Year 2020: Female journalists tackled global pandemic at personal level

(Author of this piece is a senior journalist who is also serving as Vice President, Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists – PFUJ)

KARACHI: The year 2020 was a watershed year for media in Pakistan as well as at global level.

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Crises in Pakistani media in terms of lay-offs, closure of newspapers, TV channels, censorship, restrictions/ban on freedom of speech,free flow of information, cuts in pay/benefits, delayed salaries in major cities like Karachi, Islamabad and Lahore or in other small cities/towns hit hard to journalists.
Press freedom became a challenge, when journalists were threatened, abducted, killed, harassed, subjected to violence while perpetrators continue to enjoy impunity. While more than 5,000 journalists have already lost jobs, Covid-19 aggravated the situation further, especially for female journalists. After COVID-19, the Pakistani media had a great task ahead to report growing humanitarian crises coupled with almost a crumbling health system of the country, lack of an organized database or collection strategies, limited mobility due to lockdown, government’s restriction on reporting Covid issues, curb on free flow of information (like there was a ban on taking direct data from hospitals etc.). Safety was the main issue for female journalists, who were working as desk Staff (editors, incharges, assignment editors, sub-editors), reporters and district reporters/correspondents, hosts and anchors, news readers at different channels and newspapers. For desk staff, difficulty in coordinating/contacting right people and managing work was an issue in undertaking day to day responsibilities.

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Females in trade unions
Membership of journalists has greatly affected due to pandemic, but female representation always remains low in all journalist representative bodies including trade unions, UJs and press clubs. They are usually taken on governing body or managing committees, but not on decision making positions.

At the moment the situation is as under.

PFUJ-affiliated unions: 25 (in different cities of the country)

PFUJ affiliated unions membership before COVID-19 (2019): 10,250 members

After Covid-19: 9,640

Number of women members before COVID-19: 500. (4.87%)
Current number of female members: 350 (3.6%)
The PFUJ has made a constitutional amendment and one seat each for VP and joint Secretary is fixed in PFUJ Exec. Council and each affiliated union. At the moment, two females, one female is serving as Vice President PFUJ(this scribe) and one female in federal executive council. In KUJ, one female is working as Joint secretary and one as Treasurer.
Meetings with the young journalists and female journalists are underway to convince them to join the Unions and hopefully the membership in near future will be increased by 10 percent
In print media CBAs, DAWN CBA has only two females in the body, while The News CBA has no female member, Jang CBA has only one female member in Lahore, while Javed Press union has no female member at all in its body. Except DAWN CBA, election in other CBAs is also not held on a regular basis. Recently, in Karachi’s KPC election, one female has been elected as Vice President.

 

