Covid Special: For Pakistani Journalists on the Pandemic Beat, Many Risks and No Reward

Islamabad — Shaista Hakim was driven by a sense of duty to the public during the Covid-19 pandemic. The Swat-based journalist wanted people to have access to accurate medical information, so she did not think twice before putting her own health on the line.

In March when the country went into lockdown for the first time, the managers at Pakhtunkhwa Radio FM 98, where Shaista worked, came up with an idea. They launched a special live transmission and called it the Radio Clinic. Hospitals were struggling to deal with Covid-19 patients at that time, and the provincial government had shut down outpatient departments at public hospitals to reduce the burden on medical facilities. So the radio show offered a substitute for the OPDs. People could call in with their health problems, and doctors invited into the radio studio would offer medical advice live on air.

Shaista eagerly joined the initiative. Women listeners would feel more comfortable to speak with a woman host, she thought. The radio station agreed. With the city in lockdown, the women’s hostel where Shaista lived had started to empty out as residents left for their hometowns. But she stayed back to continue to co-host the show. When public transport ceased to operate in the city, she walked to the radio studio every day, a two-kilometre journey on foot.

It was public service journalism, Shaista believed, and she could see its benefits. Around 70 percent of the show’s callers and listeners were women, who often asked for medical advice about their children’s health.

In the radio studio, the presenters and guests wore face masks but it seemed difficult to maintain physical distance in the small space. And, as many Pakistani journalists would find out during the course of their reporting on the pandemic, safety precautions did not always guarantee complete protection from the deadly virus.

In June, when coronavirus cases hit their peak in Pakistan, Shaista tested positive for Covid-19. Burning up with fever, she went into self-isolation. A few days later, the radio station terminated her job.

A local television channel where she worked alongside her radio job also let her go.

It was a doubly crushing blow. The radio station management later told her that they had stopped the live transmission because lockdown had been lifted, but this was of no consolation to Shaista. She had set out to help people. Now, she had lost her jobs and her life was at risk.

Eventually Shaista recovered from Covid but stable employment has eluded her ever since; she relies on freelance opportunities for now. Her story echoes the predicament faced by hundreds of journalists in Pakistan who reported from the front lines of the pandemic response with little protection and no guarantees of job security, and who continue to do so as Pakistan deals with the second wave of Covid-19.

At least around 159 Pakistani journalists had tested positive for the coronavirus from March to May alone, according to the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ). It is unclear how many more media workers contracted the virus during the past six months, but news reports suggest at least five journalists have died in the country due to Covid-19.

Digital Rights Monitor spoke with journalists across Pakistan about how the pandemic affected their work. The accounts of these journalists, many of whom contracted the virus and survived, reveal a pattern: Journalists had to contend with restrictions on access, intimidation from sources, untrustworthy data, lack of protective gear, and unsympathetic employers. The problems were worse for correspondents working in regions outside the urban bubbles that traditionally dominate media coverage in Pakistan.

Many journalists also blamed government officials for poor information-sharing mechanisms, which they felt created a vacuum of credible information on the coronavirus and led to the spread of Covid-related rumours and conspiracy theories in the country. Journalists who covered the pandemic also were also targetted with accusations that discredited their work and cast doubts on their integrity.

In the North, for example, the news coverage of the coronavirus found itself the object of accusations from religious communities, and journalist Fahim Akhtar experienced it from up close.

Reporting On The Pandemic “No Less Than Mental Torture”

Akhtar works in Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan region, which is home to a majority Shia population. Hundreds of thousands of Shia Pakistanis, including residents of Gilgit-Baltistan, travel each year to holy sites in Iran for pilgrimage, a journey that is considered sacred but has also not been without risks in the past. In 2014, dozens of pilgrims were killed when a bus and the hotels they stayed in were attacked in a series of bombings and shootings allegedly carried out by militant groups.

A different kind of threat accompanied the pilgrims this time around. Iran was among the first countries outside of China to be affected by the novel coronavirus. Some of the first cases of Covid-19 in Pakistan had a travel history to Iran. While Pakistan closed its western border with Iran in early March and set up a quarantine centre at Taftan in its Balochistan province, many of the travellers had already returned home before the centre was set up and some tested positive even after they were released from quarantine. For weeks afterward, Pakistan’s daily Covid-19 statistics included a separate category for active coronavirus cases of or related to zaireen, the Urdu word for pilgrims.

The initial news reporting on Covid-19 in Gilgit-Baltistan inevitably brought up the spread of infection in the Shia pilgrims.

