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We’re celebrating the 250th Press Freedom Day but is the Pakistani media really free?

Published: May 3, 2016

A Pakistani vendor arranges morning newspapers with front-page-coverage of the attack by gunmen on French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo in Paris, at a roadside newsstand in Islamabad. PHOTO: AFP

You know, therefore you are.

And we know because of the press. Be it print or broadcast, media is what keeps you updated. It provides us with information because it is our right to know, and it is the press’ right to relay that information.

The press, or a more relevant term today might be the media (that includes products of both print as well as broadcast and digital journalism) relay that information to you.

But, if you are a Pakistani and have never been a part of the media, never seen the workings of a newsroom and have never been a reporter, it is a given that you are someone who has hurled abuses, chanted frustrated expletives and blamed the media and press for everything that has gone wrong in the world.

The Pakistani media is far from perfect.

The headlines can be scandalous and out of context. The reporters and TV anchors cross lines. Media ethics are ripped apart every time a tragedy takes place, where cameras are thrust in the faces of victims and survivors. Information is relayed first and thought about later.

While print media (newspapers), exercises much more care and caution compared to TV, the web wing of newspapers is another animal altogether. News has to be broken within minutes otherwise it becomes redundant and stale. “It’s already been covered” is the worst nightmare in the web room. To make their story novel and different, value additions are pushed through and the ‘treatment’ of the story is altered to get more hits.

Journalists are paid a pittance, especially if they are in print media, and those that write in a local language are paid even less. The one thrill that keeps them going is the sheer joy of being able to tell a story or create awareness while taking the credit for it; their name or face appearing with the news story. And for this, they risk their lives.

With every passing day, our viewers, readers and listeners are also becoming less forgiving. A decade ago, we could have gotten away with shoddy and loud journalism by saying,

Abhi nayee nayee azaadi milee hai media ko

(Our media is enjoying its new found freedom).

But Pakistan’s media has now crossed the milestone of being nascent.

The initial euphoria of freedom after an era of being the proverbial “press in chains” has now begun to die down. Which means the media will not be able to get away with anything and everything. Also, mistakes made by the media, like everyone else, can become a social media trend within minutes. Whether the media person was right or wrong, how they should be dealt with is another debate.

But if media persons ask politician’s scandalous questions, storm into assemblies, do moral policing of dating couples in parks, or show unreasonable tilts towards an ideology or person, they cannot go scot-free. Writers and reporters should not be allowed to base entire stories on hypothetical sources and should not be allowed to share data without citations. Today’s media is grilled and criticised. If nothing else, the social media trial will take them to task.

And it must.

The absence of a check and balance corrupts anyone in a position of power, and one of the most powerful positions to be in is as a media person. What we say, show or write reaches millions. We, the media, are answerable.

Yet, as the world today celebrates the 250th Press Freedom Day, is Pakistani media really free?

What we know as ‘policy matters’ and ‘security concerns’ often hold back the pen or the microphone of the reporter to relay information that must reach the public. Certain ideas are shot down by editors due to fear of backlash and ruffling too many feathers, and then we wonder why our best journalists end up writing for foreign publications and not local ones.

Fears of consequences, tilts and allegiances of patrons, the editor’s discretionary powers to chop or discard a good pitch or story and the simple fear of becoming unpopular or redundant, often hold a journalist back from the noble task of telling the truth, and nothing but the truth.

The reporters in a press conference can and should be trained to ask better phrased and more relevant questions, but do they have the right to put those questions to a Pervez Rasheed, an Imran Khan, a Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif or a General Raheel Sharif?

The answer should be a resounding yes.

In a world where surveillance of citizens is legally accepted, why should a media person’s right to ask questions be curtailed?

While absolutism in freedom of speech can be harmful, strict censorships harm a society by not only restricting, but mutating the development of healthy collective thought processes.

The annual report of press freedom by media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) stated that Pakistan has been ranked 159 out of 180 countries. Yet, these restrictions are not just limited to Pakistan as the world at large is failing on many counts when it comes to providing press the required freedom.

In an era plagued with conflict, fear of life is what causes us, the media persons, to bite our tongues and throw away our pens.

The need of the day is to educate our press and media persons regarding media ethics, but at the same time, their safety should be safeguarded while ensuring that they can speak up without fear of losing their audience, their jobs or their lives.

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Farahnaz among 15 most powerful female journalists

 http://journalismpakistan.com/news-detail.php?newsid=1986
Farahnaz among 15 most powerful female journalists JournalismPakistan.com
March 06, 2015