Female journalists had whole new sets of problems after COVID-19
Humanitarian situation is usually gendered. Journalists believe that Covid-19 is being used as a reason to crackdown, and usurp the social, economic and political rights of people especially of marginalized communities.In a gendered society like our’sCOVID 19 affected women journalists bitterly when they were partaking their professional responsibilities as well as their culturally defined domesticated roles.
Lack of data in this regard is a huge challenge to identify gaps or find out the actual number of females affected by Covid-19, yet, many faced symptoms which they defused by self isolation or going in quarantine. Gender-based violence, harassment, negative societal attitudes, stifled career progress, and a significant gender pay gap are the long standing issues which remain unresolved.
Reporters, cameramen, photographers are the frontline workers, but initially no attention was paid to their safety. Later some efforts in pockets gave some relief to them. Salaries are still delayed on the pretext of reduced advertisement revenues due to COVID-19. For example, no tenancy bonus was paidto Dawn staff due to COVID-19.Inequalities in pay and benefits between men and women was already there, it aggravated due to COVID-19, yet females continued working in a hope that if they retain jobs, they will get their salaries one day.
Besides downsizing, many newspapers & TV channels were closed, including Aap news channel, bureau offices of Jang and Jehan Pakistan at Multan were closed. However, these newspapers continued printing from other stations, by giving additional responsibilities to the existing staff, with no extra benefits. In some offices despite having positive cases nothing was done for the safety of staff. For example, KTN office workers were tested positive but no measures were taken by the management for their safety.
Very few females have position of authority in media houses. In a patriarchal and conservative society, the needs of females are decided by men who are insensitive towards their special needs at office as well as in the field.
“Initially, females had to push the managements at the office to arrange sanitizers, soaps, tissue papers, clean washrooms, fumigation, masks etc as there was no media policy to work from home. Later it was arranged but small media units hardly paid any attention,” says Iram* working inEnglish daily.
Increased burden of work,extended working hours, increased psychological stress, anxiety, tension, fear,harassment, domestic violence, were issues which females faced with more intensity during COVID-19.
“Distraction at home, made it further stressful as the women were working for home and from home,” says another female journalist at a TV channel.
Job insecurity was at its peak during COVID-19. Small media units even asked their staff to sit at home till further instructions.
“In the absence of any transport, we were asked to report on COVID-19, and we did huge spending on transport, while delay in salaries and other related issues of having editorial meetings to improve work, increment, promotions etc seemed like a far fetch dream,” said Asma, working in an Urdu newspaper. “Later when there was restriction on any type of transport, even those having vehicles were unable to move,” said a female reporter at a channel on the condition of anonymity, while adding that they were asked to come to office despite the absence of any transport facility.
Attitude of editors, supervisors, who didn’t take the pandemic seriously,was an issue since the onset. “When asked permission to work from home, it was plainly refused calling it too early and too protective. The attitude of HR dept was simply callous as they were unprepared for a clear policy for work from home etc. Only big media houses had friendly policies towards work from home, while small media units lacked such empathy. There was general fear of loss of jobs among females, in case they fail to come to office,” says a senior journalist in an English daily.
“Notices were issued to people who were working from home, without prior permission, but when things got worse only then the permission was granted,” said Samra, a print journalist, while adding that weekly and daily shift systems planned later on.
In many media houses, employees were asked to come back while cases were still on the rise and offices lacked preparation for the new normal.
Safety in the field was another issue which all reporter, specially female reporters faced due to lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) at various offices, and PPEs were limited to masks and sanitizers only, that too were initially absent and given after journalists started contracting diseases.Health benefits are available to big media houses only, but small newspapers and channels were not given any health benefits.
Multi-tasking at homes to strike a balance between domestic chores as well as official responsibilities extended working hours of women. In case of ailing families, the care-giving put an extra burden on females. Many females had Corona-like symptoms, but they somehow managed through self quarantine, or social distancing and good food exercise etc.
