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Life on the line in ratings race

Each day, journalists and reporters face serious risks and threats, just for doing their jobs

By Yusra Salim |
Design: Mohsin Alam
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PUBLISHED November 06, 2022

It takes much more than just writing to have the drive and desire to dig out news items often from nothing, and convert them into worthy stories for publishing or broadcast. Each day journalists and reporters struggle for stories that evaluate and expose the truth. While these stories interest, intrigue, educate and inform the readers, they often entail hazards, and risks for journalists.

Many times, journalists pay a hefty price by taking risks of accidents that are sometimes fatal, by getting injured, threatened, harassed, and intimidated, and even killed. But their passion keeps them doing their job selflessly.

The recent death of TV reporter Sadaf Naeem, who slipped from a container truck and was crushed to death in Lahore while covering a political march, has sent shock waves around the country, questioning the training of reporters and security concerns of journalists reporting from long marches, crowd events, processions, and public gatherings.

Changed dynamics

Sudden layoffs, post-pandemic salary cuts, extra work hours and sometimes months of unpaid work ― the situation for journalists presently is pretty grim. “The biggest issue in cases such as Naeem’s is insurance for reporters which is almost zero in organisations while they do hazardous work every day,” says veteran journalist, Ghazi Salahuddin. “Bulletproof vests and helmets are mandatory for high-risk reporting, but the majority of news organisations either do not have them or don’t ensure that reporters wear them while reporting. Not even mass communication departments teach the basic rules of reporting.”

Salahuddin blames the changed dynamics of journalism and lack of professionalism of journalists on the rapid influx of news channels. “In most cases, lack of training and guidance from seniors’ are the reasons behind the breaking news trend,” he explains.” For instance, in an event with dozens of cameras, how can a reporter do an in-depth report and break news?”

Rules should be set for TV reporting and all news directors should ensure that these are implemented. “At least rules must be followed in public events where there are risks and hazards involved,” insists Salahuddin.

Elaborating on the sad incident, he points out that although the reporter [Sadaf Naeem] was trying her best to get an exclusive interview, reporters should understand that they should not go beyond a limit. “The situation of TV reporters is alarming,” says Salahuddin. “Entering someone’s house, intrusion of privacy and forcing someone to answer them is considered okay. But it certainly is not and to understand that, editors and news directors must also be trained. Running behind an exclusive does not mean risking life,” he says.

Risky profession

The famous quote by Rod Dreher, ‘there are three kinds of people who run toward disaster, not away: cops, firemen, and reporters,’ perhaps, best sums up the profession of journalism.

Calling it a risky profession is not an understatement because on a daily basis a reporter exposes, hurts someone or the other, and digs out different stories that lay bare the truth. “By exposing people one has to be ready to face reprisal and that is what makes reporting a risky matter. Here comes the role of the stakeholders to protect people who are working day and night for stories that make waves,” explains senior journalist Mazhar Abbas. He also points out that almost no news channel has any safety measures installed on premises and the employees who work there don’t know about emergency exits especially from basements. During Ramazan transmission, a small channel had a fire incident where four or five people died in the basement as they didn’t know the exit,” he recalls.

Abbas who has also trained and educated journalists on safety measures says that Naeem’s case was a lack of basic training in reporting, and channels such as Channel 5 run on sensationalism like tabloid press. “For them only the news matters, no matter how the reporter gets it,” he says. “Reporters need special training to cover processions, long marches, and crowded events.”

Sharing a few tips to cover public events, Abbas says he always avoids being on a container even if it is exclusively for media, as it can be an easy target in an escalated space where a mishap could easily happen. “Also it is dangerous to move around and not stay in one place like Naeem did as seen in the video footage later. What happened to her was unfortunate but in such situations, stampedes are not uncommon,” explains Abbas, adding that there is pressure on the reporter to get the story out but it can be done by staying at a safe distance.

Safety measures such as bulletproof vests or helmets provided by big news organisations to their reporters are only 80% effective. The risk hazard, and exposure is still there and anything unprecedented could happen.

Lack of training and organisational support

News organisations must only send trained reporters to conflict or high-risk assignments. When Abbas worked at AFP, he applied for a vacancy to report in Iraq and Afghanistan. His application was declined because he wasn’t trained to report in a war zone. “Later, I took training which is mandatory for several big news organisations,” he says.

When a journalist gets injured while covering an event, financial or moral support varies from organisation to organisation. For instance, big news organisations take care of their employees better. If the office provides medical insurance, they help as much as they can under the insurance cover. There have been instances where the organisation has paid full salaries to journalists unable to work after accidents, while there have also been cases where the journalist got fired after a few months as he had become a liability for the organisation.

Often, payments and salaries for employees are manipulated by the newspaper and news channel owners, for instances Naeem wasn’t paid her salary since the last four months. Interestingly, the role of PEMRA becomes questionable here. When a news channel applies for a license, it has to sign an undertaking that it has finances to run a channel and pay salaries to employees. In such cases PEMRA should regulate the channels to pay employees on time or send the organisation a legal notice for cancellation of its licence. “Most journalists do not even know about their rights,” says Abbas.

