Saher Baloch, Pakistan
Working conditions for Pakistani journalists remained difficult throughout 2015, with often-uncertain security conditions and prevalent political pressure. In its annual press freedom report, Reporters Without Borders ranked Pakistan 159 out of 180 countries, making it one of the worst places in the world to be a journalist.
Saher Baloch, a reporter at English-language newspaper Dawn, shined light on the challenges that Pakistani journalists face every day, along with some of her hopes for the new year:
IJNet: In what areas do you see conditions improving for Pakistani journalists? Are there any examples of independent media outlets that are emerging, or are safety conditions improving at all?
Saher Baloch: Things are improving for journalists, but it is a slow process. What we need right now is an evolution rather than a revolution in our industry — and journalism in our part of the world is evolving. For instance, the web enjoys a lot more accessibility than it did seven years back. Young reporters can easily freelance for these web newsrooms and learn the process of news writing and editing as a start up. The only paradox is that there are not as many web newsrooms, because there are not as many newspapers. Going by the standard I see around me, most news organizations are investing in the web pages of their news outlets. The problem is that these web pages are working as an extension of their newspapers or TV channels rather than operating independently. The only independent webpage I know of is Tanqeed.org, but since there is a greater debate of security for journalists associated, even with traditional newsrooms, there is a question of how much independent web/print outlets can push the envelope when it comes to taking on investigative stories. And that is one of the persisting problems we face: security for journalists. All of us are vulnerable to this threat which might come from any quarter.
Are Pakistani lawmakers doing anything to protect the press from censorship or violence?
The situation is quite bleak when it comes to prosecuting those behind the murders of journalists, except in the case of Wali Khan Babar, who was murdered in 2011. The court somehow succeeded in prosecuting the individuals behind Wali's murder only when the case was shifted to another district in the province of Sindh. Apart from that, the perpetrators were arrested and punished in the murder case of Wall Street Journal reporter, Daniel Pearl. But in that case, there was considerable international pressure to deal with as well.
The Committee to Protect Journalists counts 56 murders of working journalists in Pakistan since 1992. The paradox is that over the years, there has been a considerable freedom to speak about issues which were earlier considered taboo, at least in the main cities of Pakistan. Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa continue to remain under threat and opt for censorship. Besides, there doesn't seem to be a persistent stance against bringing murderers of journalists to book simply because the state does not seem interested.
Does Dawn do anything to safeguard its reporters from censorship, or to make working conditions better for Pakistani reporters in general?
What I have seen in my two years of working with Dawn is that there is no fixed agenda about how to cover a news report, rather than the obvious one of being accurate. There is a lot of focus on accuracy and speaking to all parties involved. It makes it easier in that case to come up with a balanced report and a need for censorship is not felt. The immediate bosses as well as the editor are involved and demand a plan in case of going for assignments concerning conflict zones, such as Balochistan for instance.
You've previously taken on stories that were challenging to report, such as issues relating to violence along the Karachi coast and the Balochistan conflict. What types of challenges did you face while doing these stories? What advice would you give to a journalist who also lives in a place with restricted press freedom but wants to bring light to similar tough issues?
Interestingly, the actors who might work against a reporter are pretty much obvious or known when it comes to either Balochistan or the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. There is usually a threat from the security agencies, militants, separatists or Frontier Constabulary, so I try to incorporate the official stance in my stories. It is usually Karachi, where the actors are too many to count, and who can be offended, which can become problematic.
My advice would be to cover all sides. Don't make assumptions, since many of us who want to raise issues from our cities or districts think we are experts and know everything. Also to not make oneself too prominent by giving out opinions on existing political, religious, sectarian or social issues. As long as people don't know your opinion, it is easy to interact with them and avoid possible threats. And to remember that we are reporters and not activists, we can't solve all the issues but can only highlight them.
What do you hope will happen to journalism in Pakistan in 2016 and beyond? What type of media climate would you like to see there?
Things will get a bit difficult, since there is a dearth of investigative stories and the focus is on getting the current news updates rather than following up to give a consolidated story. It would be good to see it changing in 2016.
It would sound ideal, but since it is doable, I would like to see a change in the coverage of terrorism attacks by television news channels. Training of the staff should not only exist in theory, but should actually take place by rotating reporters, sub-editors, photographers and page-makers to do each other's job for a change and to understand the difficulties each of them faces. It would help in getting each member of the staff capable of more than what they are usually assigned to do.
This interview has been edited.