“I suffered from Herpes zoster (HZ) and still haven’t recovered. COVID‐19 is known to affect the immune system and scientific evidence shows that it may increase the risk of HZ, limited reports confirm an association between HZ and COVID‐19,” said Mumtaz, Editor of an Urdu daily, who already had some medical conditions, which aggravated due to HZ. She bore all her medical expenses, but she was thankful that she didn’t lose her job.
Sadia Jehangir, working at Dunya News, as Assignment Editor and also doing reporting on general beats while sharing her experience said:“When first corona case came in Balochistan, we did reporting with following very little standard operating procedures (SOPs). Though initial fear was there, but when we visited Isolation centre in Quetta and met affected families who came secretly and were in hiding, then we had cases in our own office where the bureau chief, a lady reporter, two cameramen, 2 drivers, an assignment editor, were effected in Dunya News. Precautions were taken. The young lady reporter was afraid to inform her family about her illness as she would be bared from reporting.Reporters didn’t receive M91 masks, however, thumb impression attendance was cancelled by our office, after Corona cases in the office.”
Later Sadia’s husband and 4 years old son were also tested positive. She also had symptoms so she undertook official responsibilities as well as gave care to family. “I took 18 days leave as the whole family was in isolation” she said and added that whenever there was some problem at the desk, she did reporting, editing of footage, tickers etc. even during isolation.
After 18 days, when she went to office, “people started keeping distance from me, as it is considered a bad disease. I was also afraid due to my family as SOPs were not followed in the crowd, where I was going. ”
“In Balochistan testing facilities are not upto mark. I am not allowed to report from public places like hospital etc so data received was doubtful, as there was so much contradiction in data given by the government spokesperson with that of available resources. In Killis people didn’t take corona seriously. Many issues, like crime, climate, were compromised, due to corona, as we were not reporting on any issue other than Corona.”
Due to the mandatory social distancing and physical lockdown, reporters usually depended on PR reports only, so investigation or verification process compromised. Due to viral misinformation, conspiracy theories from around the world,there was difficulty in extracting facts from fake, or counter checking of facts., thus affecting quality and quantity of the content.
“Since focus was only on COVID-19 reporting, there was change of beat, without any training,” said Sumaira from local TV channel. “There was a compromise on other important beats like education, climate, child abuse, violence etc,” said Shamim, a print journalist. “Though many females were asked to work from home, yet they risked their lives and reported from fields, due to fear of being rendered redundant or losing jobs,” said Rehana, a TV journalist. Lack of facilities/IT Infrastructure at home and lack of any planning or training for work from homewas already there, non-computer savvy minds found it further difficult to manage remote working.
Maryam Siddiqa, as district reporter Neu News, covers all beats from Tharparker and is the only female reporter there. “It is difficult for females to report from Tharparkar as facilities are next to none, so women don’t join the profession.” Her organisation asked her to work from home but she traveled a lot for giving good stories. “Office gave us awareness about safety, provided sanitizers, masks etc, but no transport is given by office.” She manages it on sharing basis with other colleagues. During COVID-19, while meeting people in Tharparkar for her stories, she used masks, sanitizer etc, but she was afraid as people do not follow any SOPs, thus risking her family’s as well as her own health. “I meet 20-30 people on a daily basis so contracting or spreading disease was a normal thing.” She said at the moment in Tharparker people die without being tested, though they had corona like symptoms, as there is no testing facilities etc at official level. Siddiqa didn’t receive any payment for two months, after which she received a cheque of Rs 8000 cheque, with Rs2000 deduction for two months. Now she is getting Rs 10000. “We didn’t get any arrears which were deducted earlier,” she said and added that many issues of Thar were not reported due to Corona.female journalists 2 SOPs by Freedom network
Divisions in trade unions representing journalists put workers’ issues on back burner while media houses were crying hoarse for their rights. While seeing the situation of journalists, special guidelines were issued for office and field work by RSF, Freedom Network, IFJ, PFUJ including SOPs like social distancing, use of masks, sanitizers etc.
People were asked to use PR instead of attending crowded press conferences or report directly from hospitals or corona centers but reporters found it counterproductive as well as tantamount to losing their jobs, in case the channels and newspapers got used to these practices for a long time. So they went to fields and risked their lives.