Where do unions stand?

Journalist organisations can make a difference by raising their voice against corrupt practices. “In 1970, unions were so strong that they went on a 10-day strike across East and West Pakistan and no newspaper was published for interim release,” shares Abbas. “Later, many journalists lost their jobs and had to face dire consequences but Bhutto promised to reinstate them and they were reinstated.”

Subsequently, realising the power of the unions, Zia-ul-Haq worked on dividing them and the right wing separated. “Until 2010, unions were strong but after that things changed for journalists. For instance, television don’t have any unions, so channel owners can easily manipulate news.”

In an attempt to protect them from mishaps and to ensure the safety of journalists, Karachi Press Club (KPC) arranges seminars and training on reporting and also issues SOPs prior to large public events to make sure the reporters who are covering such incidents know the basics to protect themselves from harm. “We always emphasise on bringing news and not becoming news themselves,” says secretary KPC, Rizwan Bhatti. He also shares that, reporters do have back office pressure to bring news in but SOPs must be followed. Bhatti explains that there are five unions but none of them are actually willing to sit together for the betterment of the people, because each union has a separate agenda. “A few years ago, an association was formed and it was decided that reporters will not be pressurised as we get loads of complaints but it hardly worked for two years. Everyone caved into the pressure of their organisations to get news and TRPs,” he explains.

Journalist unions lack their basic responsibility to ensure the safety and training of journalists even though KPC and other such bodies try to do as much as they can for reporters.

“The KPC has an endowment fund to help families of journalists who have lost their lives in the line of duty or have been permanently disabled due to an injury,” Bhatti shares.

Life after injury

Getting injured in a bomb blast or hit by a straight bullet, Zulfiqar Pirzada, chief reporter at a local news channel has seen it all, but he never stopped reporting. “At first it was difficult and I thought I should leave, but then I promised myself that I will not be a coward,” says the reporter who spent almost a year using a walking stick.

In 2008, Pirzada covered Pathan-police violence in Sohrab Goth. When the police began shelling, a shell hit him in the eye and he needed surgery for it later.

He got injured a second time in 2011, in Orangi town, where he was covering the Mohajir-Pathan conflict. “We were on a building trying to get a birds’ eye view for better footage,” he recalls. “As soon as the miscreants realised that the police and media are on the building, they pointed their guns at us and started firing. I got hit in my left hand.” Pirzada needed surgery again and his bone was repaired using a part of his hip bone.

Yet again, Pirzada got injured in 2013 during pre-general election activities. “It was a week before elections and I was just sitting outside my office having tea when I received the news that there had been a blast at a corner meeting near MQM headquarters,” he recalls. He was instructed to go there for detailed coverage and within 10 mins Pirzada arrived with the cameraman. “At the time Amir Faruqi was SSP central and stood on the other side of the footpath with the media,” he recalls. Faruqi asked me to join him but I told him that I was on live beeper for the channel. The anchor asked me a question and the reply to that was a loud bang. The next thing I remember was being treated in the hospital. I almost lost my leg.”

Pirzada’s news organisation supported him in all these incidents. “For almost two years my office provided me pick and drop but now I am back on my motorcycle,” he shares. “The family of the reporter suffers the most because they have to adjust themselves with the disability, not the office. My parents and my siblings had to help me as I was dependent on them.”

Inexperienced and under pressure

Khizar Azam, was a trainee reporter in a private news channel in 2013, when he was assigned to cover preparations before the Muharram procession. As he started filing the story in office, he heard the sound of a bomb blast from an Imam Bargah in North Nazimabad. Azam was asked to move to the spot instantly and he thought this was his chance to get a good story.

“I reached the narrow congested streets of Pahar Ganj with my cameramen and started shooting,” he recalls. “We were just about finished and were thinking of moving away as dual bomb blasts were common in those days. We thought we were away from the spot,” he remembers adding that three of them were together, while all other DSNG reporters, ambulances and even police were on the other side of the road. “Suddenly, a loud bang was heard and for a few moments nothing was visible, only screams could be heard.”

The right side of Azam’s body was badly injured. “After first aid they shifted us to Abbasi Shaheed Hospital, where an emergency had been declared,” he shares. “Later, I was admitted to Aga Khan Hospital on orders by my bureau chief, where I stayed for two weeks and had a series of surgeries to remove nuts, bolts and other metals from my flesh.”

As a trainee reporter, he didn’t have medical insurance but his office paid for the hospital expenses. “When I rejoined the office after a month, I was given desk work, but soon I started field work despite flashbacks of the Pahar Ganj incident.

Later, at Chaudhary Aslam’s blast spot with the crime reporter, he was expecting another blast because the psychological impact lasts much longer than the wounds, he shares. “One can get quite paranoid at the coverage of any event even after years, but the trauma a family goes through cannot be explained because I had got injured within a few months of starting out as trainee reporter and my mother was totally against resuming the same kind of work. I had to explain to her that this my passion and what I want to do.”

For these brave people, reporting is not a job but a mission and organisational support becomes even more imperative to recognise and value their inspiring endeavours for making news.