World Press Freedom Day 2020: Covid-19 Intensifies Pressures on Pakistani Journalists

Islamabad — Riazul Haq has used his Twitter account for a unique purpose during the coronavirus pandemic.

Every time Mr. Haq, a special correspondent at Hum News, learns about a salary cut or a confirmed coronavirus case at any local news organisation, he shares it on the micro-blogging website after verification.

His tweets do not provide an exhaustive list but they give a fairly accurate picture of the health risks and financial threats faced by journalists and employees of news organisations in Pakistan due to the spread of Covid-19.

On 22 April, Mr. Haq reported that a private news channel had allegedly fired eight members of its production department for protesting a retroactive 30-percent cut in pending salaries. The reduction is believed to have been linked with the coronavirus-related economic slowdown. The same day, he tweeted that a cameraman at Samaa TV had tested positive for the virus.

Since then, eight workers at ARY News in Islamabad and 10 staff members at Lahore’s City 42 news channel have also tested positive for Covid-19 along with several other journalists around the country.

As the number of coronavirus cases in Pakistan begins to peak, the news industry is besieged by physical safety concerns, a financial crisis, and digital threats that undermine the public trust in the media. In spite of these challenges, journalists continue to work on the frontlines of the public health crisis while news organisations try to find innovative ways to supply accurate information on the pandemic to their audiences.

On the occasion of World Press Freedom Day 2020, the risk of journalists contracting Covid-19 is not the extent of the current predicament of Pakistan’s news media. But it is perhaps the most pressing concern.

Reporting from the Lockdown

The news media are among the industries that were allowed to operate by the federal and provincial governments as they implemented different levels of lockdown at the end of March. However, it has put journalists and media employees in harm’s way.

According to one estimate, coronavirus is now confirmed in around 40 journalists in Pakistan. At least two journalists have died of it. ARY News closed its Islamabad bureau voluntarily to disinfect it after a random testing of 20 workers returned 40 percent positive cases. The Peshawar bureau of another TV channel reportedly closed its office on Wednesday after a reporter tested positive there.

In a statement issued on Thursday, the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) expressed concern over the increase in coronavirus incidence among journalists across the country. The PFUJ said most journalists were reporting without proper safety equipment and demanded media owners to ensure the safety of their staff from Covid-19.

“It is the prime responsibility of the owners to take adequate measures for the protection of employees working with their organisations as per guidelines issued by the Government of Pakistan and the district management,” the statement read.

The Committee to Protect Journalists has issued physical safety tips in Urdu. Click on the image to read the PDF.

Aroosa Shaukat, an Assistant Editor at The News on Sunday, has monitored the local news coverage trends on Covid-19. She said in February there was a complete lack of seriousness in Pakistani newsrooms about how the virus could affect journalists.

“This is alarming because the news media was reporting on the Pakistani students stuck in China due to the coronavirus lockdown there and were aware of the severity of the coronavirus,” Ms. Shaukat said. “There was enough time back then for newsroom heads to have sat together and come up with a coherent policy for the safety of journalists.”

She said up until mid-March she had heard from reporters who complained about being pushed by their newsrooms to report from hospitals with complete disregard for their personal physical and mental health.

“Reporters said they were not given masks at that time or even told about basic safety tips such as physical distancing,” Ms. Shaukat said. “They were even asked (by their editors) to speak in-person with the family of a recovered coronavirus patient without realising the risks of such an assignment.”

She said in one of the first instances of reporters testing positive in Pakistan, the Lahore-based news channel that employed them put out a promotional video the very next day showing reporters providing coverage from the field.

“It was a confusing message,” Ms. Shaukat said. “It seemed as if they were trying to defend against the backlash that they had not taken good enough care of their staff.”

Newsrooms began to acknowledge the severity of the pandemic only after a rise in the domestic cases and a policy push towards lockdown from the government, she said.

Mr. Haq said now editorial staff at many news organisations are not pressurising reporters to put themselves at undue risk in the field because of the seriousness of the coronavirus issue. However, this might still not be the case at all media companies.

“News operations have not ceased so the demand from the newsrooms is that information has to be gathered and reported,” he said. “In some organisations, the management is still insisting that journalists need to show up at the office.”

He said his employer, Hum News, has allowed some non-news personnel to work from home and divided shifts to reduce the number of journalists in the newsroom and ensure workplace distancing. A disinfectant tunnel was installed at the premises and employees have been given protective gear, including gloves and masks, he said.

ARY News talk show host Maria Memon said her channel’s management had enforced a safety protocol very early on, which included providing Personal Protective Equipment to the staff at the network’s production control room in Karachi among other measures.

“At the same time, an understanding we have about the coronavirus is that it’s not about ‘if’, it’s about ‘when’,” Ms. Memon said, during a Facebook Live discussion with Media Matters for Democracy programme manager Amel Ghani.

She said news organisations should conduct smart testing or pool testing of their staff.

“The more you test, the more you know (how to respond),” Ms. Memon said. “If it’s undetected, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, so the ostrich (burying its head in the sand) approach won’t work anymore.”

While individual news organisations have developed their own workplace safety responses to Covid-19, media development specialist Adnan Rehmat said there are no industry-wide guidelines.

“It is unfortunate that the media sector as a whole has not come up with a collective policy to guard their staff against the highly contagious coronavirus,” Mr. Rehmat said.

He said it is “scandalous” that representative industry associations, such as the Pakistan Broadcasters Association, the All Pakistan Newspapers Society, and the Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors, did not make “standard and stringent arrangements” to protect media workers in a high-risk environment.

“Because there has been no mandatory testing done, who knows how many journalists are putting their lives and their families at risk,” Mr. Rehmat said, ”(This is) only because the media owners don’t want to incur additional expenses and because the journalists don’t want to lose their jobs.”