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Corona Relief Package
While talking to women for this article, not a single woman said that she was given any relief package which were given by government or any private body.
The provincial information ministry of Punjab agreed to pay a monthly pension of Rs 10,000 (USD 60) and Rs1 million (USD 5,980) in relief to the family of a journalist who dies due to Covid-19. The government also promised to pay Rs 100,000 (USD 600) to any journalist who contracts Covid-19. But governments of other provinces are yet to decide any such package.

female journalists 5Reduction in size of paper
Pages on cultural events, social issues or fashion etc were reduced in many newspapers. For instances, a fashion page, Instep in The News is printing weekly issue only while daily edition was stopped. Similarly, city and sports pages were also reduced in The News. The staff of these newspapers is simply in limbo.
“Media houses were saving their energy cost, computer IT maintenance or support cost, tea/coffee food, transport, and other expenses, all these expenses have become an extra burden on the employees,” says Zaib working at an editorial page of a newspaper. “Many journalists continued their jobs, despite problems, like delayed salaries, huge spending on, internet, transport, telephone bills, or other things, yet they knew that quitting the job will be more taxing, at least having a job gives hope that they will get the salary and benefits sometime in future,” she added.

Other issues regarding salaries etc
A big challenge for senior regular employees of newspapers was due to the non-implementation of 8th wage board award which was announced and was supposed to be implemented in February 2020. Though retired Justice Hasnat Ahmed, chairman of the 8th Wage Board, while announcing the Award, had conditioned that government advertisements will be given to only those media houses who pay salaries according to the Wage board, but the award is yet to be implemented. A 25% ban on the ads of regional newspapers has affected more than one lakh workers and over 10 lakh people. Demand to increase regional newspapers quota from 25% to 50% is yet to be seen.
PFUJ and all affiliated UJs and Joint Action committee passed resolutions from Sindh and Punjab Assemblies in which they demanded to condition payment of release of Ad money to the media houses to the payment of salaries to the journalists, but journalists continue to suffer unabated.

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Censure and restrictions by the government
Newspaper saw a ban on social media, free press, internet, tik tok. Government put curbs on social media, where a Web Monitoring System) was used to monitor social media. People were afraid to even share information on social media websites. In November 2020, social media rules were given by the government, which compromised people’s freedom to criticize, debate or have discussion online.
While over 800,000 websites and web pages were blocked for various reasons. Censorship on Facebook resulted in the removal of 14,296 URLs from Facebook in the first half of 2019. According to reports, Facebook removed more than 12,000 of them.
The proposed ‘Protection of Journalists and Media Professionals Act, 2020’ is yet to take the shape of a law. Though the Protection against Harassment of Women at Workplace, Act 2010 is there but harassment of women is still there.female journalists 3

Harassment of female journalists
Benazir Shah, working at Geo and reporting on Corona, while speaking for a documentary, complained of restricted and limited information as direct data from the hospital was discouraged. “I was told that there was no death in Punjab but when contacted directly to Meo Hospital it was found out that there were 5 deaths that day. In June 2020, situation improved, yet detailed data was not available.” She said cases in Gilgit Baltistan, Balochistan Azad Kashmir, and Karachi were on the rise but correct information was’t available.
“I faced trolling on an information I shared but instead of giving any rebuttal on that info, I was blamed for spreading fake information. “My private pictures were taken out from my personal account and were made viral, by saying that I am associated with any other political party and charge money etc for such news. This abuse went on and on,” she said while saying that many fake accounts made female reporters vulnerable.
According to Freedom Network between the fall of 2019 and 2020 two women journalists have been killed for pursuing journalism careers – a first in the country’s history. This is coupled with increasing incidents of harassment of women journalists online, workplace harassment and other abuses call for increasing problems for women journalists. In September 2020, over a dozen of well-known women journalists issued a joint public statement on online abuse of a sexualized nature, including rape threats.
Leading Pakistani women journalists appeared before a parliamentary committee on human rights on August 18 to address pervasive online attacks against women in the industry, after launching a campaign under the hashtag #AttacksWontSilenceUs. Human Rights Minister Shireen Mazari issued a statement of solidarity and promised action against the worst offenders.Female journalists 4Stress, anxiety and other health issues
Stress to go out and secure the job, again comes with a psychological fear of being carrier to a virus for the family back home or meeting people who can be carrier. There is no psychological therapy available to women for PTSD or other issues. Only Centre of Excellence for Journalism (CEJ)in Karachi, made some arrangements for psychological therapy of journalists, but that facility was also removed after some time. More such therapy centers should be opened.
Though there was no death of any female journalist with Corona, but many females had Corona-like symptoms and they managed it through self quarantine, or social distancing and good food exercise etc. However, a female journalist, who had some other medical conditions also complained of Herpes zoster (HZ). Although COVID‐19 is known to affect the immune system and scientific evidence shows that it may increase the risk of HZ, limited reports confirm an association between HZ and COVID‐19.
Sadia Jehangir, Dunya News, assignment editor and also doing reporting general beats from Quetta Balochistan. “In the first wave of corona in Quetta, Balochistan, when first case came in Balochistan, we did reporting with following very little SOPs. But when we visited Isolation centre, in Quetta and met affected families who came secretly, hiding, and then we had cases in our own office when the bureau chief, a lady reporter, two cameramen, 2 drivers, a bureau chief, an assignment editor, were effected in the Dunya News, precautions were taken. Lady reporter was afraid that she will not tell the family, also got infected. We didn’t receive M91 mask.Initial fear was there. When visited hospitals’ quarantine centers.
Her husband and then 4 years old son was tested positive. She also had symptoms so she served as a caregiver as well as official responsibilities, so undertook all that in isolation as the whole family was in isolation. She was given 18 days leave. But whenever there was some problem at the desk, she worked like, reporting, editing of footage, tickers etc. during isolation. “When I joined after 18 days, people kept distance from me as it is considered a bad disease. I was also afraid due to my family as SOPs are not practiced in the crowd.She didn’t apply for relief package. Thumb impression was cancelled, but now again they have done it.