“When we broke news stories about the number of new cases (of Covid-19), there was a strong reaction against our reporting,” Akhtar said. “People would declare it as lies and claim that it was a (propaganda) campaign against a particular community.”

In the early days of the pandemic, the reaction was mostly from the Shia community which felt it was being singled out for the Covid-19 outbreak in the country. The reaction was understandable given Pakistan’s history of violent sectarian conflict and the persecution of the Shia by Sunni militant groups. The fresh feelings of anticipatory resentment were also fuelled by social media messages that wrongfully accused the Shia and Hazara for spreading the virus in Pakistan, in the same vein as Donald Trump called Covid-19 the “China virus”.

Later, when the Tableeghi Jamaat — a Sunni missionary movement  — was allowed to hold a truncated version of its annual congregation at Raiwind in Punjab, the gathering most likely resulted in the transmission of Covid-19 infections throughout Pakistan as thousands of followers travelled to and back from the congregation venue. In Gilgit-Baltistan, Akhtar said, some Tableeghi Jamaat members reacted angrily to news reports linking the Jamaat’s activities with the rise in coronavirus cases.

“People kept saying that the government tries to maintain a balancing act, so now it was including Tableeghi Jamaat members in the list of Covid cases to balance the earlier cases from Shia Muslims,” Akhtar said, indicating that the public was unwilling to trust the coronavirus news coverage if it was linked with the group they identified with.

When Akhtar reported on the Tableeghi Jamaat-related Covid cases, he said he was accused of taking bribes to malign the religious movement.

“Even when we included their perspective in the stories, we were accused of accepting money to bring the religious groups into disrepute, which made it very difficult for us to report on the pandemic,” he said, explaining the intimidation faced by the local journalists. “Reporting on Covid-19 in Gilgit-Baltistan during the lockdown was no less than mental torture for journalists.”

Akhtar said social media use during the pandemic was like a straight edge razor in the hands of a monkey: there were great risks to public health and safety from false messages that went viral.

The effects of Covid-19 misinformation were felt in other parts of the country, as well.

Inefficient Government Messaging Amid The Misinformation

Broadcast journalist and TV talk show anchor Tanzila Mazhar said the pandemic caught everyone off guard so it was natural that there were loopholes in the distribution of information from official quarters. But the loopholes led to the spread of disinformation, misperceptions, and rumours among the public, she said.

“It shook the trust of the public in the health sector,” Tanzila said.

Multan journalist Aneela Ashraf said people fell prey to superstitions and hearsay due to the spread of misinformation as they tried to cope with the threat of the virus.

She said creating awareness about Covid-19 among the public was a great challenge due to the fast and unrestricted spread of false information, rumours, and conspiracy theories that often found a ready and unwitting audience on social networks and messaging apps in Pakistan.

Journalist Tanvir Shahzad, who works for an international media organisation in Lahore, claimed the government agencies might have initially tried to hide the true picture of Covid-19 in the country.

“The credibility of government agencies in such kind of emergencies often remains doubtful as they often hide facts to avoid international pressure and their failure to manage the situation properly,” he said.

As far as the state measures for public awareness are concerned, Tanvir said that the government claimed it has established emergency helplines for the public but when he conducted a survey for a news report, a majority of the citizens were unaware of the helplines.

“Instead of educating the public on Covid-19, most of the government ministers restricted their appearance on media,” Tanvir said. “As a result, the public reliance on false information about the coronavirus increased, damaging the public trust in the institutions.”

But as independent news sources started reporting the situation and the public started reacting to the news, the government agencies improved the accuracy in their reported information, he said.

Health reporter Saba Bajeer said she thought no government institution had any plan to prevent the spread of Covid-related misinformation in the country.

The false medical information on social media could have been countered with factual and credible advice from the medical community. But Pakistani journalists reporting on Covid-19 said they routinely encountered denial of access to accurate health information, unreliable data on the spread of the disease, and personal safety risks as they tried to inform the public about the pandemic.

Access Denied

Haripur journalist Muhammad Sadaqat, who has worked in the media for decades, said journalists were routinely harassed by the law enforcement while reporting from the field during the lockdown. Often the police tried to deny them access to potential stories or restrict their coverage on the coronavirus, the veteran print journalist said.

He said he found official sources uncooperative.

“There was no official mechanism at the health department to deal with the media,” Muhamamd Sadaqat said. “The response from the emergency cell at the Haripur Deputy Commissioner’s office was untimely.”

