Media personnel on the frontlines of conflict, including reporters, cameramen and photojournalists provide the images and information that media and readers most crave. But they are often also the most vulnerable.
So why is so little being done to protect them?
By Shazia Mehboob
“A few days before his death, I asked my brother why don’t you leave this risky and low-paid profession and go back to Korea to make your children’s future bright,” Nawab Gul recalls his last exchange with his deceased brother Javed Khan. “I was worried about growing attacks on journalists in the country. But he refused, saying it is a profession which provides him the opportunity to become a voice for the voiceless.”
Khan was a photographer for Daily Mcirkciz. While reporting, he and a cameraman of the UK-based DM Digital TV were killed during an armed clash between law enforcement agencies and the students of Lai Masjid in Islamabad’s Aabpara area on July 3, 2007.
An eyewitness to Khan’s death, senior journalist Zafar Malik recounts that he, along with some colleagues, was standing at the roadside near the mosque while Khan was filming the violence when suddenly bullets struck, leaving Khan in a pool of blood.
As they rushed to rescue Khan, they were trapped in the shower of bullets as heavy gunfire erupted around them. “I felt like bullets were raining over them,” Malik shares of that most painful experience of his decades-long career.
The bullets marks can still be seen on the trees outside the school near Lai Masjid where Malik and his colleagues took shelter to escape the heavy firing. Although the government had made an announcement through the electronic media, warning journalists to stay away from the conflict zone in the tense standoff leading up to the military operation, most had no idea about the announcement as they had been in the field from the early morning; they had no access to internet to keep themselves updated about the latest directions, explains Malik. While they were shifting Khan in a vehicle, bullets hit two other colleagues, leaving them injured.
Absar A lam, who was bureau chief of Geo News at the time, was among the journalists who survived the crossfire between the law enforcement agencies and the students of Lai Masjid. “The lead up to the operation was like a frenzy,” recalls Alam. He was present at the conflict zone along with others to cover the developments. No one was thinking about anything untoward happening because the law enforcement agencies were making announcements asking Lai Masjid students to surrender peacefully. But all of a sudden, the protesting students became violent and started pelting stones on the security vehicles patrolling outside the mosque.
In the meantime, a stray bullet — Alam doesn’t know from where it came — turned the whole situation violent, and a crossfire began as the Lai Masjid activists were equipped with automatic weapons and stones. The gunfire was so sudden that everyone was trapped in the middle.
Alam didn’t know where his colleagues had gone; he just rushed towards the nearby school wall to escape the heavy shelling when a hard blunt object grazed his head. He began to bleed. He didn’t know which side it came from as the law enforcement personnel were positioned behind him on the rooftop of the school and the madrassah students were in the front of the mosque. He had nothing to shield himself from being hit further, as till then there was no concept in the Pakistani media of providing safety equipment to journalists who covered
Alam pressed his head firmly with his hands to stop the bleeding and rushed towards the Poly Clinic Hospital where he luckily reached and had his wound stitched. Later, he was informed that Khan had been killed and some other colleagues were treated for their injuries. After that incident, a few media organisations started providing bullet-proof jackets and helmets to their reporters covering conflicts, but not all reporters and cameramen are equipped with safety equipment even today.
LIVING WITH DISABILITY
Israr Ahmed, a cameraman for CNBC Pakistan, is another survivor of the unexpected clash before the Lai Masjid operation. Ahmed was covering an event when he received a call from his office to report the Lai Masjid stand-off. He went there immediately. “I was busy filming the gunfire outside the mosque when suddenly bullets hit me from the back. I don’t remember anything after that.” Three bullets hit Ahmed, leaving him unconscious in a pool of blood. Two bullets hit him in the arm and the leg. It was the third one, which pierced his spinal cord, that did the most damage. It left him paralysed for life.
At the time, his family was in pain due to his critical condition as he was on a ventilator, and his organisation too didn’t follow the criminal case. By the time he recovered from the near-fatal injuries, Ahmed says his case had been closed.
Two other photojournalists were also received gunshot wounds in the clash at Aabpara. Ahmed considers himself lucky as his organisation didn’t abandon him and provided the expenses of his treatment, but he rues that neither of their cases were prosecuted properly, despite the fact that they were simply serving their profession.
In their defence, Samaa TV — the successor of CNBC Pakistan — says it did all it could for Ahmed. Altaf Hussain, senior accountant in finance, administration and HR claims that his organisation provided 2.6 million rupees to Ahmed as immediate medical insurance. He points out that Samaa TV