Journalism in Pakistan 2019: Layoffs, censorship, violence

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In this file photo, Pakistani journalists and civil society activists hold placards during a protest in Karachi on Oct. 28, 2017. (AFP)
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Journalists chant slogans during a rally against layoffs and the non-payment of salaries in Karachi, Feb. 26, 2019. (Reuters/ File Photo)
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Updated 01 January 2020

Journalism in Pakistan 2019: Layoffs, censorship, violence

  • Over 3105 media workers lost their jobs in 2019, says KUJ
  • Despite declining violent crime rates, violence against journalists is on the rise

KARACHI: Shakir Ali never thought that one day he would have to throw out his pen and start stitching shoes to make a living. He used to work as an editor of an Urdu-language daily in Karachi.

“All of a sudden, I was told that a financial crunch didn’t allow the newspaper to hire me anymore,” Ali told Arab News. From Nawa-e-Waqt he moved to his brother’s factory and became a cobbler.

According to the Karachi Union of Journalist (KUJ), 3105 media workers – mostly journalists – lost their jobs in 2019.

“Several journalists have become living corpses as they have nothing to support their families,” said Shoaib Ahmed, assistant secretary-general of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ).

Pakistani journalists have been increasingly exposed to violence despite declining violent crime rates across the country. According to a recent report by the Freedom Network, an independent Pakistani media watchdog, at least 33 journalists were murdered in reprisal for their work in the past six years. Eight of them were killed between November 2018 and November 2019.

According to the report, not a single perpetrator was brought to justice, with “mysterious,” “nameless and unidentified actors” becoming the biggest threat to the lives of on-duty journalists.

KUJ president Hasan Abbas said journalism had never been an easy task in Pakistan, especially since the late 1970s, with the ascent of military dictator Zia-ul-Haq, under whom the state started to exert control over the media. 

“Imran Khan’s government, however, has caused the biggest blow to the media in Pakistan’s history, leaving thousands of journalists unemployed,” Abbas said.

For a week and to no avail, Arab News has been requesting comment from Firdous Ashiq Awan, the prime minister’s special assistant on information and broadcasting.

However, speaking at a National Assembly’s meeting on broadcasting earlier this month, Awan said the government believes in the freedom of expression and press, as guaranteed by the Constitution. “Media has the right to criticize the government’s policies, but it should act more responsibly when the interests of the state are involved,” a state-run radio station quoted her as saying

During the meeting, she also asked for the formation of a committee that would formulate a strategy to protect the rights of on-duty journalists.

Meanwhile, media owners blame the government for the industry’s deplorable economic condition, partly relating it to a decline in state advertising.

“There is a sharp decline of up to 50 percent in federal and provincial governments’ advertising, while private sector advertisements have declined between 30 and 40 percent, forcing media owners to unwillingly lay off workers,” Sarmad Ali, secretary-general of the All Pakistan Newspaper Society (APNS), told Arab News. He added that huge outstanding payments from the governments remain due, only aggravating the situation.

However, Freedom Network executive director Iqbal Khattak said that since this is not the first crisis, it could have been handled by media organizations without sacking journalists. “Instead of laying off journalists’ media groups may have reduced the number of pages to save money on print,” he said.

The year has greatly affected the quality of Pakistani journalism as well.

“An unpaid journalist would care more about his financial problems instead of concentrating on quality and doing efforts for freedom of the press. With journalists surrounded by their own problems, there is hardly any debate about censorship and this is dangerous for journalism,” said senior journalist Mazhar Abbas.

“If the situation persists, the ultimate losers will be journalists and journalism,” he said.

However, while the economic situation may silence some voices, established journalists, even when sacked from their jobs, will continue to assess and censure the government and its policies. 

Citing censorship and following the closure of several private channels, many renowned TV journalists such as Talat Hussain, Matiullah Jan, and Najam Sethi moved to YouTube and other social media platforms, where they can criticize the government even more severely.

Turkey, Iran, Pakistan regional freight train soon to relaunch operations— officials

Updated 51 min 10 sec ago

Turkey, Iran, Pakistan regional freight train soon to relaunch operations— officials

  • Restarting after nine years, the Istanbul-Tehran-Islamabad freight train will cover a distance of over 6,500 kilometers 
  • Foreign policy experts say the United State may not like the plan since it violates sanctions imposed on Iran

KARACHI: Turkey, Iran and Pakistan are finalizing details of the Istanbul-Tehran-Islamabad (ITI) freight train that is soon to resume its operations after nine years to boost regional connectivity and increase trade among the three countries, officials told Arab News on Friday.

