KARACHI: Ranked 159th on the World Press Freedom Index, Pakistan has yet to prove it believes in press freedom despite having over 80 television channels that report breaking news every minute.
Karachi, the country’s largest multi-ethnic and multicultural city, is not too kind to its bearers of news. “If you sidetrack from any line of questioning from religious parties, your beliefs and morality is questioned,” says Fawad Ali Shah, a crime reporter. Similarly, you cannot write against certain influential people, he adds.
“You are instantly labelled,” agrees Adil Jawwad, staff reporter at the Urdu Daily Express, saying that people expect all journalists to support a “side”. “They think we have to be pro someone, no matter how impartial your reporting is.”
Shamimur Rehman, a journalist with the Daily Dawn, said: “wherever you go, you need to be very careful and evaluate what you are being told because it is not necessarily the truth.” He added that homework is essential for any reporter.
Many journalists fear for their lives, especially that of their families. “It doesn’t take much for people to pick up the phone and threaten you,” says Masroor Hussain, a reporter for Express 24/7. People often hear of journalists being threatened and facing pressure from owners of the organisation they work for.
In Karachi, there are many reality checks. “I had to leave the country for a while five years ago,” says Hussain, adding “I was left with no other choice as my family was threatened by certain groups.”
According to Hussain, for every journalist there is a fear lurking, especially of criminal syndicates. However, Jawwad feels that if a reporter does not get too close to people he or she is reporting about, he does not have much to fear in the city. “If you get personal with anyone, they’re obviously going to get personal with you,” he argues.
Most reporters also agreed that journalists are the first to be targeted. “We are to blame for everything. We are the first ones to be beaten up,” says Jawwad.
According to Shah, protestors attack journalists to vent their anger. Imtiaz Ali Chandio, a reporter with The News International, adds to this. “Along with the ‘traditional threats’ that come from pressure groups and the government, I have noticed two new trends that, in the long run, are very bad for freedom of press. The first one is that the media seems to be getting more polarised as reporters and journalists now have partisan agendas,” he said.
If reporters continue to write with a bias, then they will definitely be targeted by some parties and that will affect press freedom generally, he added.
Another more recent and bigger threat to journalists in Karachi is from terrorists and extremist elements. “I have been threatened by the Taliban many times,” claims Hussain, adding, that “this never used to happen before.” Ali seconds this and says that “journalists are now being targeted by terrorists, especially when they go to cover terror incidents such as bomb blasts.”
Many journalists and cameramen do not have health insurance either which makes them less than eager to cover such dangerous events. Another problem brought to light by Jawwad was the issue of mobility in the metropolis. “The traffic jams make me late for many assignments even when I try to leave early,” he says. “Even if I reach the site on time, I can’t find any parking.”
On what is required by journalists today, I.H. Burney, a veteran journalist who retired from the Daily Dawn, says that maintaining credibility is essential. “There is a need for responsibility and to cross-check facts. People are willing to talk to a reporter who has credibility. It is a question of trusting the reporter,” says Burney.
About freedom of press today, all journalists seem to be on the same page. They all believe that in comparison to the past, the media is more powerful now. “The camera works like a gun for us,” says Hussain. “We’ve gained more power because of the electronic media and live coverage. Once something is live on camera, we cannot be blamed.”