ISLAMABAD: Farahnaz Zahidi Moazzam, senior sub-editor at The Express Tribune, has been selected by Women Deliver, a global organization that works for girls and women’s rights and wellbeing, as one of the 15 most powerful female journalists around the world for her stories on women’s health and rights.
In an interview with JournalismPakistan.com, she said her selection means that there is more to Pakistan than terrorism, violence against women, poverty and corruption.
“It means Pakistani women have a voice. They speak. They are heard. My pride is being a Pakistani and part of this awesome nation,” she said.
Farahnaz said her inspiration is the strength of the human spirit, especially Pakistanis and women in particular. “I have connected with women across the world in the course of my work: from villages in Africa to areas of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Tharparkar and have realized that women are more similar than we know. They are the backbone of communities,” she said.
She said that tragic stories about the girls and women usually get headlines in both the print and electronic media but her focus always remains on the positive stories.
“In the red light area of Lahore, the story that touches me most is the mother who has succeeded in getting her daughter admitted in a medical college. The women suffering from obstetric fistula for decades get treated at Lady Reading Hospital Peshawar and Koohee Goth Karachi – that’s my stories,” she said.
“The poor Hindu woman gang raped in Tharparkar, after the story I wrote, gets justice because the Chief Justice takes suo moto – that’s my motivation,” she said.
Farahnaz is a writer, editor, photojournalist and blogger. She is also a peace and gender activist and teaches students of media sciences as visiting faculty. With a Masters in English Literature and a keen love of languages, she teaches classical Arabic and takes interactive classes in theology, comparative religion and Islam.
She said the award would not help improve her work but would definitely help place Pakistan in a positive light globally. “Pakistani women are strong and empowered. Their stories will be more widely read. That’s enough award,” she said.
Advising aspiring female journalists, she said they should not write for a local or foreign audience or for any other motive rather they should focus on writing on the issues they believe in without compromising on the ethics.
“Journalism is a wonderful profession that allows us to contribute to our communities and the world. One should use that opportunity responsibly. Whatever is written with honesty and passion has a way of reaching the hearts of your audience and readers,” she said.
Farahnaz is a lively and jolly person as her joys in life are chaai (tea), travel, books and motherhood.
The Women Deliver will now select top three journalists from the list of 15 through an online voting contest. To vote for Farahnaz, one can visit http://www.womendeliver.org/vote-for-your-favorite-journalists-delivering-for-girls-and-women. The voting closes on March 20.

2014 report: Pakistan most dangerous country for journalists, says IFJ

Farahnaz Zahidi
Published: January 1, 2015

At least 14 journalists and media staff were killed in the country last year. STOCK IMAGE

KARACHI: Pakistan was the most dangerous country in the world for journalists during 2014 with 14 recorded deaths, according to the 24th Annual List Asia of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) released on Wednesday. Syria, where a deadly insurrection against President Bashar al Assad has been ongoing, was in the 2nd place on the IFJ report with 12 journalists killed in the line of duty.

A total of 118 journalists and media staff were killed in work-related attacks in 2014, states the IFJ report. The attacks included both targeted or crossfire incidents. Seventeen other mediapersons died in road crashes and natural disasters while on assignments. In 2013, 105 journalists and media staff were killed.

After Pakistan and Syria, Afghanistan and Palestine recorded nine killings each while eight journalists were killed each in Iraq and Ukraine.

“We have been raising our voice for security of media persons but the government has never taken the safety of journalists seriously,” said Amin Yousuf, the secretary general of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), told The Express Tribune. Yousuf complained that when journalists and media staff die in the line of duty, announcements are made by political leaders but their families never get compensation.

The IFJ report also warns that these new figures are a reminder of the gravity of the safety crisis in media and renews its urgent call to governments to make the protection of journalists their priority.

The Asia Pacific region, where Pakistan is located, had the highest death toll with 35 killings, making it the most dangerous region for journalists and media staff in the world for the second year running.

According to the IFJ, the ongoing wars in Syria, Iraq and Ukraine as well as the violent insurgency in Pakistan and Afghanistan account for most of the targeted killings of journalists.

“The levels of violence against journalists remain unacceptably high in a number of countries where journalists risk their lives in their daily job,” said IFJ General Secretary Beth Costa. “Sadly, many have paid the ultimate price this year and lost their lives to the spiraling violence which is engulfing media, fuelled by the climate of impunity.”

Published in The Express Tribune, January 1st, 2015.

Pakistan’s women journalists: ‘We want our voice heard’

Why are more and more women joining the media sector in Pakistan?
Last updated: 08 Mar 2014 11:56
http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2014/03/pakistan-women-journalists-want–20143717951496363.html

women pak

Farahnaz Zahidi
Farahnaz Zahidi is a Pakistani writer and editor who currently works for The Express Tribune.
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Female journalist can tell the stories of women whose voices are rarely heard, argues Zahidi [AP]
On this International Women’s day, Google two words: “Pakistan” and “Women”. The results will show pages and pages with headlines about girl-child marriages, honour killings, acid attacks, sexual harassment, not enough women-friendly legislation passed by the National Assembly of Pakistan, patriarchy, preference for male child, alarming maternal mortality rates, and the list goes on.

A recent report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) shows that Pakistan ranks as the fourth most dangerous country in terms of journalists killed in the line of duty. And yes, Pakistan is considered one of the most dangerous places in the world for women.

Some of the search results would be articles written by female Pakistani journalists – including myself – who focus on gender issues. I recall reporting on the gender gap in employment in Pakistan, when the country was ranked 2nd from the bottom in a study of 135 countries (World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report).

What is encouraging is that Pakistan has a vibrant and growing regional language media, often braver than mainstream media. Women from conservative, under-privileged or rural backgrounds are also venturing into it.