Umar Bacha, a reporter from the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s remote Shangla district, said journalists in the area had always faced political pressure for their reporting, but Covid-19 complicated the issues further.

The closure of public offices during lockdown and undue restrictions on the press by the district management affected the news reporting, Umar said.

He said the Shangla Deputy Commissioner (DC) Imran Ranjha had created a WhatsApp group to share updates with reporters. Along with this chat group, Umar said, the DC had also requested journalists to verify all details with local authorities before publishing to avoid the spread of misinformation. It was not an unfair demand. But the inconsistent availability of local officials created delays in reporting, he said.

After the government centralised its pandemic response with the formation of the National Command and Operation Centre (NCOC), health reporters said they found difficulty in approaching NCOC officials for comment.

“Whenever I approached concerned officials for comment and additional information, they never responded,” Islamabad-based health reporter Saba said.

Zafar Malik, another journalist in Islamabad, agreed with Saba’s comment.

“Journalists were entirely reliant on the NCOC for Covid-19 information,” Zafar said. “But NCOC’s designated spokespersons were hardly available for response.”

(The NCOC was also contacted for this story to seek a reply about its accessibility to the press, but it did not respond to requests for comment.)

In Lahore, journalist Tanvir said verification of facts was a major challenge during the pandemic.

“The opportunities to verify information were limited,” Tanvir said. “Journalists had to rely entirely on official sources.”

He said the data shared by officials often contradicted the information shared by other sources from the health sector, such as doctors and medical professionals. Tanvir said it was also difficult to trust the medical professionals completely because the doctors were in conflict with the government health authorities during the early days of the pandemic. The doctors were demanding better support and protective equipment and felt the government was letting them down. Tanvir said the doctors often narrated the health situation in an alarming manner at that time, which made it difficult for journalists to trust them without independent verification.

The health officials, he said, were hardly ever available for comment.

“Even if they agreed, their emphasis remained on highlighting the ‘excellent’ performance of the government agencies (in response to the pandemic),” Tanvir said, indicating he was skeptical about the government’s self-appreciation.

He said the journalists tried their best to gather information despite these challenges.

“We were in regular contact with independent sources, such as welfare organisations, health experts, hospital staff, and private labs, to ensure the information we had was of good quality,” Tanvir said.

The search for independent sources was far more difficult for journalists who worked out in the districts, far from the provincial capitals.

“Discrepancies” in the Data

The data shared by health authorities with local journalists was often incomplete or seemed inaccurate but journalists had no way to verify it, Muhammad Sadaqat said. “This put the reporters in great difficulty,” according to the Haripur journalist.

In some cases, he said, family members and some hospital sources would indicate that a person might have died due to Covid-related complications. But officials declined to accept these deaths as Covid deaths, Muhammad Sadaqat said. He said he could cite at least over a half dozen such cases from Haripur.

In other cases, he said, the data released from provincial headquarters was different from the original statistics that local reporters had obtained from trustworthy sources in Haripur.

Even at the local level, there was confusion. Most of the statistical information about the positive and suspected cases of Covid-19 in Haripur were released by the DC Office and the District Health Officer.

“These two data sources often carried a disparity,” Muhammad Sadaqat said.

He alleged that the emergency cell set up in the DC office often tended to conceal information about Covid positive cases and deaths. Direct access to the quarantined suspects or patients in the officially designated quarantine areas to confirm the numbers was not possible, he said.

The lack of proper coordination among local authorities and poor management affected the news coverage of the coronavirus in Multan, journalist Aneela said.

She said the performance of government institutions in distributing timely and accurate information could not be described as satisfactory as there were clear discrepancies in the data of government agencies such as district government, hospitals, health department, and the provincial health report.

However, in some areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the data situation appeared better.

Shaista, the Swat journalist who had tested positive for Covid, appreciated the performance of the local authorities in Swat and said that whenever she contacted them for Covid-19 related data and comments she found the concerned officials cooperative. Umar in Shangla was also satisfied with the quality of information shared by the district authorities there. However, he felt the quantity of news reports was affected by the pandemic and its associated lockdown due to problems of accessibility and delays in reaching official sources.

Islamabad-based health reporter Saba, who also tested positive for Covid and recovered, said she had to rely mostly on the data shared by the NCOC.

She said she often found “differences” between the NCOC data and the stats she had obtained from her trustworthy hospital sources. She claimed she noticed five Covid-19 deaths at a government hospital in Islamabad on one day but the official statistics for that particular day shared the next morning showed no deaths.

