Saturday, October 27, 2007

Bomb Blasts Add to Journalists' Risks: IPS

KARACHI, Oct 26 (IPS) - When TV cameraman Arif Khan added to the list of over 140 people who died in the bombings that targeted the welcome procession for former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, on Oct. 18, it highlighted the many risks that journalists in Pakistan now face.

Bhutto took special notice of Khan in her press conference the following day, while paying homage to the 'shuhada' (martyrs) and expressing sympathy for their families: "I did see the cameraman who lost his life. He was on the police van next to us, and I could see that he was very active."

Enthusiasm for his work and a propensity for being near the centre of activity cost Khan his life, as colleagues noted at a condolence meeting at the Karachi Press Club last week. "Arif Khan has become a symbol for the freedom of expression, for which he gave his life," observed Javed Chowdhry, secretary general of the Karachi Union of Journalists.

Perched on the police van next to the Pakistan Peoples’ Party chairperson’s armoured vehicle, Khan, a father of six, typifies the journalist killed in the line of duty in what is an increasingly violence prone country.

"Most stories now involve a certain amount of risk. The subjects either try to play to the camera or break it," said Syed Talat Hussain, executive director of news and current affairs at Aaj TV.

Hussain has first-hand experience of such violence. Armed gangs prowling the streets to prevent the then suspended Chief Justice from coming to Karachi attacked the Aaj office on May 12 this year as the channel provided live coverage of the situation.

Television viewers were shocked to see Hussain continuing to feed information to the anchor as he and his colleagues ducked behind desks to save themselves from a continuous hail of bullets.

There have been such attacks before but this was the first to be broadcast live. Attackers have included police, who smashed their way into the Geo TV office in Islamabad earlier this year, as well as armed gangs with various affiliations.

Media offices have been fired at and set ablaze. For good measure, rampaging mobs have smashed the windows of journalists’ cars parked outside, unhindered.

The risks have multiplied manifold over the last few years. A report in the U.S. weekly ‘Newsweek’ of Oct. 20, 2007 terms Pakistan the most dangerous country on earth -- Iraq notwithstanding -- and lists a series of contributing factors such as political instability, a network of radical Islamists, widespread anti-Western anger and the country’s nuclear-armed status.

Journalists face the same dangers as any other citizen -- and more, because their profession thrusts them into high-risk situations. In this they are like policemen and security guards, but unlike security personnel they have no weapons, safety equipment or specialised training. This makes them increasingly vulnerable in case of bomb blasts, for instance, where they are not the direct target, but can become victims.

"Bomb blasts will happen. We are professionals, we have to get out and do our job," said Munizae Jahangir, who reports for NDTV, an Indian TV channel. She was climbing up Bhutto’s armoured vehicle when the first blast happened. Expecting a second blast, she and her cameraman fled and, seconds later, another blast went off right where they had been standing.

Unharmed, but shaken and spattered with blood and bits of human flesh, she told IPS: "You know the risks. You know you can die. But what if you lose a limb or become incapacitated in some way? That’s the worst thought."

Besides killing Arif Khan, the blasts seriously injured two other journalists, both from CNBC Pakistan. Salman Farooq, a cameraman, received serious leg injuries while a reporter, Shehzad, is still lying in a critical condition in a Karachi hospital.

"If the blasts had happened when Benazir’s vehicle was near a media truck, many more journalists would have been injured or killed," conjectured Mazhar Abbas, secretary-general of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) and one of this year’s International Press Freedom Awardees as announced by the New-York-based media freedom watchdog, Committee to Protect Journalists.

Talking to IPS on telephone from Islamabad, Abbas said the tremendous growth of the electronic media in Pakistan has made cameramen and reporters more susceptible. For one thing, their numbers have drastically increased; 100 to 150 journalists are present at any function. Secondly, the pressure to obtain exclusive visuals pushes cameramen and television reporters closer and closer to the centre of the unfolding story.

This vulnerability became starkly apparent in April 2006 when a bomb ripped apart a wooden stage set up for a prayer meeting at Karachi’s Nishtar Park. Over 50 people were killed, including most of the top leadership of the religious organisation, Jamaat-e-Ahle Sunnat, which had set up the meeting.

Among the scores injured were a dozen journalists. Shoaib Khan, a photographer for a local Urdu-language daily, lost an eye. He was left partially paralysed, bereft of speech. His situation highlighted the issue of insurance for journalists covering risky events: it is practically non-existent.

"His organisation dumped him. They didn’t even pay that month’s salary," said Abbas. "Medicine is expensive. Even the eye operation he still needs has been delayed due to financial problems."

"We have to wake up to the reality that Pakistan is a dangerous place, and this is not going to end," said Tahir Ikram, director of programmes at CNBC Pakistan. "We need to provide specialised training to our journalists."

Pakistan has no foundations to look after journalists like Shoaib Khan or their families. A few large media groups in Pakistan do provide some life and accident insurance, but most do not provide special training or safety equipment to correspondents.

Some 21 journalists have been killed in Pakistan since President Gen. Pervez Musharraf took over power in 1999. "An explosion in the number of independent TV channels boosted pluralism and the quality of news," noted the media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) in its annual report of 2007.

"But the security forces radicalised their methods of repression: a score of journalists were kidnapped and tortured by the military. The situation is worst of all in the tribal areas (along the border with Afghanistan)."

The murder of tribal reporter Hayatullah Khan in June 2006 after being kidnapped six months earlier by ‘unknown’ men brought the media situation in Pakistan under sharp focus, provoking protests in the country and around the world.

"The case underlined the brutality of security forces towards journalists who take too close an interest in what goes on in the tribal areas and in Baluchistan," noted RSF.

Cameraman Munir Sangi, was shot dead in May 2006 while covering tribal clashes in the southern Sindh province. In July, two more TV cameramen were seriously injured on the first day of the military’s onslaught on Islamabad’s Red Mosque where militants were holed up.

Rushed to hospital, one of them, Javed Khan, died during surgery. The other, Israr Ahmed remains in critical condition with spinal cord injuries.

Given this situation, Talat Hussain, from Aaj TV, told IPS that journalists will have to modify their recording and shooting techniques. "We’ll have to use distant lenses, wireless microphones, and the reporter will have to go in, get the quote and get out," he said.

With elections coming up the situation can only worsen. "There will be stages, rallies, meetings… and journalists have to be there," said Mazhar Abbas.

He reiterated PFUJ’s demands for media owners to provide life insurance, safety equipment and specialised conflict-reporting training. "When they’re already spending so much, media organisations should spend a bit more and do this too."

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