Way forward
Journalism in general came under threat during the year 2020 due to restriction on freedom of expression, both online and in traditional media. Females suffer in every field and media is no exception. While we are living in pandemic times, we need to devise strategy for future world of work. While there are news about third wave of Coronavirus hitting the world and Pakistan, there is a dire need for capacity-building of women on digital safety, training for desk as well as field staff for future world of work post COVID-19. Clear safety protocols to be followed for future work both for desk as well as field reporters, as they are frontline workers. There should be clear policies regarding work from home, salary, job security, promotions, increment etc. All people working from home should be given facilities like laptops, mobile phones, separate internet/wifi connection, extra allowance for food/tea coffee, electricity charges etc. Besides, there should not be any salary delay or lay offs and complete job security should be ensured.
Opening small offices in various areas can solve this problem to some extent, as a home, especially smaller ones, cannot be turned into an office for ever. Not all people own houses, some are tenants and
if there are more than one person in one house working from home, multiple computers can be an extra burden. There should be an immediate relief package for all journalists, specially females as many are suffering due to lay offs or delayed or no salary. All journalists deserve decent employment and the word ‘decent’ encompasses everything. The word “deserving” shouldn’t be used as a humiliating word, which creates divisions. Reporters should be called in the field where extremely necessary otherwise, some digital way of coverage should be devised. Division among various trade unions is a great issue and all trade unions should come on one page and should work jointly for all journalists. Recently International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) had also arranged an online session to assess the damages done to journalists and how COVID-19 has affected unionizing activities and the world of work, especially for females. Many recommendations were given during the session from journalists from many countries. Hopefully more work will be done by IFJ in this regard.
COVID-19 is a history in the making and there should be a committee or cell to assess the damages done to the journalism profession and professionals otherwise, we will have nothing to show to our next generations. There should be Corona life and health insurance for all journalists.
*names of some of the journalists have been changed to hide their identity.female journalists 7

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M M Alam

M. M. Alam is a Pakistan-based working journalist since 1981. Karachi University faculty gold medalist Alam began his career four decades ago by writing for Dawn, Pakistan’s highest circulating English daily. He has worked for region’s leading publications, global aviation periodicals including Rotors (of USA) and vetted New York Times as permanent employee of daily Express Tribune. Alam regularly covers international aviation and defense-related events including Salon Du Bourget (France), Farnborough (United Kingdom), Dubai (UAE). Alam has reported thousands of events and interviewed hundreds of people in Pakistan, UAE, EU, UK and USA. Being Francophone Alam also coordinates with a number of French publications.