Journalists in the crossfire
By Syed Irfan Ashraf
MILITANTS, the military and the media are three vital actors in Pakistan’s war theatre. While combatants on both sides possess the skills required to carry out their missions, untrained media professionals need to understand the rules of the game. In short, their welfare is at stake.
“The year 2009-10 is the worst in the history of journalism in Pakistan wherein as many as 23 [two more were killed and eight injured during the recent blast in Quetta] journalists have lost their lives and 45 [were] wounded in different terror activities,” says the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ).
More than 50 journalists have been killed in the country since 2001 when Pakistan became a front-line state in the fight against terrorism, the latest victim being Haji Misri Khan who was killed in Hangu on Tuesday. On average nearly six media persons are killed every year in Pakistan which is now ranked among the five most dangerous countries for journalists. Alarmingly, 85 per cent of such deaths have been reported during the last four years.
If the risks do not abate, and it does not appear they will any time soon, the constructive development seen in the electronic media over the last few years will soon become meaningless. In the tribal areas, Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, roughly 1,000 journalists are directly exposed to an extremely dangerous working environment. The rest are also becoming increasingly insecure, as terrorism is no longer confined to the battle zones.
Would it be fair then to conclude that media professionals have no option but to live with the ugly reality facing the country? Or is it possible to reduce the risks involved by adopting certain safety procedures?
The ground reality is that many Pakistani journalists are not adequately trained to minimise security threats in a hostile environment. The safety checklist, assuming that one exists, is often ignored. “When bullets start to fly, people flee the scene but journalists here run at it unthinkingly,” says media analyst Adnan Rehmat.
Working without due caution in dangerous conditions, reporters run the risk of death. At the site of any terror incident, media professionals can be seen engrossed in conversation with the headquarters instead of ensuring their own safety. The role of producers and anchors, who exhort reporters to produce as much information as possible at scenes of terrorism irrespective of the hazards involved, must also be questioned.
A media culture of this nature lands journalists in perilous situations. The need to get information is considered more important than the lives of reporters and many journalists have fallen victim to this deadly approach. At times they are caught in the crossfire while others have been slain by a second suicide attack that shortly follows the first blast.
This situation takes a more serious turn in remote areas where roughly 95 per cent of correspondents are ill-trained and underpaid. Routine exploitation has promoted a ‘servant-boss’ relationship where risk factors are considered part of the job. A number of reporters have fallen prey to this trend while communicating breaking news to their channels.
Such compulsions and temptations have greatly increased the risks faced by TV journalists. In the presence of an assignment desk back in the newsroom, field reporters are discouraged to decide independently. This has undermined the professional capacity of reporters to react cautiously in responding to a sensitive situation.
Many fatal accounts come to mind. A young reporter was injured in a suicide blast in Hangu but kept on reporting with bloodstained hands until he was killed in a second attack. Similarly, journalists Tahir Awan and Mohammad Imran were killed in the second attack on Jan 4, 2009 in Dera Ismail Khan when they were reporting from the scene of the first suicide blast.
On the global front, changes in approach and the techniques of reporting have contributed substantially towards risk-reduction in journalism. Veteran war reporter Kate Adie, while revisiting her own experiences, once said that 90 per cent of her attention in war zones was focused on ensuring personal security and needs. The remaining 10 per cent was committed to reporting.
Conflict reporters in Pakistan should understand that they are faced with a situation where conflict zones have replaced the safe comfort zones of the past. This necessitates a change in the rules of engagement. Instead of jumping into the fray at the first hint of trouble, field reporters need to focus on reacting professionally and covering incidents of militancy or terrorism from the safest position possible. After all journalists are paid for the services they render, not their lives.
This realisation will help industry professionals fight for their independence in the electronic media, which bears more resemblance to news management than journalism. More so, a better understanding of their roles would help the growing lot of TV reporters to improve their independent decision-making abilities and avoid paying with their lives while covering a story.
Recently, the president of the PFUJ requested the chief justice to take suo motu action against journalists’ killings in Pakistan. That said, the PFUJ’s role is more crucial to the cause than anyone else’s. The vast network of press clubs across the country needs to be mobilised to provide direction to the media at large about the changes required to safely practise journalism in Pakistan.
The Al Quds day tragedy in Quetta, in which two media persons died and eight were injured, is no less of an eye-opener. Unfortunately, given the way terrorism is covered in Pakistan, even more serious repercussions could follow if the community remains indifferent to the challenges ahead.
The writer teaches at Peshawar University.