Thursday May 14, 2020
“Fear” is something a journalist should not have to face while working. But covering the coronavirus pandemic, without adequate safety gear, is risky and unpredictable. It also has a personal impact, as reporters worry not only for their own lives but for the lives of their loved ones as well.
Yet, under immense pressure, the men and women with mics, notepads and cameras must continue working, regardless of the danger. For now is the time the public needs them the most to provide accurate information and to cover the new and deadly virus.
This may be the biggest story of our time.
And the story is taking a toll on Pakistan’s media industry, which is on the frontlines of this war similar to healthcare workers and police officials.
To date, over 50 have tested positive for COVID-19 and one journalist has died from the infection.
In Quetta alone, 24 have contracted the infection, including three bureau chiefs. The number will only rise as more media organizations test their staff in the coming days.
While reporters are busy telling our stories, no one is telling us their stories.
During the past three decades of journalism, I have covered many events that were dangerous and often found myself exposed, particularly inside hospitals when the injured and dead bodies were brought in. When I asked my friends, who were doctors, for advice, they told me to always cover my nose and mouth, and to avoid touching the injured in the emergency wards.
In fact, stay out of the emergency wards altogether, they added, and wait for the doctors to brief you.
In the 1980s, me and a senior colleague from the BBC, the late Iqbal Jaffery, went to Karachi’s Liaquatabad area to cover a sectarian clash. While reporting, we were caught in a crossfire. Jaffery told me to quickly take shelter behind a police mobile, but I feared that the vehicle may also come under attack. So, I ran into a narrow lane and stayed there for 20 minutes.
Around me, people were running with pistols and large knives. I have to admit, it was a scary time for me, as I had just entered the profession.
Liaquatabad’s experience taught me to always be well prepared when reporting. As Jaffery sahib once cleverly advised me that a reporter should always be ready for the worst.
In the last several years, I have covered many sectarian and ethnic clashes, bomb blasts, suicide attacks, target killings, terrorist incidents, the hijacking of the PAN-AM at the Karachi Airport, the unforgettable Qasba–Aligarh massacre and the blast at Saddar, to name a few. In those days, newspaper deadlines were short and hurried. Which is why eye-witness accounts were considered most important.
As Karachi got further pushed into turmoil, our reporting also become riskier.
On May 12, 2007, my colleague, Zarrar Khan, and I were caught during a gunfire exchange and had to take cover behind a minibus. When Benazir Bhutto’s caravan came under attack, the same year, for the first time in my career, I saw my city on fire.
But each time, when I feared the worst, I would remember the words of my news editor, Nargis Khanum. “A dead reporter is no report. I want news from you, not about you,” she would joke.
In Pakistan, and across the world, journalists were not prepared to deal with a pandemic the likes of COVID-19. In the last three months, since the first case of the infection emerged in the country, no news organization has arranged any training course to help reporters navigate through this crisis.
Providing journalists face masks, sanitizers and gloves is just not enough.
For now, taking matters into their own hands, press clubs have banned the entry of outsiders and each member is screened before he/she can enter the building. The Karachi Union of Journalists has also started to supply necessary goods as many reporters have not been paid in months.
This is uncharted territory.
Drawing from my past experience, I have a few proposals for precautions and safety guidelines journalists can take on their own and with the help of their employers in newsrooms to protect themselves:
- Reporters should not be sent to a place where there is a big crowd unless they are properly covered. Discourage live beepers from crowded places or markets. Once done reporting, the journalist should be asked to return immediately to office and should carry soap, sanitizers or disinfectant sprays at all times.
- Those working at the office should be seated at a reasonable distance. They should be encouraged to wash their hands every hour and keep their work-stations clean.
- Reporters, avoid unnecessary press conferences. It would be better if health and government officials hold virtual press conferences instead of live ones.
- All reporters and camerapersons should be stopped from reporting from inside a hospital
- Talk show hosts should ensure that all guests are screened at the entrance.
- Cafeterias at news organizations should either be closed or they should limit the number of people allowed to sit inside.
- All media houses must announce special 'Corona Life Insurance' plans for their employees and take responsibility for the employee’s immediate family in case anyone tests positive.
- In this hour of need, the government must pay all outstanding dues of media houses and instruct media owners to pay employees on time.
- Now is the time to provide complete medical cover to employees.
- All reporters, camerapersons and other staffers should get more than one day off in a week. On the other hand, press clubs and unions should set up a 'Journalists/Employees Safety Fund' and those getting over Rs100,000 salary must contribute at least Rs 10,000 each, if not more, to the fund.
Let’s not forget that Pakistan is among the five most dangerous countries for reporting. Still, journalists continue to work day in and day out without safety measures and medical insurance. Who is responsible? The Media houses.
It is high time we wake up and protect the men and women serving the country.
Abbas is a senior columnist and analyst of GEO, The News and Jang. He tweets @MazharAbbasGEO