“Maybe the government wanted to hide the true number to avoid the spread of panic in the public or to demonstrate the competency of the government institutions,” Saba said, when pushed to explain the alleged differences in the reported data.

Journalists should have been expected to investigate these differences, asking questions about methodology and reconciliation of reported statistics. But some of those who had questioned the official Covid-19 data had faced coordinated hate campaigns online, and many field reporters were already risking their lives to report on the most basic facts.

Coverage Without Cover

Muhammad Sadaqat, the Haripur journalist, said news editors still demanded multiple stories from the reporters to fill the newspaper pages even though public activities had come to a standstill.

He said local journalists had no protective gear available to shield themselves from the virus when visiting quarantine or isolation wards for information and data verification.

“Most of the media organisations hardly respect the rights of a regional news correspondent,” Muhammad Sadaqat said. “One-hundred (100) percent of the district-based journalists remained vulnerable to the pandemic.”

Islamabad reporter Zafar Malik said journalists were made vulnerable to Covid-19 due to the attitudes of their news organisations.

“News employers were forcing the journalists to increase the number of reports to fill newspaper space,” he claimed. “Many journalists who failed to meet these demands lost their jobs.”

He quoted the PFUJ to say that around 1,200 journalists had lost their jobs during the pandemic across Pakistan. Digital Rights Monitor was not able to independently verify this number.

Saba, the health reporter in Islamabad, said sometimes her news organisation asked her to prioritise her health and safety over coverage, and Tanvir said he did not visit hospitals for reporting in order to protect himself from infection. But Multan-based journalist Aneela said many reporters in Multan contracted the virus because their media outlets continued to force them to provide field coverage.

“The most important thing during the pandemic was to take care of one’s health,” Aneela said. “But, as usual, journalists were humiliated because neither the media organisations nor the government provided protective kits or other safety equipment to the journalists.”

Broadcast journalist Tanzeela said the pandemic put the journalists in a tight spot. On the one hand, she said, they had their professional responsibility to inform the public and on the other hand, it was not safe to report from the field.

“As a result, some journalists lost their lives and hundreds of others not only contracted the virus but lost their jobs during their quarantine period,” Tanzeela said. “The (financial crisis of the media industry during the) pandemic also forced many journalists to switch their profession.”

She said the journalists with tech savvy were able to manage their professional obligations from their homes with the help of digital tools, but those who were not good with technology had to face terminations.

Skewed Coverage

There was also consensus among the journalists who spoke with Digital Rights Monitor that Covid-19 coverage in the mainstream media was limited to major cities.

Some publications carried what local journalists call ‘joint stories’ ― a single news item that carries information from several datelines. Other outlets authorised one reporter to gather information at the provincial level to file an update for the entire province. This reduced the space in the news cycle for the remote parts of the country, according to the journalists.

At the district level, Muhammad Sadaqat said, Covid-19 affected people and their families contacted journalists remotely to share their stories of hardship during isolation. But most of these stories never got attention in the national press, he said. He said the circulation of newspapers was also affected by the lockdown, which limited people’s access to information in some parts of the country.

Government Response

Pakistan, like the rest of the world, faced challenges in confronting the pandemic, said Sajid Shah, the spokesperson for the Ministry of National Health Services Regulation and Coordination. He said a “data collection and sharing” mechanism was established in Islamabad in a bid to provide accurate information on the coronavirus to the public.

“Officials of all departments, including provincial representatives, are part of this mechanism,” he said. “The sharing of authentic data through this forum will help reduce the spread of misinformation (about Covid-19).”

Sajid denied reports about discrepancies in official statistics of Covid-19 and said there was no truth to such claims.

“We are sharing authentic information to the media and the public after complete fact-checking,” he said, “The international appreciation of Pakistan’s successful strategy against the pandemic should dispel any misperceptions because international institutions never appreciate ineffective policies and strategies.”

Islamabad DC Hamza Shafqaat, who actively used his official Twitter account to share information about Covid-19 cases and the pandemic response in the federal capital, said the pandemic posed multi-dimensional challenges, many of which will persist for the time to come.

“The district administration is putting all its efforts to overcome these challenges as much as possible using its limited resources,” he said. “We have established a ‘Nerve System’ comprising officials of almost all government agencies and departments to ensure smooth coordination and flow of information to the public.”

The DC said it was perhaps the responsibility of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to take action against the spread of misinformation and the ministry was working on it. He said the district administration has also established its own social media presence to counter misleading information about the coronavirus locally, but the social media activity is bound by limited financial resources available at their disposal.

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