Winner of prestigious Peter Mackler Journalism Courage Award for 2014, TV journalist Asma Shirazi speaks exclusively to Freedom Network about the crisis of credibility engulfing media and the dangerous conditions of practicing journalism in Pakistan
FN: Asma Shirazi, thank you for talking to Freedom Network, Pakistan’s premier media rights watchdog organization and media development group. Congratulations – you have won the prestigious Peter Mackler Journalism Courage Award for 2014 and have collected it in a ceremony at the National Press Club in Washington on evening of October 23. What does the award mean to you as a journalist?
Asma Shirazi: Thank you. It’s a great honor for me to be the recipient of 2014 Peter Mackler Award for Courage and Ethical journalism. It is indeed a privilege to be the first Pakistani journalist to win this global award this year. Awards are recognition of one’s endeavors and professional commitments; a source of encouragement that boosts our enthusiasm, and a drive that enkindles new fires to steer you to take on new challenges. But I dedicate this award to the unsung heroes of journalism in Pakistan who have sacrificed their lives in the line of work. I would especially like to dedicate this award to my fellow journalists working in extremely difficult conditions in the tribal areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan and Balochistan. I am grateful to Allah Almighty, my family, friends and the organizations I have worked with, for their consistent support in my career. For me this award is also an opportunity to raise my voice against threats and violence that my fellow journalists in Pakistan are subjected to. I hope this award will further promote the culture of “courage” and “ethical journalism” in Pakistan – it’s not easy to practice these traits in Pakistan these days.
FN: Pakistan is ranked among the most dangerous places in the world to practice journalism by organizations such as Reporters Without Borders, Committee to Protect Journalists and International Federation of Journalists for the past decade. Is it even harder to practice journalism for women in Pakistan? How?
Asma: Journalism in Pakistan is constantly under attack from various quarters. If your dare report an investigative story you have to be ready for the attendant risks. For women in Pakistani media it’s harder still. For them it’s also a parallel fight for survival alongside meeting their professional obligations. Right from the behavior of society to the attitude of colleagues, from threats of the banned outfits to the political pressures, from harassment to physical assaults, it is no less than a miracle that women continue to practice journalism while choosing to battle the double jeopardy. I’ve experienced all these stages in my journalism career. Character assassination campaigns by trolls and agencies, life threats from various state and non state actors, intimidation by terror groups like Tehrik Taliban Pakistan, Lashkar Jhangvi, political groups and establishment forces – these are challenges that I regularly face along with my fellow journalists.
FN: You are one of Pakistan’s most popular journalists. You have reported both from the field and in the studio and Newsroom. In your experience, what have you found more dangerous – being a reporter in the field or being a host of a talk show in the studio?
Asma: For me it’s the same as the forces one is arraigned against pressure you whether you’re in the field or in the studio – the threats level are the same because it’s your message they don’t like. Mostly it does not matter whether you are reporting from field or for studio or Newsroom – it’s the news story that matters. Yet our journalist colleagues working in the field are clearly more vulnerable physically and over 100 journalists have paid with their lives for their work. Unfortunately Pakistan has become a place where journalists are constantly a target for years now. Press clubs are forced to shut down. In October 2014 alone three journalists were killed in Balochistan. The irony is that mostly journalists are neither trained nor well equipped to adopt the appropriate security measures while performing their duties, which contribute to their vulnerability. There is hardly a code of conduct that is followed. Media organizations mostly don’t seem interested in the matter while the State is generally indifferent to their plight.
FN: A key challenge to professional journalism worldwide is non-adherence to ethical journalism. What challenges does ethical journalism face in Pakistan and how can we overcome them?
Asma: Non adherence to ethical journalism is a serious crisis that Pakistan’s media industry has been facing. A crisis of credibility has engulfed the media for most of this year. Commercialization of media, owner-driven editorial policies, self-censorship, campaigning against rivals, running non-verified information and casual misreporting are major factors that are damaging ethical journalism. The kind of journalism in practice now in Pakistan could better be understood by an embarrassing question that a viewer asked me. He said, “Madam are you supporter of the views of Channel A or Channel B?” “What do you mean by that?” I asked. He replied: “Channel A is with the government and Channel B is leading the agenda of the opposition.” Biased screens and partial reporting is visible on the screens. Some of the ways by which this crisis can be overcome is to revive the role of the professional editor, appoint strong editorial boards and arrange training and refresher courses for the journalists on a regular basis. Media organizations, press clubs, journalists’ unions can play an active role in rectifying these problems.
FN: The year 2014 has been challenging for journalists in Pakistan – a total of 13 have been killed in its first 10 months. Over 60 have been killed in the last 6 years. Why do journalists in Pakistan continue to be targets?
Asma: A state of general lawlessness and weak authority of the executive invites renegade and vested groups to dominate. Emergence of terror groups like Taliban, extremist forces, sectarian groups, ethnic groups, pressure groups and militant wings of political parties have made it almost impossible for journalists to work freely. Pressures of the government and the all-powerful Establishment forces are also taking a toll on media practitioners. Attempting an investigative story normally invites the displeasure and sometimes the violence of the investigated parties and journalists are targeted in one way or the other. Journalists continue to be a target because of a lack of professional editors in media. Decisions are not taking place in the Newsroom rather these are being made by a non-present owner, usually. Editors pressing their reporters in the field are often unaware of the circumstances their teams are working in. generally there is no capacity building of the journalists by their organizations to promote greater professionalism and safety. These grey areas are the major causes of the vulnerability of journalists in Pakistan.
