The site of the Karsaz blast in Karachi in October 2007
Four years ago in the early hours of dawn on a typically hot October day in Karachi, Rashid Ali Panhwer and his colleagues from a news agency met at the Karachi Press Club to discuss their assignment. Excitement was palpable in the air on that particular day as Benazir Bhutto, the two-time former prime minister, was returning to Pakistan after eight years of self-imposed exile. She had eschewed the official offer of flying in a helicopter from the Karachi airport to the mausoleum of Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah where she wanted to pay her respects to the father of the nation and address her supporters. She was to ride a bullet-proof truck at the head of a rally of her supporters to the mausoleum.
For Panhwer, Bhutto’s procession was all the more important because it was his maiden assignment for the newly launched video news service of his news agency. With five days of training, he naively assumed that he knew the essentials of covering such a historic but hazardous event.
“My colleagues and I had been walking all day long covering the rally and were exhausted by the time we reached the Karsaz Road late in the evening. We were three cars away from Bhutto’s truck when the two explosions took place. There was mayhem and carnage all around me and it was incredible for me that I had survived. I hurried away from the scene. After a while I noticed my wet trousers and realised that I was bleeding profusely,” recalls 32-year-old Panhwer in a calm voice over the telephone. On that fateful night when everyone seemed to be seeking out for themselves, a kind soul helped him reach a hospital where he came to know that a six-inch splinter had pierced his abdomen and required major surgery to fix.
Even though he had risked his life for his organisation and suffered a critical injury, Panhwer found out that his news agency was not ready to pay for his treatment. “Forget compensation, when I called my bosses that night they did not bother to send a car to take me to the hospital,” he says dejectedly. To add insult to the injury, his employers fired him from his job as he had to stay in the hospital for nearly a month. His superiors might have assumed that he was not going to recover soon and would be of no use to them with his injuries.
Incidents of terrorism, such as the Karsaz blast, have been on the rise since 2001 when the military regime of General (retd) Pervez Musharraf allied itself with the United States in the war against terrorism. Since 2007, not only have they become more frequent but have also turned more lethal, killing or permanently injuring media persons, law-enforcement personnel and ordinary individuals. While the print and electronic media eagerly report and compile the statistical information about these incidents, rarely do they mention the heart-wrenching emotional, physical and financial hardships the survivors and the families of the victims of incidents of terrorism face. (see Collateral Damage and Victims of Ineptitude)
Ali Rizvi, the 32-year-old Lahore bureau chief for a small private television channel, knows from personal experience how traumatic these hardships can be. Less than a year ago, he was a happily married man, content with having a stable job and expecting his first child. On September 1, 2010, his channel told him to cover a religious procession. “I was going towards my office car when a blast occurred. Several splinters from a bomb hit the left side of my body, leaving me severely injured. As people rushed me to the hospital my mind was plagued by morbid thoughts like I was probably never going to see my child and who would take care of my wife if I died,” says Rizvi.
Rizvi’s employer like Panhwer’s did not help him out — instead the government stepped in and gave him 75,000 rupees which covered his hospitalisation bills but were certainly not enough for his follow- up visits to the doctors which continue even today as some splinters are still stuck in his body, giving him health problems.
While Rizvi and Panhwer recovered and rejoined their jobs, Shoaib Siddiqui was not so fortunate. But for the generosity of philanthropists, Sindh governor and his hardworking photographer brother Junaid, he and his family would probably be on the streets.
As a photojournalist for two Urdu newspapers, he was covering the public meeting of the Sunni Tehreek at Karachi’s Nishtar Park in 2006. Late in the evening that day, his wife called him, urging him to return home quickly so that they could go together to the future in-laws of Junaid.
Dressed in blue T-shirt and dark jeans with blood-shot eyes, a slim young short man of 30 years, Junaid came to the Herald office late at night last month, after covering a crossfire between two political parties in Karachi’s Malir area, to talk about his brother. The day Shoaib was covering the Nishtar Park meeting, Junaid was hospitalised due to injuries he had suffered after falling down from the third floor of his house. “I was watching television in the hospital when a news channel started to air footage of the blast at the park. I saw my brother holding his eye and then falling down,” Junaid says in a feeble voice. He then narrates how, after getting a thrashing at the hands of an angry mob and searching the Civil Hospital in vain, he came to know that Shoaib was at the Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Centre (JPMC). “To my relief, I found my brother alive but his one eye was missing,” he says.
With numerous injured persons (more than a 100 people are estimated to have been wounded in the blast), the medical staff at the hospital was unable to cope with the crisis. “I saw nine people die before my eyes. Several hours later a doctor appeared and checked Shoaib.”
