ISLAMABAD: Let’s call him by a pseudonym, Asad Shehzad, a Peshawar-based reporter working with a TV channel.
Day in and day out, he would spend time reporting about zaireen kept at quarantine centers, visiting hospitals and attending pressers held to update public about coronavirus unless he fell sick. Upon test, Asad turned out positive. He’s 41.
His younger brother who is also a journalist was tested the same day and found out positive. Asad went to see his sister in Rawalpindi a few days before getting tested, she has also been found positive now. In a joint family setting, the infection traveled to other members of family. By now, virus has only spared Asad’s mother and one brother---remaining 15 members have been infected. A growing number of journalists are becoming victim of the virus.
As many as 54 journalists have been tested positive and majority of them are in Quetta, which is followed by Peshawar and then Lahore, according to Freedom Network, an organisation working on freedom and safety of journalists. It has safety hubs across the country, which gathered data. Above-mentioned 54 are those whose reports have come out; several others who were tested are in the waiting list. Among those tested positive, 44 are journalists and 10 are doing jobs in other sections like information technology, administration and drivers.
Rising number of cases has set alarm bells ringing and questions are being raised about the safety protocol. Association of Electronic Media Editors and News Directors (AEMEND) had drafted a safety protocol for implementation in the newsrooms and there was also a set of guidelines for the staff go for field reporting. It, however, turns out that instructions have largely remained at paper as little effort is visible for putting them into practice. A journalist who tested positive said his office wouldn’t even provide facemasks. “We had to buy on our own,” he said.
A media executive who is part of AEMEND acknowledged that the problem exists but added that it exists on both sides—-media workers and newsroom managers both are responsible. “Generally, if news managers have told people SOPs and they have been provided with gear, they should follow and wear but not all of them do this. At the same time, field coverage could be reduced further. Reporters should be given specific mics allowing them to cover demonstrations from a distance. At AEMEND, we keep sharing experiences but frankly some managements may not be taking it as seriously as others,” he said.
Iqbal Khattak, head of Freedom Network, has also sounded disappointment. “If cases keep rising in the presence of a safety protocol, it means there is a gap between policy and practice,” he said urging that on-spot coverage must be immediately banned as has been done by newsrooms in the western media and safety protocol must be strictly enforced. His organisation has also been involved in extending financial support to journalists in need who have been tested positive.
Freedom Network, Khattak’s organisation, is local partner of Reporters without Borders. Together, they have listed 15 recommendations for media houses. Included among them are prohibiting coverage of crowded places and suspending the practice of live stand-ups from markets and other crowded places. They have also urged federal and provincial governments to end special credit facility to media organisations so that they can continue paying their staff and cover any exceptional expense.