Jewish Journal


October 11, 2011

‘Friendly’ Pakistani journalists, hostile environment



This is one of my recent favourite photographs taken by Pakistan's best photographer Akhtar Soomro who now works for Reuters. Here he's captured Qasim, a labourer, whose camel is nuzzling him near sacks of grain in a wholesale market in Karachi on February 9, 2011. Reuters has excellent guidelines for photographers in conflict areas and sent Soomro for training to Korea when he joined. For more details on the Reuters courses see http://www.trust.org/. Photo: REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

I’ve got to hand it to the Alfred Friendly fellowship folks who work with the Daniel Pearl Foundation to train journalists. They picked what was possibly the farthest, most remote location in Karachi for their training sessions on working in a conflict zone: a country/golf club nearly two hours from the city. And when I arrived there on Monday for one of the panel discussions I asked why this choice of location. The reasoning was simple; they wanted the participants, 15 journalists from Quetta to Peshawar, to concentrate on the work at hand. I chuckled to myself because it was a wise decision. If we were in the city the group would have been distracted by their friends and family. Sometimes house arrest is a good thing.

And as I looked around the room I felt that this seemingly “strict” decision was a good one also because the young journalists should have a sense of the magnitude of the opportunity they are being given. One of the trainees will be selected as a 2012 Daniel Pearl Fellow and will spend six months in the U.S. reporting for an American news organisation. Previous fellows, such as Shahid Shah who came with me, got a chance to work and learn at the prestigious Wall Street Journal.

In Pakistan journalists who live in conflict zones (which is perhaps the entire country) struggle every day – often blindly – simply because there is no good school of journalism that will equip them to do their job. I often admit that even though I’ve been running a desk for a long time, even I don’t have the kind of training I would like to be able to manage a team and deal with the rapidly changing newscape in Pakistan. For example, I was at the spot during the Sheraton bomb blast in 2002 but had no idea how to even begin processing it. Since then there have been scores of terrorist attacks but each time I feel I’m still stabbing in the dark. Sometimes I wonder if we just learn on the job and it gets better with time. I look at the crime reporters around me and feel that they are a good example. But then, sometimes I stop and wonder if we’re really covering terrorism properly and telling people’s stories properly.

What doesn’t make it easy is that – since 9/11 – the escalation of crime, violence and terrorist attacks and the nature of this phenomenon has kept rapidly morphing. I was speaking to the chief of Karachi’s police in August and asked him if he agreed with the observation that the nature of crime in Karachi has changed. He said he did.

Which is why the training must continue and I’m grateful to organisations such as the Pakistan Press Foundation, the Alfred Friendly people and a host of other groups that keep working with young journalists in Pakistan. On Monday I was supposed to talk about working in conflict zones, but I was at a loss because I know that there is probably nothing I have to offer a reporter who has been working in North Waziristan’s Miranshah. The Taliban in Karachi are quite different from the Taliban in Swat, I sometimes joke. So in order to prep, I called up Akhtar Soomro, who is hands down, Pakistan’s greatest photographer. He has worked with The New York Times and is now with Reuters. He was picked up twice – once in Quetta and once in Mohmand agency – while working on stories, and I felt that he was one of the best people to perhaps comment on these working conditions and how media workers can keep safe.

Soomro said he had been given hostile environment training when he joined Reuters. And the idea is to assess risk while going out for a story. There are certain limits you should not cross if they put your life at risk and you need to know what those limits are. He told me that at Reuters the photo-editors and travel desk will not allow photographers to put their lives at risk for one shot. They are told to return to the office. There are obviously stringent guidelines and detailed instructions on the categories of risk.

I asked Soomro about fixers and stringers who could or who promise to put you in touch with a ‘terrorist’ organization. Often because reporters are not from a certain area, they need someone to hook them up. I was interested in this question because recently one of the reporters on our team had lined up an interview with a mafia gangster who was behind bars. I was afraid because I didn’t know if the people who were promising to take him to a safe place to talk to the gangster over the phone could be trusted.

Soomro’s answer was that if you have a fixer who is taking hours to line you up with the army spokesperson, the local political figure, the terrorist group, and seems to be asking around himself, then he probably isn’t very good. You can tell if someone is as green to the area as you are. A good fixer is also someone who has contacts in the lower and upper ranks of a group.

One of the trainers, a brilliant Masud Alam, who’s been with the BBC and is an Alfred Friendly fellow, was great fun to watch. He trashed the reporters when they cribbed about sources and how they had to use “sources” all the time because officials wouldn’t give comment on the record. He reminded me that this works against government or agent accountability. “Run it as sources,” is what some people say to you when you ask for comment. Masud reminded us that no one should tell journos how to do their job. “Do you tell the soldier how to use a gun,” he asked. “We then he shouldn’t tell you how to do your job either.”

Some of the reporters, from Swat, where the army went in against the Taliban, complained that if they gave the person’s name they would lose a source. They said that the ISPR guys, the army spokesmen, insisted that we used “sources” for information they were giving. But Masud, who’s been around, pointed out that no ISPR person would do that. Technically if they, as the spokespeople, are giving information, it’s actually on the record. “This sources business is a sickness we’ve contracted,” Masud quipped. “Can you imagine that reporters say, ‘Sources said that the Eid moon has been sighted’.”

And I agreed with him. I mean, jeez, they’re not giving us nuclear secrets.

In the end, I felt that our reporters had simply not been shown how to be brave when it comes to these kinds of people who want to suppress information. It is tricky because there is a limit to how ‘brave’ you can be in a hostile environment – but many of our reporters simply don’t know what they actually have a right to do in order to do their job properly.

I was speaking to one of the participants, Shehzad Baloch, who is from Quetta. He told me how only reporters from outside could parachute in and safely report because the ones who lived there could get hauled off. Places outside Quetta are virtual no-go zones. He is a young fella and ideally placed to actually do some really good work, but somehow we have to equip editors and reporters with the strength to write against injustice, cover-ups, terrorist organisations.

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