Pakistan’s journalist community is today observing the first death anniversary of Wali Khan Babar, who was murdered in cold blood in Karachi. During the year 12 more journalists were killed, which made Pakistan the most dangerous country in the world for journalists. Of the 13 journalists killed in 2011 (or more than one a month), at least eight were from Balochistan, where journalists may soon find it impossible to work if the situation in the troubled province does not improve radically.
In the last ten years, Pakistani journalists have been observing the death anniversary of a murdered colleague almost every month. Police have already submitted challans against the five accused persons under arrest, but other suspects are absconding. The matter is now before the court, and it is only when the trial starts that it will be known whether the arrested suspects are the real killers.
The National Assembly has constituted a committee to probe into the threats to journalists, but it is doubtful that its formation will be of any help. The authorities are not taking the issue seriously enough, particularly in cases where the “intelligence agencies” come into the equation. Therefore, Pakistani journalists need to fight their own cases with the effective support of their unions. No one know who the next target of killing will be, but journalists working in Balochistan are in particular danger, as are many of those operating in Fata and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, the other badly affected areas of the country.
In a statement the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) supported Pakistani journalists who had publicly announce they are under threat. However, safety concerns discourage most Balochistan-based journalists in this situation from coming forward. It is very difficult for victims’ families even to lodge FIRs at police stations, let alone reveal the assailants’ identities to the police.
The threats are of different kinds and are delivered in different ways. Some are direct threats to life and others are in the form of warnings against the intended victim’s engaging in a particular journalistic activity. Some threats are verbal, others are sent through sms messages, or even via distributed pamphlets. I have confronted, or dealt with, this kind of situation many times in my own career. Only last year, as Director News of a television channel, I had to transfer two staff members from Balochistan for their safety. In a third case, a reporter even had to leave the country.
There have been six other cases in different channels where employers transferred their reporters from one place to another for safety reasons or reporters or cameramen themselves decided to go abroad after receiving serious threats. Demands for the arrest of the killer after every new murder have become such a frequent and routine affair that often the news desk only has to change the names of the victim in the text of the news item related to the previous murder.
Each new threat adds to a journalist’s frustration. The psychological pressure and mental stress on journalists are intensified by the poor working conditions. The majority of them are underpaid, and salary payments are irregular. In addition, they lack medical and insurance covers. There are no security arrangements by the employers. Each journalist working in Balochistan can take the following measures to minimise his risks:
1. Carefully assess the nature of the threat you receive, and, wherever possible in the given situation and circumstances, inform your superior about it.
2. Threatening phone calls, verbal warnings, sms messages are all to be treated and dealt with differently.
3. Journalist in search of exclusive stories or sensitive assignments are particularly prone to landing in trouble. Therefore, they should always brief the editor before embarking on such an assignment.
4. Journalists under threat must maintain extra alertness about anything unusual near their office or their home. For instance, if a journalist notices or feels that he is being watched by a stranger, or strangers, for more then one day, he should not dismiss this as an insignificant occurrence and increase precautionary and safety measures, and share his doubts with a responsible member of the staff.
5. Whenever possible, change routes, times and vehicles on way to work or home. If you experience difficulty finding your way, don’t look lost, and always give the appearance of knowing where you are and where you are headed.
6. If using a car or motorcycle, keep a first-aid box with you and, if feasible, a few basic medicines as well. These could not only come handy to you but also to some colleague needing immediate first aid. (Ideally, given the grave risks involved, journalists should not go to conflict zones without training in self-defence.)
7. If harassed in a conflict area, keep calm and play for time, and avoid looking into the eyes of individuals hostile to you. If caught, stay calm, composed and courteous.
8. Do not get into arguments with people over sensitive or emotive issues.
9. Avoid arguments with the security people.
10. Never argue with the families and friends of a murder victim brought to a hospital. Cameramen should always seek family members’ permission before filming the victim.
11. Make sure you don’t have links with an extremist group or with the intelligence agencies, because that can be lethal for you. While individual political outlooks are understandable, the reporter should have no affiliations with political parties or groups. That can damage the credibility of the journalist himself and of the newspaper or channel he represents, as well as posing a threat to his life.
12. Those reporting on the conflict must keep the facts in their proper contexts, without exaggerating or embellishing them. An irresponsible attitude can not only insert inaccuracies and flaws in the story and thereby discredit the reporter, it can be dangerous to him.
In the newsroom, on the other hand, the team can in many cases actually save the life of a reporter or cameraman in the field through exercising responsibility and caution in editing. The newsroom has a critical role when a reporter is in a conflict zone as it is the editing staff who decide how a story or column is treated or displayed. A few years ago a columnist was killed because of the poor editing of his column, or of the misleading headline given to it.
Some news channels often act in an irresponsible manner in the coverage of stories related to religious, ethnic and sectarian incidents. There have been at least four cases in which a journalist lost his life because of inappropriate comments by those who used the story and poor editorial decisions. Therefore, it is very important for the news anchors to be told exactly what questions they should put to reporters in the conflict zone. At the same time, the reporter should be told what he should say and what particular element(s) he should avoid making a comment about.
Handling of live coverage is also the responsibility of the newsroom particularly in cases of bomb blasts, riots and high-profile murders. The editors, the director of news and bureau chief must be careful in their choice of reporters assigned to the coverage of an extra-sensitive issues. The threats are not always related to a journalist’s story. At times his linguistic, religious or sectarian identity becomes a problem.
This is particularly true in the reporting of ethnic, sectarian and nationalist issues. In some cases Baloch journalists were picked up by the security agencies simply for the reason that they were Baloch. In its multiple complexities, from ethnic to religious, Balochistan is a conflict where a journalist’s very identity can pose a grave danger him. And this is only one aspect behind the unending casualties.
The writer is a senior journalist and former secretary general of the PFUJ.