Life of a journalist: Covering without cover on the frontlines of conflict

Why is there so much apathy about clearly pressing issues of life and death?
Published August 5, 2019

Media personnel on the frontlines of conflict, including reporters, cameramen and photojournalists provide the images and information that media and readers most crave. But they are often also the most vulnerable.

So why is so little being done to protect them?

“A few days before his death, I asked my brother why don’t you leave this risky and low-paid profession and go back to Korea to make your children’s future bright,” Nawab Gul recalls his last exchange with his deceased brother Javed Khan. “I was worried about growing attacks on journalists in the country. But he refused, saying it is a profession which provides him the opportunity to become a voice for the voiceless.”

Khan was a photographer for Daily Markaz. While reporting, he and a cameraman of the UK-based DM Digital TV were killed during an armed clash between law enforcement agencies and the students of Lal Masjid in Islamabad’s Aabpara area on July 3, 2007.

An eyewitness to Khan’s death, senior journalist Zafar Malik recounts that he, along with some colleagues, was standing at the roadside near the mosque while Khan was filming the violence when suddenly bullets struck, leaving Khan in a pool of blood.

As they rushed to rescue Khan, they were trapped in the shower of bullets as heavy gunfire erupted around them. “I felt like bullets were raining over them,” Malik shares of that most painful experience of his decades-long career.

The bullets marks can still be seen on the trees outside the school near Lal Masjid where Malik and his colleagues took shelter to escape the heavy firing. Although the government had made an announcement through the electronic media, warning journalists to stay away from the conflict zone in the tense stand-off leading up to the military operation, most had no idea about the announcement as they had been in the field from the early morning; they had no access to internet to keep themselves updated about the latest directions, explains Malik. While they were shifting Khan in a vehicle, bullets hit two other colleagues, leaving them injured.

The senior journalist says Khan’s death was taken simply as a collateral fatality; no FIR was registered against anyone for his death. He does not think that the deceased and injured journalists had been included in the list of the students who had been killed or injured during the later operation.

Absar Alam, who was bureau chief of Geo News at the time, was among the journalists who survived the crossfire between the law enforcement agencies and the students of Lal Masjid. “The lead up to the operation was like a frenzy,” recalls Alam. He was present at the conflict zone along with others to cover the developments. No one was thinking about anything untoward happening because the law enforcement agencies were making announcements asking Lal Masjid students to surrender peacefully. But all of a sudden, the protesting students became violent and started pelting stones on the security vehicles patrolling outside the mosque.

In the meantime, a stray bullet — Alam doesn’t know from where it came — turned the whole situation violent, and a crossfire began as the Lal Masjid activists were equipped with automatic weapons and stones. The gunfire was so sudden that everyone was trapped in the middle.

Alam didn’t know where his colleagues had gone; he just rushed towards the nearby school wall to escape the heavy shelling when a hard blunt object grazed his head. He began to bleed. He didn’t know which side it came from as the law enforcement personnel were positioned behind him on the rooftop of the school and the madrassah students were in the front of the mosque. He had nothing to shield himself from being hit further, as till then there was no concept in the Pakistani media of providing safety equipment to journalists who covered dangerous conflicts.

Alam pressed his head firmly with his hands to stop the bleeding and rushed towards the Poly Clinic Hospital where he luckily reached and had his wound stitched. Later, he was informed that Khan had been killed and some other colleagues were treated for their injuries. After that incident, a few media organisations started providing bullet-proof jackets and helmets to their reporters covering conflicts, but not all reporters and cameramen are equipped with safety equipment even today.

Living with disability

Israr Ahmed, a cameraman for CNBC Pakistan, is another survivor of the unexpected clash before the Lal Masjid operation. Ahmed was covering an event when he received a call from his office to report the Lal Masjid stand-off. He went there immediately. “I was busy filming the gunfire outside the mosque when suddenly bullets hit me from the back. I don’t remember anything after that.”

Israr Ahmed, a cameraman, is paralysed for life.
Israr Ahmed, a cameraman, is paralysed for life.

Three bullets hit Ahmed, leaving him unconscious in a pool of blood. Two bullets hit him in the arm and the leg. It was the third one, which pierced his spinal cord, that did the most damage. It left him paralysed for life.

At the time, his family was in pain due to his critical condition as he was on a ventilator, and his organisation too didn’t follow the criminal case. By the time he recovered from the near-fatal injuries, Ahmed says his case had been closed.

