Better late than never, Pakistan’s journalists are learning of the danger. As of this evening, a total of 39 Pakistani journalists and media workers have tested positive to Covid-19, according to RSF’s tally. In the absence of testing by many media organizations, the actual number of journalists with Covid-19 could be much higher.
The management of ARY News TV, for example, reported on Monday that when tests were carried out on 20 of its employees at its Islamabad headquarters, no fewer than eight – 40% of them – were found to be positive. Today, the 24 News HD / City 42 TV channel reported ten coronavirus cases among its staff, as did the Dunya News media group.
“The disclosure of these figures indicates a particularly high level of Covid-19 infection among Pakistani journalists,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk. “Journalists are clearly among the professions at risk in Pakistan, so appropriate measures must be put in place to ensure that they can continue working without putting themselves in danger.”
On the frontline
Freedom Network executive director Iqbal Khattak added: “In Pakistan, journalists are among the frontline heroes, like doctors, paramedics and law-enforcement personnel, and they must be protected against Covid-19. It is the responsibility of both media houses and the National Disaster Management Authority to help journalists stay safe by providing them with all necessary equipment, so that they can continue to keep the public informed through their journalism.”
According to the information gathered by RSF, two ARY News journalists based in Muzaffarabad, in Pakistani Kashmir, have tested positive; three 24 News TV reporters are infected in the eastern city of Lahore; and a journalist and technician with Geo News in the southern city of Karachi have tested positive.
The Associated Press of Pakistan national news agency closed its Islamabad bureau on 24 April after it was reported that one of its presenters was infected. And two journalists based in the northwestern city of Peshawar, one with GNN and one with Such News, have also been found with the virus.
A health worker (right) tests a journalist for Covid-19 in Quetta on 4 April (Banaras KHAN / AFP).
In order to help journalists to be able to work safely, RSF has posted practical information and tips on Tracker-19, a tool it has developed to evaluate the impact of the Covid-19 epidemic on journalism and press freedom.
And in partnership with its local partner FNPK, RSF has now compiled a series of recommendations specifically adapted to the situation of journalists in Pakistan, where media outlets rely a great deal on direct reporting in the field that often disregards basic safety rules.
Recommendations for newsrooms and media management:
1. Don’t send reporters to locations where a big crowd is expected.
2. Don’t ask for live stand-ups from markets or other crowded places.
3. Encourage cameramen and DSNG technicians to re-enter their vehicle as soon as possible and ensure they are carrying water, soap and hand sanitizer with them.
4. In newsrooms, encourage employees to adhere strictly to social distancing and keep washing their hands and face every hour.
5. Remind employees to keep computers and other equipment clean and sanitized.
6. Refrain from sending reporters to press conferences that are not necessary during the pandemic.
7. Give preference to video messages and video press conferences by officials, including the health minister, chief ministers and government spokesmen.
8. Don’t ask reporters and cameramen to do live reporting from inside hospitals and tell them to follow the recommendations of medical staff.
9. Ensure that the temperatures of TV studio guests are always checked on arrival with a thermal scanner, at least, and that they are asked to apply hand sanitizer.
10. Either close staff canteens and cafeteria or, at the very least, ensure social distancing within them by strictly limiting the number of people who can eat at any one time.
11. Ensure that kitchens are kept clean and that kitchen staff adhere to hygiene rules.
12. Provide all employees with special “Corona Life Insurance” and cover the expenses of any employee and immediate family member who tests positive.
13. Ensure that all employee sickness insurance provisions are up to date, with immediate effect.
14. Press clubs and unions should set up a safety fund for journalists and employees, to which journalists earning more than Rs.100,000 a month should be required to contribute.
15. Finally, the central government and provincial governments should extend special credits to media organizations so that they can continue paying their employees and cover any exceptional expenses.
Pakistan is ranked 145th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2020 World Press Freedom Index, three places lower than in 2019.