The prime minister’s advisor on trade and commerce, Abdul Razak Dawood, announced in a Twitter post on Tuesday that the train would become functional on March 4, which did not happen.

According to Pakistan Railway officials, the inauguration of the train has been delayed due to certain issues at its point of origin in Istanbul.

“It is not confirmed yet, but some pending details, such as train schedule and freight charges, will be finalized within a couple of days,” Pakistan Railway’s spokesperson Hamdan Nazir told Arab News. “I think they have issues with freight forwarders and will move the inauguration schedule ahead by a few more days.”

Pakistani officials in Istanbul said they were also trying to get information on the relaunch from the Turkish authorities.

“This is very much in the pipeline,” Bilal Khan Pasha, the consul general (trade and investment) at Pakistan’s diplomatic mission in Istanbul, told Arab News on phone. 

“The progress on this will be shared officially in a day or two. Only the Turkish railway authorities can give us the correct launch date.” 

The ITI train was launched on August 14, 2009 under the 10-nation Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) framework, but the service was closed due to security reasons. It covers more than 6,500 kilometers and it takes about 12 to 13 days to finish one side of its journey.

Pakistani officials say they have made all necessary security arrangements for the resumption of the train service.

“We are not just relying on Railway Police but also taking all security agencies onboard,” Nazir said, adding: “Obviously, the security of the train will be the responsibility of the country where it is moving.”

According to some foreign policy experts, the train link may not go down well with the United States that has imposed sanctions on Iran.

“The US has so far not said anything publicly about the project, but it will not like the train link being used to violate sanctions against Iran,” Husain Haqqani, a scholar at Washington-based Hudson Institute and former ambassador of Pakistan to the United States, told Arab News. 

“There are also serious doubts that the Pakistan-Turkey-Iran freight train service is an economically viable or efficient project. It seems more symbolic and political,” he added.

However, the prime minister’s advisor on commerce not only described the train as “a testament of friendship between the three countries” in a Twitter post this week but also urged Pakistani exporters to benefit from the new route and transportation mode, implying that the project would bring major economic benefits to the country. 

Meanwhile, Pakistani officials have made it clear they are not just interested in the train for trade and commerce but also for strategic regional connectivity.

Addressing the 14th ECO Summit, which was held virtually on Thursday, Prime Minister Imran Khan brought up the commercial cargo train and proposed an Uzbekistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan railway link to spread the benefits of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor to Afghanistan and beyond.

“We must develop an integrated transport network to facilitate both intra-ECO trade and serve as a pathway for trade between the major economies to our east and west, north and south,” Khan said.

Pakistan health workers hesitate over Sinopharm vaccine, poll says

Updated 05 March 2021

Pakistan health workers hesitate over Sinopharm vaccine, poll says

  • Some 81% of health workers said they were willing to be vaccinated, but 46% said they would prefer Pfizer or AstraZeneca
  • Some 58% of medical workers said a vaccine developed so quickly could not be guaranteed to be safe

ISLAMABAD: Just over a half of Pakistan's health workers have received a COVID-19 shot since inoculations began last month, while a poll released on Friday suggested nearly half had concerns over China's Sinopharm, the only vaccine available so far.
Pakistan had distributed 504,400 Sinopharm vaccine doses to provincial authorities by Feb. 20, and 230,000 frontline health workers had received a shot by Friday, according to health minister Faisal Sultan.
In January, Sultan said 400,000 health workers had been registered to get the vaccine.
A poll of 555 medical workers conducted by Gallup Pakistan and a national physicians' association between Feb. 12 and Feb. 20 said 59% of health workers had not yet been offered a shot.
Sinopharm is one of four vaccines approved for use by Pakistan for health workers and is currently the only vaccine available in the country of 220 million.
Some 81% of health workers said they were willing to be vaccinated, but 46% said they would prefer Pfizer or AstraZeneca over the Sinopharm shot. Some 58% said a vaccine developed so quickly could not be guaranteed to be safe.
"Chinese is a brand not synonymous with medical innovation," Bilal Gilani, of Gallup Pakistan, told Reuters. "If Pfizer or AstraZeneca were offered, there would be a much higher uptake."
Pfizer is a US company while AstraZeneca is Anglo-Swedish.
Gilani said doctors did not trust government recommendations and instead looked to social media for information on the vaccine.
"No doctor is refusing to get the vaccine. Some of them are waiting for the Oxford one, AstraZeneca," Salman Kazmi, General Secretary of the Young Doctor's Association Pakistan, told Reuters from Lahore.
"But there are some myths and delays, that is probably why the speed of vaccination is not high."
While a preference for Western vaccines may be a stumbling block in the case of COVID shots, polio vaccination efforts in Pakistan have had to grapple with Islamist militant attacks and conspiracy theories the shots are a Western ploy to sterilise Muslims.