Two other photojournalists were also received gunshot wounds in the clash at Aabpara. Ahmed considers himself lucky as his organisation didn’t abandon him and provided the expenses of his treatment, but he rues that neither of their cases were prosecuted properly, despite the fact that they were simply serving their profession.

In their defence, Samaa TV — the successor of CNBC Pakistan — says it did all it could for Ahmed. Altaf Hussain, senior accountant in finance, administration and HR claims that his organisation provided 2.6 million rupees to Ahmed as immediate medical insurance. He points out that Samaa TV provides comprehensive health insurance of one million rupees to all employees based on the grade of employment, a policy that was formed at the time Samaa TV was launched in 2005. Hussain claims Ahmed is still on the payroll and entitled to the salary and other privileges that the organisation offers all its staff. The organisation also provides security jackets and helmets, raincoats, umbrellas and other related equipment to its field staff, he says.

Hussain also explains that he and Nadeem Malik, at that time the Islamabad bureau chief for CNBC Pakistan, had filed a complaint in person with the Aabpara police station regarding Ahmed’s incident. However, an FIR could not be registered due to unknown reasons. He says that the organisation can only support the family and that it did, adding that it was Ahmed’s family’s responsibility to prosecute the case as the organisation could not be a party in such cases.

Justice denied

Javed Khan belonged to a middle-class family living in Charsadda district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and his only source of income was his job. After his death, his family was left unattended financially. He left behind three young children — two daughters and a son — and a widow.

Javed Khan, a news photographer, died July 3, 2007
Javed Khan, a news photographer, died July 3, 2007

After his death, Khan’s brothers shifted the family to their native town in Charsadda as they were not financially sound enough to afford their living expenses in Islamabad.

While regretting moving his brother’s children from better quality educational institutions to a remote village school, Khan’s sibling Gul says that they had no other option but to bring them back. The family received 500,000 rupees only as compensation on behalf of the government, as well as another 100,000 rupees which he says either came as a donation from Khan’s colleagues or from the media organisation he was employed by.

Gul says he wished to prosecute his brother’s case and to bring the perpetrators to justice, but he could not afford to pay the lawyers’ fees or to make repeated visits to Islamabad for court hearings. Rather than spending their money on the prosecution of the case, he preferred to spend that money on his niece’s and nephew’s education. Gul has no idea whether the police even registered the case of his brother’s murder or not.

The police had called him once to record his statement in the initial days after his brother’s death but they never contacted him again. When he was giving his statement to the police, one of the questions the police asked Gul was about the kinds of activities the deceased used to engage in. Khan’s employers never got in touch with the family either.

On July 3 this year, the family observed Khan’s 12th death anniversary. On every death anniversary, Gul asks himself what his brother’s crime was, for which he had been punished. Was he not serving his country and organisation like others who not only get special acknowledgment for their services but are served with justice as well?

“I simply convince myself that my brother was punished for his honesty with his profession, and that the Almighty will give him his just rewards in the next life.”

Eos tried to approach the owner of Daily Markaz, Tahir Khokhar, Khan’s employer at the time of his killing, to find out what assistance his organisation had provided his family after his death. Khokar was unreachable. He had shifted to Germany after closing down his newspaper many years ago.

What does the law envisage?

Advocate High Court Malik Saleem Iqbal says the country’s laws clearly state that an FIR must be registered in cases such as those of Javed Khan. He explains that if the police shows reluctance to register a case, then the aggrieved party may invoke a sessions judge under Section 22-A of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC).

Journalists, he says, may connect their duties to Article 19-A of the constitution, according to which every citizen is empowered to access certified information from public bodies. If any public body refuses to provide information, then the applicant may lodge a complaint before the Information Commission, under the Right to Information and Transparency Act, 2017. The concerned official may be penalised under the act. Any public body which creates hurdles in the access of information is actually committing an infringement of the constitution in the eyes of the law.

Threatening journalists is tantamount to a violation of the fundamental rights enshrined in the constitution. Journalists should be able to access information through law to deter unlawful acts of agencies and public bodies. Under law, all proceedings are documented and will be supportive in case of any unpleasant approach from officials of any public body. Moreover, the law states that Article 19 of the Constitution confers on all citizens the right to freedom of speech and expresses that there shall be freedom of the press, subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law.

Changing the outlook

Source: Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF)
Source: Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF)

According to statistics available with the Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF), 48 journalists have been killed in targeted attacks across the country in the last 17 years, of which 24 were killed in the line of duty. The accused in only five cases were convicted.

