Journalist Sadaf Naeem’s death casts spotlight on ‘rat race’ of breaking news

Industry insiders said the deaths of journalists could have been prevented if professional training was imparted and a policy of care instituted by media houses.


LAHORE: Mohammad Naeem, husband of journalist Sadaf Naeem, travels with her body in an ambulance during her funeral.—Reuters

November 2, 2022

ISLAMABAD – The tragic death of Sadaf Naeem, who was covering Imran Khan’s long march for a private TV channel, has once again laid bare the pressures journalists in the field have to face, as well as the lack of professional training available to media practitioners.

The incident that claimed the life of a mother of two is not the first of its kind, either. During the wave of terrorism that gripped the country between 2008 and 2015, a number of journalists, mostly hailing from broadcast media, died in different terrorist attacks while discharging their professional duties.

These losses and Ms Naeem’s death could have been prevented, industry insiders said, if professional training was imparted, job security was ensured, the “rat race” of breaking news avoided and a policy of care for employees instituted by media houses.

Media stakeholders Dawn spoke to admit that their colleagues are “least bothered” about introducing any safety training programme for their workers.

Media stakeholders say lack of training, job security among reasons why reporters, camera persons put themselves at risk

“There’s a lack of interest in this area, I admit,” said Asif Zuberi, the chief executive of Aaj News, whose organisation lost a cameraperson in a 2016 bomb attack targeting the emergency unit of Quetta’s Civil Hospital.

He agreed that the trend of breaking news puts pressure on working journalists, but claimed that his organisation had imposed a very clear policy giving priority to workers’ safety over their professional contributions.

But editors who keenly observe their journalists’ working conditions and interact with media owners find “serious technical flaws” in Pakistan’s broadcast media industry. They believe the way Ms Naeem was recorded running after the container minutes before her fatal accident explains many things that are left unspoken.

“It underlines the rat race going on among our news channels,” said Owais Tohid, who has headed several news channels and is currently associated with the Voice of America’s Urdu Service.

“Then, there is a serious disconnect between reporters working in the field and those serving at news and assignment desks, which sometimes leads to chaotic situations. The insensitivity about serious situations at times can cause irreparable damage.”

To substantiate his argument, he narrated an anecdote from his own experience, when a reporter on the seafront covering the looming threat of a cyclone was asked, rather forced by those in the newsroom to move further into the sea to make the storm more visible. When the reporter argued that it was not safe to do so and that he could fall into the sea, he was told not to worry, as the cameraperson could pull him out through a rope.

Mr Tohid was also critical of the role of the electronic media watchdog, which was always used “to tighten screws of [political] opponents” but never bothered to protect the rights of the working journalists.

Journalists’ bodies also see Sadaf’s death as the latest in a string of incidents highlighting the problems being faced by their community, ranging from “unnecessary pressures” to a lack of training and job insecurity.

“Yet another promising journalist has lost her life in search for a scoop reportedly demanded by her newsroom, without considering the ground realities, especially for a female reporter,” said Amir Latif, an office-bearer of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ).

“Pakistani journalists, at present, are working under the worst working conditions. They are running for exclusives, sometimes risking their lives, without any proper safety training, medical cover, life insurance and job security,” he said.

A majority of media houses, he opined, simply didn’t train their reporters how to react in a hostile situation, which often resulted in casualties and injuries to field staff.

A rising culture of “breaking news” compounded by job insecurity often prompts young reporters to compete in the race to be “number one”, he said.

“How ironic it is that in several TV channels, the cameras are insured, but journalists have to look towards the government or the press clubs in case of injury or other health issues,” he said. At the same time, he acknowledged that journalist unions have also done little in terms of imparting trainings to professionals to help them better cope with hostile environments.

“We demand the federal and provincial information ministries to bind the media outlets for mandatory training of their employees. The declarations of the media houses, which fail to arrange safety training for their employees, should be revoked,” he said.

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