By Zuha Siddiqui
Oonib Azam, a Karachi-based reporter for The News International, almost had an anxiety attack after a reporting trip in March, earlier this year. The number of coronavirus cases in Pakistan’s port city was beginning to climb rapidly, and the provincial government had imposed a lockdown. Azam was reporting – wearing only a flimsy facemask – from Karachi’s Cantt railway station, where thousands of factory workers and laborers had gathered in a last-ditch effort to escape the city before an indefinite suspension of the country’s train operations.
When Azam reached home that evening, he found out that the provincial education minister, Saeed Ghani, had been diagnosed with Covid-19 – the first politician in the country to test positive for the virus. “I kept thinking about the hundreds of people I must have come into contact that day, how many could have been asymptomatic carriers of the virus, and I began to spiral,” he told me. “I was terrified, felt sick to my stomach. I live with my elderly parents and they are both at-risk.”
In the days that followed, Azam voluntarily quarantined himself and moved into a separate section of his double-storey house, isolating himself from his at-risk parents. He didn’t end up getting tested for Covid-19, but now, he takes extra precautions when he goes out to report. These precautions include maintaining a distance of at least five feet from his interview subjects and purchasing overpriced masks from his own earnings – the news organisation he works for has not been able to supply its employees with protective gear.
Media workers are at the frontlines of the Covid-19 pandemic in Pakistan. Already, at least 156 journalists and media workers have tested positive for the virus according to numbers issued by the Pakistani Federal Union of Journalists on May 21, and as of May 29, at least six fatalities have been recorded. Islamabad-based law and policy expert, Aftab Alam adds that a majority of infections have been the result of journalists’ exposure to suspected coronavirus patients.
Compounding the rising number of coronavirus cases and a lack of protective gear for journalists is an absence of guidelines and protocols for media workers covering the pandemic’s impact in Pakistan. “No media organizations or media regulators have intervened or issued guidelines for journalists reporting on Covid-19, and so, you have an environment where journalists are constantly taking risks to report stories,” Alam told me over the telephone. The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PERMA) has also remained deplorably silent regarding the protection of journalists reporting on the frontlines of the pandemic, with recent press releases limited to fines levied on news channels for airing fake news, and raids conducted on cable TV offices in Karachi illegally relaying Indian channels and content.
In a media landscape with over 30 news channels and several newspapers, competition for exclusive stories in Pakistan is cut-throat, with journalists going above and beyond following the impulse to “break” the news. Working from home during a pandemic, for most Pakistani reporters, is a pipe dream. For Ali Raza, a Karachi-based crime reporter at a local news channel, this has meant rushing to hospitals and homicide scenes, often alongside law enforcement officers and health care workers. Police officers and paramedics are deemed essential workers and mandated protective equipment, only on paper though: at least 1100 health care workers and scores of police officers in Pakistan have been diagnosed with Covid-19. In the meantime, journalists are not deemed to be essential workers and Raza is not mandated PPE, not does he have access to health insurance.
Just last week, the isolation unit of a local hospital in Karachi was vandalised by family members of a deceased Covid-19 patient, after medical personnel refused to hand over the 60-year-old man’s body to the family for burial. And despite trying his best to steer clear of places where there are suspected coronavirus patients, Raza had no choice but to report from the scene of the incident. “There was absolute chaos at the hospital, people were fleeing the premises,” Raza told me over the phone. “And we were standing, without protective gear, watching the deceased’s family wreak havoc in the isolation ward reserved for coronavirus patients.”
Even before the pandemic hit Pakistan, journalists were teetering on the edge of a catastrophe – over 3000 media workers were laid off in 2019, and on April 21, the International Federation of Journalists lambasted the Jang Media Group in a press release, for not paying its employees for over four months. Azam – whose employer, The News International, is published by the Jang Media Group – has been on the coronavirus beat for the past two months and reporting on the global pandemic has taken a toll on his mental health. “I’m the sort of person who falls asleep as soon as I close my eyes,” he told me. “But when I began reporting on Covid-19, I was severely overworked and sleep deprived, and I thought I was going to die – physically, everything was alright, but I wasn’t in a good place mentally, and counselling wasn’t helping either.”
Azam mentioned counselling, but this isn’t a service being provided by his news organisation. On the contrary, not only are reporters like Azam overworked and underpaid, they are also not provided access to therapy or counselling services, despite reporting on a global pandemic.
On May 9, media watchdog and advocacy group, Media Matters for Democracy, issued a strongly worded statement expressing concern regarding the safety of journalists covering Covid-19 and demanding adequate protection measures. “Pakistani journalists are working in high-stress situations,” said Hija Kamran, a program manager at the organisation. “If an employee is infected with Covid-19, media organizations must, at the very least, ensure that their medical expenses are taken care of,” she added. The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists also took note of the worsening work conditions, calling for a special bailout package to protect journalists and media workers from financial hardships during the coronavirus pandemic. But with the lockdown across Pakistan eased by the Supreme Court – despite the country’s Covid-19 tally topping 62,000 on May 29 – it is unlikely that media organizations will enforce rigorous social distancing measures for media workers any time soon.
“We’re publishing reports about taking precautionary measures during this pandemic, advising our viewers and our readers to maintain social distancing, to work from home, to avoid nonessential gatherings, and all this time, we’ve been exposing ourselves to this virus every day, wearing flimsy masks at press conferences, at hospitals, surrounded by people from all sides, not being able to abide by the advice we are giving other people,” Raza added. “Now isn’t that ironic?”
Zuha Siddiqui is a freelance journalist based in Pakistan. She reports on human rights, migration, identity, and belonging.