The report further reveals that cases were lodged in 25 violent incidents and challans of 16 cases filed. Only five cases were resolved where a conviction could be made while the rest of the cases remained unresolved, the report maintains. Year-wise, the report states that 2014 was the deadliest year for Pakistani journalists with seven journalists targeted and killed that year.

Clash of interests

Former Rawalpindi-Islamabad Union of Journalists (RIUJ) president and journalist Mubarak Zeb Khan admits that journalists’ bodies do not play their part to ensure the physical and financial security of journalists. He claims vested interests among representative bodies bar them from taking any concrete steps towards tackling this concern. Journalists’ bodies have been divided into many small groups and every group works primarily to protect its own material interests, he says. “They have nothing to do with the collective cause of the protection of journalists or the protection of freedom of speech in the country.”

Earlier, there was only one representative body, Zeb points out, but it was more active in protecting journalistic interests than the several small groups that exist now. This splintering within the journalist community has seriously damaged the journalists cause, he deplores.

Absar Alam believes there are also other factors at play. Media owners’ inhumane attitude towards employees, the lack of a journalists’ protection law, the state’s incompetence and a poor judicial system are also responsible for the current security situation for journalists in the country, according to him. He feels the lust for making more money and buying property has changed the mindset of journalists who have the power to influence media owners and the state. A united front of journalists’ unions with the support of veteran journalists and anchorpersons can be helpful in this regard, he says.

Television anchorpersons, specifically, who have far more clout because of their celebrity, can use their influence on media owners, hold them accountable and pressurise them into taking safety measures for journalists, in his view. They are money-making entities for media houses and they are closely associated with the owners as well. If they make sincere efforts and take up the matter with owners, they can make a difference, Alam feels. But in reality, they often have nothing to do with the protection of journalists and their families, and are instead focused only on increasing their personal assets by protecting the commercial interests of media house owners and other institutions, Alam points out. He further says that since media is the fourth pillar of the state, it is the state’s responsibility to provide physical and financial security to the journalist community.

With respect to the lack of interest of most Pakistani media organisations in providing safety equipment and training to their reporters working in conflict zones — a basic necessity for insurance for international news organisations such as BBC — senior investigative journalist Mubashar Bukhari says most consider it an unnecessary headache and a dispensable additional cost. Aside from a few on the frontline lucky enough in Pakistan to receive such equipment and training, the rest are at the mercy of the elements, so to speak.

“Media organisations are not legally bound to provide security to their staff working in conflict zones,” says Naveed Hussain, editor of Express Tribune. However, “some organisations have proper mechanisms in place to provide security insurance to their staffers” in case they become victims of violence — a trend found more in broadcast journalism than print journalism. “It is the newsroom’s moral responsibility to discourage their field staff from putting themselves in danger for the sake of exclusivity of news,” adds Naveed Hussain.

It seems most people in positions of influence in media organisations wish to wash their hands of the issue of journalist safety. In such a case, perhaps the recourse should be to changing the law.

Hanging in the balance

Source: Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF)
Source: Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF)

Although, the government, in consultation with the RIUJ, began working on the Draft Journalists Welfare and Protection Bill 2017, the proposed draft still hangs in the balance. Since December 2017, no development has been made on the proposed bill.

Some important points of the final draft are as follows:

All media owners shall provide life insurance to all the field employees, including reporters, cameramen, photographers, DSNG staff and drivers.

In case of a national calamity, eruption of fire, accidents, natural disasters, bomb blasts or active armed conflicts, employers shall provide journalists all allied facilities during coverage, such as bullet-proof jackets, helmets and other related safety equipment, especially in emergency situations.

At the time of the renewal of a TV channel licence from the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) and renewal declaration, media organisations shall produce health/life insurance certificates and the last month salary certificates of its employees to the concerned authority.

Media owners, in collaboration with the relevant provincial/federal government, shall provide free education up to 14 years of study to the children of deceased /martyred journalists.

The family, or as the case may be, the children of a deceased /martyred journalist shall be entitled to suitable compensation from the Journalist Endowment Fund (JEF).

Registered journalists, as defined in Section-1(4), shall be eligible for entitlement to the benefits of the Prime Minister’s Healthcare Card Scheme for their individual self and family.

Zeb, who was part of the media consultative committee working on the proposed draft, believes that the proposed bill would be a great help to ensure the safety and security of journalists. The journalists’ consultative committee had also recommended the government provide government prosecutors to journalists and their families to deal with legal matters.