FN: Safety and security have been the biggest challenges for most journalists in Pakistan for over a decade now. Have you faced threats and safety challenges in your work? How?
Asma: It was in 2004 when I got first threat from state owned agencies labeling me as ‘Indian agent.’ I took it casual but a few days later, things got worse. A federal minister warned me of reports that were circulating against me at a higher level. My organization was told to sack me. Next my entry was banned into Prime Minister Secretariat, Presidency and other key official venues. I myself had to register a complaint with ISI and one of their senior officials launched an investigation into the matter where it was found out that a few people belonging to government and the agencies, unhappy with my working, plotted harassment against me so that I may be scared off and quit the profession.
In 2007, when Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry was dismissed and I was doing live shows, I was threatened by the team of the then President Pervez Musharraf and his agencies through one of my friends in the following lines, “If she will not stop criticizing President Musharraf, she won’t be able to go back her home alive – she must mend her mouth now or we will do it.” On November 3, 2007, when a state of emergency was imposed by Musharraf the threat became official. I was banned by the Government of Pakistan from appearing on the media. I was the only female anchorperson among the five other senior anchorpersons to face this. During the three months ban I received numerous life threats. Again my channel was told to sack me. I was offered to join the state-run PTV, an offer that I refused. It was only with daily protest demonstrations and a constant struggle that this phase came to its end. In 2011, soon after the military operation against the Taliban in Swat in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in northwest Pakistan, I went to the scenic valley and conducted a series of programs from there for my show titled ‘Faisla Aap Ka.’ I did one of the shows from the ‘Bleeding Roundabout [Khooni Chowk]’ where Taliban used to hang bodies of people they killed. As I came back, I got life threats from the Taliban of Swat. I was also communicated about the interception of Taliban’s telephonic conversation discussing my punishment. In 2012, I did a show about leaders of banned outfits including Maulvi Ishaq and others addressing public gatherings. This triggered a new wave of threats for me as activists of banned outfits including Lashkar Jhangvi gave me direct life threats on social media and announced protests against me. Even now these threats from banned outfits continue in one way or the other. In 2013, while working with Dawn News TV channel, doing my show ‘Faisla Awam Ka,’ I received numerous life threats from Taliban from various sources telling me to stop talking against them or face the consequences. A list of media persons to be targeted by Taliban was also under circulation which was claimed to have been finalized by Taliban shura and which included my name. I was officially informed to restrict my movements. While quoting these instances of life threats to me, I feel committed with unflinching passion to my profession. I can be silenced but I can’t be stopped from speaking the truth which is my sole weapon. I will not be included in any list of apologists.
FN: Unsafe journalists are usually forced to compromise on their professionalism. Are the threats to the lives of Pakistani journalists forcing them to censor themselves? Are Pakistani media houses also making similar compromises? How?
Asma: Yes, life threats have no doubt pushed many journalists to impose self-restrictions leading to professional compromises. They do this because they don’t have any back-up to cope with any adverse situation. Media organizations are generally not supportive of their journalists in distress and government too is indifferent. Of late even political parties have become tormentors of journalists and have been encouraging their supporters to harass, intimidate and physically attack journalists. Some of this has been recorded live. The trolls of these parties harass journalists on social media, use filthy language and hurl abuses. These are forcing some journalists to take to defensive self-censorship. Then the media houses are also fielding similar kinds of pressures, if not worse, making compromises for the sake of commercialism. This became more evident after attack on perhaps the most well-known journalist of Pakistan – Hamid Mir of Geo News TV where after he was attacked his own channel was banned and fined for some months.
FN: What steps can be taken to tackle security threats facing Pakistani journalists?
Asma: Primarily through the implementation of Article 19 of the Constitution of Pakistan that guarantees freedom of expression. The State has the responsibility of implementing it in letter and spirit. It is also the responsibility of the State to ensure security of journalists like every other citizen of society. The media organizations are also required to adopt responsible attitudes to ensure safety of journalists. These threats could be reduced by appointing professional editors in media organizations and their capacity building according to the situation. Journalists also require proper trainings which could be organized by their relevant organizations as well as journalists’ bodies.
FN: What steps can be taken to promote ethical journalism, investigative journalism and professional journalism in Pakistan?
Asma: One of the key ways forward for ethical journalism is the revival of role of the professional editor in media organizations. There is a dire need of channelizing the 24/7 broadcast of news channels under strict editorial boards where there is check and balance over the content avoiding sensationalism and biased reporting. Media owners are also required to be detached from manipulating and influencing broadcast and messages.
FN: What advice would you give women who want to pursue a career in journalism in Pakistan to become a professionally sound journalist?
Asma: Journalism is a challenging job. It’s a way of life but a tough one. It has to be adopted more as a passion than profession. Women who are resolute enough to take up these challenges can excel in the field as there is lot of space for them in Pakistani media. They only need encouragement and trust, and they can prove that they are second to none with their commitment and contentment.
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