Quetta — Journalists in Balochistan said they faced unprecedented challenges to factually and safely report about Covid-19, as the government slowly got a handle on the pandemic.
Balochistan was in the Covid spotlight early on due to the fast deteriorating public health situation in Iran, with which it shares a border. Pakistan closed the border in March and established a quarantine centre in Taftan, but the developments there remained the focus of national news for a while.
Zafar Baloch, the General Secretary of the Quetta Press Club, said it was extremely difficult to report about Covid-19 during the first wave of the spread in Balochistan.
“It was a total panic,” Baloch, who is The Express Tribune’s correspondent in Quetta, said. “In the initial weeks, we were getting multiple updates regarding coronavirus cases in a single day from different sources and bizarrely the information from these sources never matched.”
He said media organisations found themselves in a chaotic situation because there was also fear that media workers might get infected.
Now, during the second wave of Covid-19 in the country, the Balochistan authorities appear to have developed better mechanisms as journalists said they rely on the Daily Situation Report issued by the health department for coronavirus updates.
However, journalists remember the struggles from the early days when a primary concern was the quality of data being shared by the health authorities.
“Often the daily situation report had different data compared to past reports shared by the department,” Baloch said.
He said when journalists would ask the department about such changes, they were told the “data is being corrected by removing false cases”.
“If concerned authorities make regular errors regarding data and you do not have a counter fact-checking source, it gets extremely tough to report on the pandemic,” Baloch said. “Especially when there is a constant pressure from the organisation to send stories or data in a timely manner.”
Ibrar Ahmed, a freelance journalist, agreed that it was difficult to access authentic information about the coronavirus impact in the province during the first wave.
Ahmed said he remembers finding differences in the statistics in the official report when he had compared it over a period of two days. The comparison led him to believe the numbers might not be very reliable.
There was confusion about which source to trust at the beginning as Ahmed said different departments were publishing statistics about Covid cases and deaths. He claimed that on some occasions the officials in the Covid cell established by the government provided him information that later turned out to be incorrect. The information was about specific individuals who had tested positive or died due to Covid-19, Ahmed said.
The work of Balochistan journalists was also disrupted by the spread of false messages about the coronavirus on social media, including WhatsApp groups.
Hamna Malik, who manages the digital platform Voice of Balochistan, said Covid disinformation was at its peak back then.
“The worst part was that nobody was ready to fact-check the information they were receiving as everyone was looking for instant cures to a vaccine-less disease,” Malik said. “Many did it out of concern, but many took advantage to even discredit the efforts of the authorities.”
She said it was difficult to educate the public about precautions for the virus because there was all sorts of information being shared online.
Journalists were also finding it difficult to determine the truth of social media messages. In one example, a viral video showed some people throwing food packets at quarantined C0vid patients from a window. Some journalists found the video through an apparently credible WhatsApp group and ran the story on their media channels. The missing context for the video was supplied by the journalists themselves who framed the footage as the alleged inhumane treatment of the patients by the authorities. It was later found out that the people throwing the food at the patients were their relatives not the officials.
“All this (spread of misinformation) was happening due to the negligence or the non-serious attitude of the administration as they failed to counter these rumours through any reliable platform,” Ahmed said.
But Malik said people expected quick results without understanding the enormity of the problem and the complexity of the response.
“An example would be that many anchors openly blamed the Balochistan government for the spread of the virus through the Taftan border without realising that border management falls under the federal government,” she said. “The (un-informed) comments led to provincial and sectarian divides.”
In some instances, Malik said, potentially unfair criticism of the government might have created more unrest and panic among the citizens.
Shahzadi Hina, who works with the non-profit Individualland, said it was difficult to access the authorities for news-gathering initially due to the lockdown and Covid SOPs. But the lessons learned from the first wave made the process of information dissemination much smoother in the later half of the year, she said.
Malik agreed and said the authorities had put in place a proper mechanism to share information and updates by the time the cases surged again in November.
Baloch, the press club representative, said the government started different campaigns to spread awareness among people later on. These campaigns got people to pay more attention and follow social distancing and other guidelines, he said.
Government of Balochistan spokesperson Liaquat Shahwani told Digital Rights Monitor the outbreak of Covid-19 in the province was an “extremely difficult” moment. But, he said, officials tried their best to share timely updates with the media about Covid impact and the government’s response.
“We provided access to the media even to the laboratories,” Shahwani said. “We are committed from the beginning that we will not hide anything from the media.”
He said the government only stopped the health authorities from sharing any personal information of Covid patients because it is not ethical for such information to be published in the press. Shahwani said media’s contribution to raising awareness about Covid-19 among the public deserves applause.
“Journalists, like doctors, security personnel, and healthcare staffers, have been on the front lines since the pandemic started in March in Balochistan despite all the hardships, tense and uncertain situations,” he said.
Shahwani said his government had also provided protective gear to reporters in the past and will completely facilitate the journalists in the future as well.