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56: The tightrope narrows

A. Zia
29.12.2013  |  Peshawar
A press conference in Jalalabad, Nangarhar Province (Photo: Naqib Ahmad Atal)
A press conference in Jalalabad, Nangarhar Province (Photo: Naqib Ahmad Atal)

It is no exaggeration to say that practising journalism in Pakistan today is a matter of life and death. Our country has figured in the top four most dangerous for media workers for the past five years, alongside Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Somalia and the Philippines. 

This year, five of our colleagues perished directly in the line of work, while Afghanistan Today's deputy editor for Pakistan, Muhammad Arif Shafi, died in April in the cross-fire of a suicide attack in Peshawar.  

Topping it all came the recent letter from Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) threatening media houses and personnel with dire consequences if they consistently portray them in a bad light.

The letter, which the TTP termed as fatwa or religious edict, branded us roundly as hypocrites, and proposed punishments from exile to death for coverage deemed to be negative. It is a measure that potentially affects many thousands of people: According to government data, there are 80 television channels, 150 FM radio stations and more than 1,600 publications currently operating in the country. 

Working with foreign media puts one even more at risk. In Pakistan, most journalists strive to work for international media, not as part of some global conspiracy directed at those who fight under the flag of the Taliban or other factions, but rather to mature and progress in their chosen field of work. 

The additional income is naturally an incentive too, but never did I yet hear a fellow journalist say they aspired to work with foreign media simply to defame the Taliban before a wider audience. All too often, people on that side lose sight of the fact that we also focus on the wrongdoings of state authorities, and that much of our professional life is spent being resented, pressured and possibly punished in one form or another by either or both sides. That is why journalism is a calling rather than a probable source of enrichment for most of us. For all but the biggest names in local journalism, our wages certainly give little cause to shout about.

That said, a strange imbalance can be observed in the situation for Pakistani journalists compared to their peers across the border in Afghanistan. While not wishing to downplay the hard work, dedication and great risks also endured by our Afghan colleagues, the international spotlight on Afghanistan since 2001 and accompanying opportunities to break into international media are far greater across the border. This is also largely because of the presence of international forces from over 40 countries.

Translated into bread-and-butter working opportunities for journalists, this means there are many more full-time jobs and stringing opportunities for Afghan journalists with foreign media, even though our countries’ role in the geopolitical story are very similar in many ways.

Yet it is the Pakistani journalists who generally have the more ready command of English, because of our British colonial history and the large role of English language in the Pakistani media. And one might expect that simple pragmatism would create more international openings for us. Many of us are still waiting for this, but we are not holding our breath.

The insurgency has now squeezed local media into a tight spot where they have to resort to self-censorship in order to avoid prosecution and physical attacks.

But this is not intended to be a gripe about salaries, it is more a case of wishful thinking. We admittedly envy our colleagues the chance at an even more valuable return for their work, namely to see their byline appear in foreign publications.

It is not a matter of vanity, merely a longing to grow further as journalists. And to know that the wider world can read, watch and hear - and care - about what we do in our daily work and about the story of our country and region.

Meanwhile, the dangers grow by the year, by the week even. The insurgency has now squeezed local media into a tight spot where they have to resort to self-censorship in order to avoid prosecution and physical attacks.

It creates a tightrope walking act against heavy odds, wherein media have to report on the militants’ activities on daily basis without angering them with the chosen language and reporting stance. 

So when we meet with our Afghan colleagues at training events such as the two we attended since 2012 under this project, we have another prime opportunity. Not to compare salaries or footholds in the global media environment, but to pool more valuable knowledge: how to strike the balance between our working duties and our self-protection, and how to stay true to our profession in the toughest of conditions.