A senior official of the Pakistan Press Information Department, on condition of anonymity, confesses that no progress has been made on the proposed bill since December 2017. Despite consensus over the proposed draft, the bill could not be moved for approval. The PML-N government had initiated work on the proposed bill and senior PPP leader Farhatullah Babar and PML-N spokesperson Maryam Aurangzeb were among the parliamentarians who were working on the proposed bill. The JEF was announced by former prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani to provide free-of-cost health and other basic facilities to journalists and their families. However, this remained a verbal announcement and no funds were ever allocated. Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists President Afzal Butt says that since the current government has come into power, instead of the pending issues being resolved, the journalist community has, in fact, faced even further financial crises.

Root causes

So why is there so much apathy about clearly pressing issues of life and death?

One of the root causes, some believe, is because journalism is being executed as strictly a business enterprise. Business tycoons often set up media outlets in order to protect their other commercial interests, instead of to support journalists, good journalism and democracy. “The mushroom growth of media outlets, more space for unprofessional journalism and the control of media organisations in the hands of unprofessional owners and editorial staff are some important factors that contribute to the current state of media in this country,” says Bukhari. Due to a conflict of interest, media houses cannot afford investigative journalism because they are working as lobbyists of various political and non-political forces, according to Bukhari. If they do hold officials accountable, they would lose their businesses and might be targeted as well, he says.

This friction, in effect, cripples the core of journalism. When a journalist has the courage to do a story on an issue considered sensitive, his/her story is often held back by the management citing pressures. Such pressures have affected the state of investigative journalism in Pakistan.

Senior journalist Shahzeb Jillani feels reporters cannot be considered simply as assets or liabilities to an organisation. They have a crucial function in democratic societies: to inform, educate and hold those in power accountable. When journalists are harassed, threatened or killed, it reflects a breakdown of law and order, he says. “It shows the state’s failure in protecting its citizens and those exposing abuse of power and authority.”

Jillani has himself been a victim of ‘unannounced censorship.’ He was implicated in a case for making remarks against the “invisible security forces of the country.” Instead of protecting Jillani, however, his television employer sacked him, following alleged behind-the-scenes pressure. Later, a local court in Karachi quashed the case against Jillani due to a lack of evidence.

There is no doubt that media practitioners have been facing a great number of challenges since long in this country. The recent stifling of freedom of speech has compounded the challenges Pakistan’s media environment is mired in. This is the time for journalists’ representatives to set aside all their vested interests and political or ideological differences, and to unite under the guidance of veteran journalists. They must avail every available forum against state censorship and knock on the doors of the Supreme Court to ensure themselves not only the freedom to carry out their jobs, but also the safety of their lives when performing their duties as journalists. Failing this, journalists should be prepared for continued victimisation at the hands of the state or non-state actors. And for their families to be denied justice, like Javed Khan.

Q&A with a veteran journalist

Veteran journalist Muhammad Ziauddin
Veteran journalist Muhammad Ziauddin

“Those who wish to take up media as a profession need to be prepared for all kinds of risks.” — Muhammad Ziauddin, veteran journalist.

Why do media organisations treat field journalists as dispensable?

Most media organisations have no idea about the business they are in. They treat it like other commercial ventures whose aim is to make money, whereas media is a public service industry. You need to be careful of the kind of persons you employ. Media persons who work in the field as well as on the desk need to be socially aware with a questioning mind, brave enough to ask the right questions from the most powerful. Since these points are not kept in mind while recruiting and instead the employers go for the cheapest, media houses don’t feel any qualms or a feeling of loss when treating the field staff as merely a dispensable commodity.

Why do media organisations wash their hands of investigative journalists?

In the first place, they don’t recruit the right persons with the right nose for going into the depth of a report. Secondly, as most investigative reports are gathered through whistle-blowers and aimed at exposing the government, the media houses feel safe in keeping away from such investigative reports. Such reports, they fear, could adversely impact their main sources of income — their commercial ventures — gold trade, educational institutions and consumer goods etc.

Under the current security and financial environments of the media industry, are journalists ready to take risks?

Those who wish to take up media as a profession need to be prepared for all kinds of risks, starting with frequently losing jobs, sustaining the wrath of governments and other powerful entities. One can develop such an approach to his/her job if the person is motivated more by public service rather than money. The fast-paced developments in the telecom industry and in info-technology, plus the developments concerning the fourth industrial revolution, are throwing open a completely new world for a person who wishes to take up this profession. This means learning a new language to tell your story using entirely new tools.

The writer is an investigative journalist based in Islamabad & a PhD aspirant. She tweets @shizrehman

Published in Dawn, EOS, August 4th, 2019