A dangerous profession

I have witnessed many dangerous episodes working as a journalist in Pakistan, but I have never seen journalists more committed than they are in this era. Pakistan was declared the world’s most dangerous country for media work last year, and journalists there are confronted with serious challenges.

I would say most of it goes to former President General, Pervez Musharraf, who took power during the 1999 military coup. He introduced the Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) Ordinance in 2002, putting new restrictions on the media. These restrictions caused many of my fellow journalists to either give up their profession, or to leave their jobs and go into exile. The number of journalists escaping from Pakistan has been alarming.

Since the working conditions for journalists have worsened, journalists in Peshawar and Pakistan’s tribal areas are being targeted, threatened, kidnapped and denied access to the field. About 14 journalists have been killed in the region since the ‘war on terrorism’ began.

During my recent trip to the tribal areas, I discovered that the biggest story of this time is not being told the way it should be. The world is watching but unable to get the complete truth out of the war zone, where militants have been planning bomb attacks that have plunged a nuclear nation into chaos by rocking its cities with deadly attacks that have killed hundreds, injured thousands and displaced millions.

I was sitting in a local Hujra with my best friend Shaheen Boneri, a Peshawar-based journalist who was covering the war for BBC World Service.

Frustrated with covering chaos on a daily basis, Boneri explained that when society was passing through a transitional period, and centuries-old social and cultural institutions were razed to the ground, journalists were left with no option but to cover misery, death and destruction.

‘The country is in the grip of unprecedented violence and journalists carry the heavy burden of reporting each and every incident in great detail. The tragedy is that the majority of the journalists reporting from the conflict zones are not trained in the techniques of conflict reporting and safety measures,’ he added, sipping Peshawari Qahva, the traditional green tea and one of the favourite drinks of Pashtuns.

I was able to read clearly in Boneri’s expression a detailed account of the psychological problems faced by journalists. No doubt, every profession needs commitment, but I must say journalists are more committed in the sense that currently they are the most vulnerable group of people directly linked to dangerous zones. Nowadays every Pakistani journalist’s life is at risk. The prevailing uncertainty and fear puts their families at risk of militant attacks or harassment by the security agencies. Even in such hard times, they still stick to their duty instead of switching to other, safer jobs.

There is no denying the fact that Pakistani journalists are brave enough to face all the dangers and perform their duties and we should not only appreciate their work but also provide opportunities for them to polish their skills and to minimize threats to their lives.

Journalists in small towns and rural areas are sick of working without pay for the local dailies. It is criminal that bosses are obsessed with the idea of breaking news; most TV channels with correspondents in the conflict zones don’t take threats to their reporters’ lives very seriously. A few journalists have lost their lives while looking for breaking news. We always get the tragic news that the bullet-riddled body of one of our fellow journalists was recovered from a roadside. But it is never confirmed who killed him.

This observation takes on new urgency in light of the indifference of many media bosses. This is the lesson I draw from reporting in Pakistan’s dangerous conflict zones.

Most of the local and rural journalists are not trained for conflict reporting. Most often they work independently and their editors, sitting in big and relatively safe cities, don’t tell them that their safety is more important than breaking a story. The journalists are suffering from acute post-traumatic disorder due to witnessing such gory incidents of violence and they need care, treatment and psychiatric healing.

Those who begin as district or rural correspondents or who are forced by circumstances to join the profession, also need training and education in journalism ethics. Some of them are compelled to develop personal relationships with either the militant commanders or security agencies. This affects the quality of their journalism and sometimes results in confusion and uncertainty in society as they report issues according to the wishes of an individual or a group.

The TV channels have recruited people but never bothered to train them. Most of the budding journalists are interested in testing their mettle in online journalism but they lack the required skills. Plus they don’t know how to write for online media and how to protect their privacy if there is any threat/risk from any side.This is a sort of irresponsible journalism that creates more problems than delivering any positive results.

Hayat-Ullah Khan

Five orphans of slain tribal journalist Hayat-Ullah Khan are still looking for answers about the killer of their father, mother, and teenage uncle. All three were killed after Hayat published some pictures, which provoked angry protests in Pakistan at the infringement of Pakistani territory by US forces. While both the authorities and local militant groups denied any involvement in his killing, allegations persisted that Pakistan intelligence agencies were involved.

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