Zeeshan Yaqub, a Peshawar-based journalist, describes his profession as being the “ears and eyes of society”. He could not be more right in explaining the profession of watchdogs of society.
However, the risks of murder, abduction, harassment and defamation of journalists are serious issues hindering the free flow of information to the public. These risks come from various pressure groups, and state and non-state actors, and often result in serious risk to injury and even loss of life for these crusaders of truth.
The advent of private news media at the turn of the century brought many journalists from diversified backgrounds into the fold. The participation of women journalists has also increased but many continue to face various challenges in the form of gender discrimination, harassment, threats of violence and character assassination on social media.
Members of religious minorities are also joining the profession, and their challenges are even deeper. They not only face social and professional discrimination but are also under life threats on the basis of their religious identity. The recent murder of Christian journalist Qais Javed in DI Khan is the latest example of the plight of and intolerant attitude of society towards minority journalists. However, despite these odds, the resilient minority journalists are still risking their lives to highlight the issues of their vulnerable community in particular and country in general.
Authorities need to make special laws which provide journalists job and life security, and adequate compensation if they are killed or injured in the line of duty. Similarly, they need legal protection when bogus cases are lodged against them as a result of their work.
Manmeet Kaur, a Sikh journalist in Peshawar, has been working as a reporter since 2017 and has covered the plight and rights of religious minorities and other marginalised groups of society. “This journey has not been a walk in the park for me and my family. From day one, I have been facing various challenges like all other professional women working in this patriarchal society of ours,” she narrated.
In the last few months, Manmeet has faced serious smear campaigns against her and her family because of their religious affiliation and her marriage. “It is purely my personal matter and the Constitution has given me the right to do so. Nobody has the right to defame me and my family over my personal life choices,” she asserted further.
Almas Newton, a radio journalist, said she started as a compere in Bahawalpur for Radio Pakistan in 1999 but then faced discrimination from seniors which forced her to leave, as all other avenues for redressal had been exhausted.
Lamenting the lack of avenues of protection for journalists, Aamir Sohail, vice president of the Punjab Union of Journalists, said there is no journalist protection mechanism or policy in the country but efforts are under way to correct this.
“Though media associations try to safeguard journalists and workers, on the government level there is no such support,” he said, adding that though there are only a few journalists from minorities, they too face discrimination but the union has formed a committee to look into resolving their issues.
Aftab Alam, the executive director of IRADA, an Islamabad-based research organisation, said in the index of the Committee to Protect Journalists, Pakistan stands at number nine. “Therefore, it is not easy to be a journalist in Pakistan. Ethnic and religious minorities are the most vulnerable and journalists from these communities see their problems multiply,” he shared.