The wages of a journalist working in a volatile environment has to be different than someone working in a safe zone,” explained Mansoor Ahmed Rind, the general secretary of Balochistan Union of Journalists and a senior reporter for ARY News in Quetta.

“Life insurance and better wages can, at the very least, offer a sense of relief, ensuring that financial concerns need not be a constant worry,” said Rind.

Rind also recommended a reduced workload and the establishment of proper mechanisms, such as clinics within press clubs in conflict zones to provide journalists with access to mental counselling and support.

Senior journalist Zia Ur Rehman, who writes for The New York Times among other foreign publications, supports Rind’s proposal to decrease the workload for journalists operating in conflict zones and to enhance their remuneration.

“I cover Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan, and Karachi,” Rehman said. “My frequent visits to Quetta reveal an exceptionally challenging environment for journalists compared to other cities in Pakistan. A journalist sitting in Quetta is directed by head offices in Karachi, Lahore, and Islamabad, who lack an understanding of Balochistan’s geography and complexities, to cover the entire province. As Pakistan’s largest territory with rugged terrain, Balochistan poses a challenge. How can a single journalist stationed in Quetta adequately cover the entire province?” questions Rehman.

Mansoor pointed out that a journalist is assigned a multitude of news beats. “One individual is responsible for comprehensively covering the entire province and a wide range of subjects, including crime, terrorism, politics, and the economy, which itself is a huge mental stress for journalists,” he said.

Work-related traumas also influence journalists’ behaviour, often unawares.

Individualland, a research-based organisation, has been working to offer mental health counselling to journalists operating in Balochistan since May 2018. Fozia Mughal, a spokesperson for Individualland, mentioned that approximately 200 media professionals have participated in group therapy sessions, with the group also extending individual counselling to 39 individuals in Balochistan.

“A majority of journalists experience post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD], flashbacks, sleeping disorders, burnout, and social phobia,” Fozia stated, further adding that “eight out of 10 journalists in Quetta suffer severe psychological distress.”

The stigma linked to mental well-being in a prevalent macho culture also exists in Pakistan, which is more pronounced in Balochistan. In a tribal and conservative society, discussing one’s emotions, particularly in relation to the profession, is often met with hesitation. “Mental health is a huge issue among journalists, yet it remains an unspoken topic, shrouded in taboo. Journalists tend to avoid discussing it, leading them to suffer silently,” observed Rehman.

Source:  The Express tribune

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