Pakistani journalists may be compromising their physical safety to save their jobs, but many of them might not even get paid for the work. Not on time, at least.

Financial Curve Falling

Mr. Rehmat said the Pakistani media were already facing financial difficulties before the pandemic. With a struggling national economy and ad revenues on the decline, news organisations had laid off thousands of journalists over the past two years. 

But Covid-19 has made the situation worse, he said.

“With businesses closed, even small-scale advertisements from small businesses and lifelines from the government have dried up, adversely affecting financial solvency further,” Mr. Rehmat said. “The Covid-19 situation will only aid the process of shrinking of media businesses as owners use its cover to limit or close business.”

Mr. Haq said some news organisations have not paid salaries to their journalists since December. Other outlets have slashed fuel allowances for staff members that are working from home or introduced salary cuts.

“There is great fear that if the coronavirus situation prolongs, it will create a lot of financial problems for the working journalists,” Mr. Haq said. “It will start affecting their households.”

He said there is some speculation in Islamabad that the advertisement dues for broadcast channels pending with the government might get paid soon. This line of speculation is based on claims that the new information ministry set-up, which consists of a ruling party Senator as the information minister and a former military spokesperson as a special assistant to the Prime Minister on information, will attempt to build cordial relations with the news media, he said.

“This (claim) has created some hope,” Mr. Haq said.

But Shahzada Zulfiqar, the President of the PFUJ, offered a bleak post-coronavirus assessment while speaking with the Digital Rights Monitor.

“There will be a genuinely negative impact on the media industry after coronavirus,” Mr. Zulfiqar said. “I fear that many newspapers and TV channels will shut down.”

He said the government will not have money for advertisements in the post-coronavirus economy and businesses will most likely claim they have reduced their marketing budgets.

“I cannot begin to imagine how terrible the level of unemployment in the media is going to be then,” Mr. Zulfiqar said.

If the existential threat to the local news industry was not dreadful enough, independent and critical coverage of official responses to the Covid-19 spread are also leading to increasingly hostile and targeted online attacks against Pakistani journalists.

Targeted on Twitter

Pakistani Twitter was flooded with angry tweets targeting journalists Rauf Klasra and Irshad Bhatti, just hours after the two journalists had asked Prime Minister Imran Khan questions about press freedom in a televised interaction between the premier and TV talk show hosts in connection with the government’s coronavirus response on March 24. Posted with an abusive hashtag, the messages in the tweets attempted to malign the journalists and discredit the Pakistani news media. 

A similar smear campaign was noticed on Twitter against journalists Hamid Mir and Mohammad Malick after the two anchorpersons sparred with a popular cleric during and after a live coronavirus telethon.

Mr. Haq said the digital abuse and trolling against journalists has increased during the pandemic. 

“Supporters of all political parties are actively targeting journalists online,” he said.

During the pandemic, federal and provincial government spokespersons have also been seen directly engaging with journalists on Twitter, in some instances to disparage or discredit the news and information shared by the journalists about Covid-19 response. 

UNESCO has identified the discrediting of journalists and credible news outlets as a theme of global coronavirus disinformation. The use of political power to level abuse or unfounded allegations against journalists is dangerous during a public health crisis when accurate information is of immense value to the safety of citizens. It damages the news media’s credibility and makes journalists vulnerable to further threats and attacks.

“The prime minister himself sets a bad example when he leads the criticism of the media accusing them of being destabilization agents,” Mr. Rehmat said. “Thereby encouraging a growing culture of impunity of intimidation of the media.”

He said a direct result of the digital threats is further self-censorship by the journalists of their online expression, even though a lot of it is private expression not necessarily representative of the policies of their news organisations.

“This means the personal is often confused with the professional by the threat actors exacerbating an already fraught situation whereby employers don’t offer any protections to their journalists for the harassment and intimidation they face online,” Mr. Rehmat said.

Despite these challenges, local news organisations have continued to put out accurate information about the public health crisis and started to experiment with innovative formats to engage their news audiences.

Innovation in newsgathering and publishing

Mehmal Sarfraz, a broadcast journalist and the co-founder of digital news platform The Current PK, said we must highlight that the campaign to educate the masses about coronavirus was started by the media.

“Media is at the forefront of this battle (against Covid-19),”  Ms. Sarfraz said, during a Facebook Live discussion with Media Matters for Democracy’s programme manager Amel Ghani. “I think we should support the media in this effort.”

COVID-19 and the Newsroom

Posted by Media Matters for Democracy on Wednesday, 29 April 2020

Local  journalists and news outlets have started to improvise their newsgathering and distribution in keeping with the lockdown restrictions. Reporters on the high court beat in Islamabad have started to use pool reporting to limit exposure to public places, Mr. Haq said.

Traditional broadcast and print media have “rapidly beefed up their digital operations, reworking their websites and social media accounts to focus on Covid-19 coverage”, according to the International Media Support. Innovation in news publishing includes the Live Coronavirus Updates by Dawn, Sujag’s Corona Kahani series, and the Samaa Health Twitter feed by Samaa Digital.

Meanwhile, civil society organisations are also trying to support journalists during the pandemic through training and resources.

Mr. Rehmat said media development organisations can help the news media during Covid-19 by advocating for fundamental freedoms, especially freedom of expression and access to information, and providing technical resources to journalists about protection from physical and digital harm. 

He said civil society organisations should also lobby media industry representatives to have proper policies, support mechanisms, and resources in place to protect media workers from Covid-19.

Waqas Naeem is a program manager at Media Matters for Democracy, which runs the Digital Rights Monitor website.

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