Junaid called the president of the press photographers’ association for help. While the former was trying to get in touch with Governor Sindh, friends and relatives showed up and took Shoaib to the Liaquat National Hospital where even the admission fee was an exorbitant 50,000 rupees. “The doctors told us that my brother needed a major surgery to remove splinters lodged in his eye. They did the surgery but could not restore his eyesight,” Junaid says. Soon they had to carry out another major surgery to remove toxic fluid from Shoaib’s brain.
Shoaib’s employer did not even feel morally obliged to at least call his family and offer help. The government paid them three million rupees to meet the medical expenses which, according to Junaid, were too much for the family to bear on its own.
Shoaib was discharged after three months later. Shoaib is now 46 years of age and is able to move around independently due to intense physiotherapy sessions done at home thanks to the money that Junaid has earned taking up additional photography projects along with news coverage. Shoaib is still unable to go to work and a generous former patron and an advertising agency that looks out for suffering photographers support him financially.
But he is still alive at least. Sirajuddin, a Swat-based reporter for a Lahore-based English newspaper, went to cover the funeral of an assassinated police officer on February 28, 2008. As the 51-year-old intrepid reporter and his sons were offering the funeral prayer along with scores of others, a suicide bomber struck. “We took our badly injured father to Saidu Sharif hospital but a little while later he expired,” says his 24-year-old son Haroon Siraj in an emotionally-charged voice. His family to this day is waiting for a condolence call from his father’s employer leaving aside compensation and financial help.
While such gloomy stories appear to be the norm, there have been some exceptions to them. Take the cases of Mohammad Arif, a cameraperson for a Karachi-based television network and Abid Ali, a cameraman for another news channel based in the same city. Arif lost his life in the Karsaz blast but his employer is taking care of his family after his death. His wife gets his monthly salary and the network has helped her buy a flat. Ali received severe wounds in the same blast but, as he says, “I was fortunate that all my medical expenses were borne by my employer.” Not only that. “For the one and a half year that I was unable to work, I kept receiving my salary regularly.”
As the cases of other journalists show, apparently there is nothing that the two cameramen could have done if their employers had refused to pay up. The owners and managers of most news media firms have singularly filed to cater to the safety and insurance requirements of their staff covering high-risk assignments. Almost all media persons, that the Herald spoke to for this story, say the employers do not provide even a verbal assurance, let alone a written one, to those employed for potentially dangerous jobs. They, in fact, admit that they themselves do not press for such demands, fearing this may deprive them of their jobs at a time of rising inflation and increasing retrenchments in media industry. They do not even want to exercise the option of saying no to a dangerous assignment for the same fear. “There are two people waiting to do your job,” Junaid quotes his boss telling him when he wanted a break from covering dangerous assignments for his newspaper.
Mazhar Abbas, a former secretary general of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), agrees that the owners of a large number of newspapers and television stations shun their responsibility of providing medical care and job security to their employees. He also blames the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) and other government agencies overseeing the affairs of the newspapers for failing to investigate the financial status of those applying for the license to start a news channel or the declaration to publish a newspaper. The prospective television channel owners, indeed, give an undertaking to the Pemra hat they are financially sound enough to pay for all their liabilities and responsibilities, Abbas says. He suggests that the authorities should take such media companies to task that fail to look after their staff. Journalist “organisations such as the press clubs have limited resources and whatever they do for the affected media persons and their families is not enough.”
Yet, some of these organisations are taking some initial steps to protect and secure journalists and photographers who cover incidents of terrorism. Press clubs in Peshawar and Karachi, for instance, have introduced life insurance policies for their members. The PFUJ has disseminated a handbook for journalists, albeit on a small scale and that too in English language, which teaches them to secure themselves while on dangerous assignments.
Abbas argues that it is the legal responsibility of the owners of media companies to provide insurance cover and compensation packages to their employees. He says a law does exist that makes all this binding for the media owners. “The law binding the employers is very much there. [It is] called the Newspaper Employees (Conditions of Service) Act, 1973 and talks about working conditions and providing medical care but unfortunately it is not implemented.”
Mohammad Saleem, Principal Information Officer of the federal government, agrees to the extent that “it is the moral and legal responsibilty [of the owners] to take care of their employees.” When pressed further as to why the government does not take action against irresponsible employers, he says, “If we reprimand the owners or devise a check on them, it will be misinterpreted as interference [in the freedom of the media].”
It is certainly not without reason that the glamour of the news media is increasingly wearing thin and, given an option, many media persons will switch their profession to something less dangerous and more rewarding. Khurram Sohail, working with a Lahore-based Urdu newspaper until recently, and Abdur Rehman, a former staffer for a Lahore-based news channel, have done just that. They are now working as a radio jockey and a filmmaker respectively.
— Additional reporting by Shahnawaz Khan