Stakeholders in peace

On the surface, it looks like it is all bad news, especially for female journalists. Despite the harsh working conditiones (low salaries, stress, violence), the fact remains that more and more women are joining media in Pakistan. And for a good reason. This is a country that has a story in every corner, waiting to be told. And women, by default, are great story-tellers. They also have so much to say, and are natural born “fixers”. Journalism is thus a great career choice for us.

Pakistan’s situation, of late has unearthed some new fields and exposed some voids waiting to be filled by reporters, who can choose them as their niches in the world of journalism. With the risk of sounding cliche, there are the proverbial “silver linings” to this mayhem.

Here’s an example of one of the new beats opening up before women journalists: If earlier I was writing features just focusing on reproductive health and family planning, I now focus on how the security crises have affected women in conflict-ridden parts of the country. If roads are blown up and the infrastructure is damaged, women end up paying the highest price. For example, women in such areas would not be able to access hospitals for childbirth, and female doctors, for safety reasons, cannot travel to conflict zones. All this needs to be highlighted. And women reporters do that well.

Inside Story – Who in Pakistan should have protected Malala?
In times of conflict, the vulnerable sections of society like women and children, are most impacted by displacement and losing the men in their lives. Women, as stakeholders in peace processes at any level, are often ignored. Their voice needs to be heard. Over time, the importance of this particular “beat” or focus as a journalist became obvious to me.

It was important that I was there at Peshawer’s Lady Reading Hospital to talk to Fatima Bibi (not her real name) whose 14-year-old son had lost his limbs in a blast. She wanted to do something about it more than just weep. She went on to become a peace-builder in her own town. Her story needed to be told. And it was.

Defining factors

The good part, however, is that it doesn’t really matter if you were a male or a female journalist in Pakistan. Media in this country is quickly becoming a sphere where the man-woman dynamic is not necessarily the defining factor. We are not second-guessed because we are women. We are treated as equals to our male colleagues. There is a definite air of synergy which is conducive to the nature of this craft.

Yes, we want to see even more women in key leadership positions in media houses, even right at the top. Indeed, many have gotten there, while others are on their way up.

The professional hazards, like being stared at or harassed, are not specific to journalism or Pakistan. If, as women we ask for equality, we have to handle these hiccups, although this does not mean staying silent about it. Over time, we learn to handle it. There may be a few “boys’ clubs” that are a tad bit over-protective about their female counterparts, but generally, Pakistan’s female journalists are a strong voice in the country’s overall narrative.

What is encouraging is that Pakistan has a vibrant and growing regional language media, often braver than mainstream media. Women from conservative, under-privileged or rural backgrounds are also venturing into it.

A proactive female journalist from South Punjab was asked recently why she is doing this job that is risky and not so lucrative. Her answer had great clarity: “Sharing this table with 20 male journalists and being able to find a space where my voice is being heard. What more does one need?”

Farahnaz Zahidi is a Pakistani writer and editor who chose quality journalism as her chosen path for telling stories that need to be told and contributing towards a better Pakistan, a better world. Her areas of focus include human rights, gender, peace-building and Islam. She currently works for The Express Tribune. You can find her blog here and her photo-journalism here.

Follow her on Twitter: @FarahnazZahidi.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

The danger of being a journalist in Pakistan

Published: August 17, 2013

Express Media employees and security personnel gather at the entrance of the office after the attack. PHOTO: EXPRESS/FILE

My biggest high as a journalist is my byline. Having been a journalist for a fairly long time, the excitement has not lessened.

The day I know a story of mine will be published there is a wave of anticipation from the night before. With half-open eyes, I snap off the rubber band holding the rolled up newspaper in the morning, search for my story, and revisit it many times a day.

It is not simply narcissism, though every journo and writer is a bit of a self-centred narcissist inside. George Orwell got it right when he laid down the four motives to write in his essay “Why I write” and placed sheer egoism at the top because as he said “All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery.”

I will not digress into a debate about the difference between a journalist and a writer here. Somewhere, the lines are diffused and they tend to overlap.

But in a country like Pakistan and the times we live in, the joy of seeing one’s name in print becomes even more profound. Journalists of both print media and broadcast risk their lives, literally, and get not much money in return.

It is an underpaid profession at the end of the day. Only people with an insatiable desire to speak out are good reporters.

In a nutshell, the byline or the name of the journalists means everything to them.

Only yesterday, at work, I was talking to a colleague who just wrote a daring piece. “I was told I shouldn’t put in my name in this write-up,” she said. “But of course you did,” I said. We smiled at each other. We all have been there.

But today’s (Friday’s) attack on the office of Express Media is more than 24 bullets, two injured people and an act of cowardice. It is something, I fear, which will lessen the number of bylines even further.

It will not just be the attackers who will be unnamed persons. Very soon, the people who dig out the stories that tell you what’s happening in the world around us will be veiled, shrouded and stacked up under umbrella terms like “media” and “correspondent”.

I fear, very soon, the perilous nature of the Pakistani journalism will rob us of the one satisfaction we have.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 17th, 2013.

http://tribune.com.pk/story/591368/when-journalists-become-unknown-people/