Under Pressure in Pakistan
As violence mounts in Pakistan, journalists and their families are feeling unsafe and insecure.
This article originally appeared in the Karachi-based Newsline magazine. It is published here with permission of the author.
When society is passing through a transitional period, and centuries-old social and cultural institutions are razed to the ground, journalists are left with no option but to cover misery, death and destruction.
From Swat to Waziristan, the area 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.
News channels are in a rush to break news. In the wake of the media boom in Pakistan, about 50 TV channels are in competition to inform the bewildered population before any other competitor takes the lead. Lost in this frenzy are the needs of journalists, more than 10 of whom have been killed in the line of duty over the past two years.
Now, as the war is reaching its climax and a major military offensive against Taliban militants is in progress in the tribal belt, Peshawar and the surrounding areas are the main targets of terrorist attacks. The city of Peshawar faced ten bomb blasts in two weeks in November that killed hundreds of people. Many reporters and TV journalists expressed their extreme frustration and despair over the worsening situation. They complained that their newsrooms give more importance to the reports and footage they need for their bulletins than their well-being.
Recently in Peshawar, a huge bomb blast at the famous Meena Bazaar killed 120 people. A TV reporter was asked by his editor to reach the scene and provide live reports from there. The reporter performed his duties, but eventually he collapsed and had to admitted to hospital.
“I saw charred bodies, crying children, helpless mothers, blood and destruction; I was out of my mind. Even now I can’t sleep; the scenes of bloodshed torment me day and night. Sometimes I think I am not fit for this job,” said one journalist who didn’t want to be identified for fear of losing his job.
Another issue is that journalists don’t have fixed working hours; they are on call round the clock. If you cover an event the whole day it does not absolve you from the responsibility to cover any new incident in the night. “Once, I was following a story of a bomb explosion in Peshawar the whole day. I was really depressed as I was seriously concerned about my city and its people. I was continuously thinking, why is this happening to us? With this pain and sense of insecurity, I returned home. In the wee hours of the night, I received a call from my newsroom to wake up and reach a spot that had been hit by another explosion. I had to run to the spot with a heavy heart and dejected feelings. My family was very concerned as they were not sure whether I would return home,” says Tariq Afaq, a senior journalist who works for a private news channel in Peshawar.
Afaq reveals that he only recently recovered from the trauma of the ongoing violence and instability in the region. But his organisation did not extend him any support for his healthcare. He recalled that he witnessed three bomb blasts that led to signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. “Almost all the journalists are suffering from pain and trauma, but most of them don’t talk about ailments. They fear they will be considered weak and in the long run may lose their jobs. But this is a serious issue and the media organisations concerned should provide the journalists with both training facilities and psycho-social support so that they can perform their duties in a befitting manner,” he argued.
Some of the journalists told Newsline that they feel more aggressive and frustrated in the wake of the increased violence in the region. One journalist said, “These days I don’t feel easy in the company of my friends. I want to be alone. I even find it hard to feel comfortable in the company of my own family members and co-workers.
Rifatullah Orakzai, who works for the BBC in Peshawar, agrees that journalism means objectivity and impartiality, but as a local resident he is emotionally attached to the area and its people.
“A few weeks back when I saw wounded children and women in a local hospital, I lost my concentration. They were crying and wailing and there was no one to tell them why and by whom they were hurt. I was taking photographs but when I returned to my office and checked the photos all of them were out of focus. I realised that my hands were shaking while I was taking the snaps. The sense of loss and helplessness in the eyes of the injured people shocked me,” Orakzai added.
Khalid Khishgi, former secretary general of the Khyber Union of Journalists and a senior journalist working for The News in Peshawar, says, “The problem does not end there. Both the military and the militants are monitoring each and every report from the conflict zones. I cannot predict which sentence or word in my report goes against the “strategic interests” of the powerful groups. In Peshawar, so many organisations received threatening letters from a certain militant group for not giving “enough space” to their side of the story. Words like press freedom become meaningless in such horrible situations.”
This year a number of journalists were kidnapped either by the militant groups or arrested by the security agencies for not observing the specified “code of conduct” that forced other journalists to self-censor their reports to avoid retaliation. There are cases when family members compelled some of the journalists to quit their jobs or migrate to other countries.
“When your home and your family members are not safe you cannot do justice to your profession,” says Rahman Buneri, who fled the country and took asylum in the United States when a group of militants bombed his house a few months back in the Buner valley of NWFP.
Dr Khalid Mufti, a renowned psychiatrist based in Peshawar, has observed that there is a marked increase in mental health problems among journalists and their families. He is of the opinion that the war and instability is taking a heavy toll on the mental health of journalists working in NWFP and the tribal areas. “I have observed fatigue, irritation and sleeplessness among the journalists who cover violent incidents. They are extremely frightened and uncertain about their future. This attitude also leads to complications in their family affairs. In 2008, I observed 35 male and two female journalists, but in 2009, 63 male and nine female journalists consulted me for the treatment of various mental health problems. I also observed that many journalists take refuge in drugs due to the deteriorating law and order situation,” said Dr Mufti, adding that three out of 10 journalists use hashish (cannabis) and seven out of 10 are using different types of tranquilisers.
Dr Mufti maintained that in 2008 he looked after 16 families of journalists while in 2009 the number rose to 56. He elaborated that journalists’ children are the worst affected as they fear for the lives of their parents. According to his estimate, 9 percent of the children of journalists are suffering from serious mental and psychological complexities.
“The issue is that journalists are not provided proper training in mental health; there is no counselling, no psychotherapy. Another issue is that journalists are not paid properly. Journalists based in FATA are poor and despite performing a challenging job they have nothing to provide a decent living to their families,” he concluded.