Media workers are also frontliners

—by Lubna Jerar Naqvi

Pakistan is now grappling with the second wave of corona-virus which some experts claim is worse than the first one. Since the beginning of the pandemic the media has been working full-time – with a majority of the staff working from home since mid-March.

Despite the increase in cases, many media workers continued to work as usual. Like other frontliners, the media workers were also exposed to the virus. And unlike health workers, media workers were not provided with PPEs and proper masks in the beginning.

However, in a country in Pakistan where many frontliners like health workers, police etc. are working in the most precarious conditions it is no surprise that media workers were also working with any proper precautions.

Many media employees have been infected and have had to stay home, others were working till it was impossible for them to work.

“Some of us were and still are required to come to the office and also work on the field to report.” Said one reporter who does not want to be named. “And many of us followed SOPs but there were many who either disregarded them or were not serious about following the rules.”

Some of the infected were afraid to stay at home because they were already stressed due to the job insecurity due to the situation in the media.

“I lost a dear colleague to the coronavirus earlier in the year.” K said. “My colleague did not want to be laid off – the level of stress was high.”

K’s colleague did not survive and was one of the first lives lost. K says the stress of working in a pandemic and the fear of losing one’s life or job is only adding to the pressure. But no one wants to take the risk of being laid off.

“Many media workers have been laid off but most of these were before the coronavirus pandemic.” Said Karachi Union of Journalists’ (KUJ) President Syed Hassan Abbas.

He added, “Any layoffs post pandemic have not been because of the virus. However, salaries have been delayed at some organizations but this process has been going on for the last year or so.”

KUJ President conducted and submitted a report on the cases of coronavirus in Karachi’s media.

The research and survey was commissioned by Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) and the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) to access the situation in Pakistan during coronavirus.

According to KUJ’s survey include results from 11 media houses and five newspapers.The highest number of cases were in Bol News Karachi, where 140 employees were infected including 51 journalists.

The report also states that except for two organizations – Dawn and Express – the media organizations did not provide adequate support to their employees who were infected. This caused major problems for them as many people have not been paid for several months.

Things are extremely bad for employees related to the print media. KUJ President Hassan Abbas said, “A large number of journalists and media workers were affected by Covid19. There were people who were afraid to buy newspapers as they think that the virus will be transmitted through the newspapers. Many stopped buying newspapers and this also affected the circulation.”

PFUJ and KUJ has been distributing ration and money to members and non-members alike. “At a crisis like this, PFUJ and its affiliates are trying to extend support to all – even non-members.” Said PFUJ President GM Jamali.

“From the beginning KUJ’s President, General Secretary and teams have been working to distribute food and money. And because of this KUJ’s President Syed Hassan Abbas had been infected in April-May.” Jamalisaid. “This did not stop us from trying to reach out to anyone we could.”

“So far no newspaper has been shut down due to coronavirus pandemic in Karachi.” Said Abbas. “And we are thankful to Allah that no member of KUJ has lost their lives due to Covid19.”

The second wave is upon us and people are still not taking the virus seriously. The good thing is that about 50% of the staff is working from home.

“While many are working from home, reporters cannot sit at home to cover stories.” Said Jamali.

“PFUJ is working on a system that it will share with media organizations across Pakistan to ensure that field teams are provided with proper equipment to work. And that everyone is following SOPs properly.”

Jamali added that if someone falls ill on work, PFUJ and its affiliates will make sure that the media organization supports its employees during this time.

KUJ’s president added that media outlets and the government made many announcements to financially support media employees during the pandemic.

However, no media worker was given any kind of financial relief by the government, although some larger media houses did support their employees.

“Media is an ongoing job no matter what the situation.” Said Saima, a young woman who began working a few months before the coronavirus pandemic hit. She joined a large media house a few months after graduating from university.

She is quite scared to work in these conditions but she said that her colleagues say that working in the media is a dangerous job even in the most normal times. Mainly because media has report different stories that can even be dangerous – there is no break.

This is why she thinks that media needs to be given the status of essential services in Pakistan.

“It is almost like a hospital or other essential services where healthworkers, police, army and other frontliners continue to work no matter what. Similarly, media workers should also be classified as essential workers. The government should make sure that all the frontliners are protected and working under conditions to protect as many as possible and still get the job done.”

However, apart from the government the media houses should also make sure that their workers are given the best conditions to continue to work in during the pandemic.

Strict checks need to be put into place to ensure all workers are following the SOPs in office or on the field. The workers need to be constantly be given pep talks to make them understand that they have to take care of themselves while doing their job – both are important.

The media organizations should also provide regular therapy sessions to the workers in these stressful times so that the workers are not stressed out or depressed. The media organizations should consider this to be an investment in keeping their teams healthy to keep doing the best job.

Reporters and their teams, plus technical staff and other staff should be provided proper equipment when outdoors. Anyone caught disregarding the SOPs should be taken to task so that they understand the seriousness of the situation.

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