Pakistani opposition to boycott Saturday’s confidence vote for PM Khan

Updated 53 min 50 sec ago

Pakistani opposition to boycott Saturday’s confidence vote for PM Khan

  • The opposition demanded Khan step down after an embarrassing defeat of his key candidate in the Senate polls
  • The PM needs 172 votes in the 342-seat National Assembly to retain the confidence of the house on Saturday

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan's opposition announced Friday it will boycott a special session of the National Assembly this weekend called by the prime minister after a politically embarrassing defeat of Imran Khan’s key candidate in elections for the Senate.
Khan, who enjoys the backing of majority lawmakers in the lower house of parliament, convened the session for Saturday after his candidate lost the race for a seat in the 100-member upper chamber earlier this week.
The Senate elections on Wednesday saw the ruling Tehreek-e-Insaf party’s candidate, Finance Minister Hafeez Shaikh, lose against Yusuf Raza Gilani, a former prime minister and senior opposition leader.
Despite Shaik's loss, Khan's party emerged as the largest single party in the Senate but even with its allies from other parties, the opposition still has a slight, 53-47 majority over Khan in the upper chamber.
Following the balloting, the opposition demanded Khan step down but the ruling party rejected the demand and the prime minister called for the confidence vote.
Khan needs 172 votes in the 342-seat National Assembly to retain the confidence of the house on Saturday. If none of his supporters turn against him, he is expected to win as many as 180 votes in his favor, with help from allies from other parties. His own party has 157 lawmakers in the lower chamber.
On Friday, senior politician Fazlur Rehman, who heads the coalition of opposition parties called Pakistan Democratic Movement, announced that the opposition would boycott the session.
Shaikh's defeat was a setback for Khan who even criticized the country's Election Commission, claiming it had failed to ensure a free and fair vote for the Senate and saying that some 15 or 16 lawmakers from his party allegedly "sold" their vote to the opposition candidate.
Angered over Khan's criticism, the commission on Friday fired back, saying every political party and politician needs to "have the spirit to accept defeat" when it comes and not resort to mudslinging over election losses.

In a first, police in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa appoint transgender person to dispute resolution council

Updated 05 March 2021

In a first, police in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa appoint transgender person to dispute resolution council

  • Sobia Khan says she wants to help other transgender community members who are forced to live on social peripheries
  • Activists say more than 80 transgender people in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have been killed in targeted attacks since 2015

PESHAWAR: A transgender person who was recently appointed by Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) Police to its dispute resolution council (DRC) in Peshawar said on Friday she would do her best to address the problems faced by her "ostracized community" in the province.

"I commend the police for allowing representation to a marginalized community. I will represent transgender people in relevant cases," Sobia Khan told Arab News while commenting on her inclusion in the council that was established in 2014 to institutionalize alternative dispute resolution mechanism in the province.

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa's transgender community has frequently faced sexual abuse, physical torture and killings, and the perpetrators of these crimes have often been unpunished.

Discussing Khan's appointment to the DRC, KP's Inspector General Police Dr. Sanaullah Abbasi told Arab News that his department was striving to protect marginalized people in the province.

"The system of alternative dispute resolution is based on active engagement among victims, offenders and the rest of the community in pursuit of reconciliation by adapting a balanced approach that caters to the needs of all three through a process that preserves everyone's safety and dignity," he said. 

Khan said that transgender persons faced serious issues related to education, health and employment in government institutions. She added that many of them were also forced into prostitution.

In 2018, Pakistan's parliament tried to address such challenges by enacting Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act to recognize their legal equality and safeguard their rights.

The legislation prohibits any discrimination against them in education institutions, medical centers and public transportation facilities. It also makes it possible for them to apply for passports, driver's licenses and other official documents by using their gender identity.

Qamar Naseem, a program coordinator with Blue Veins that works for the protection of women and transgender people, told Arab News that the DRC could help people on social peripheries and reduce pressure on local courts since many contentious issues could be amicably resolved by its members.

He said that there were about 50,000 transgender people in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, adding that at least 83 of them had been killed since 2015 in targeted attacks.

"Transgender people are even disowned by their parents in our society and hated by a large majority of those around us," Naseem continued. "With some representation in the DRC, their grievances may be addressed."

Arzoo Khan, president the provincial transgender association, said the inclusion of one of her community members in the council was a good initiative, though she added that such representation should not be limited to a single district.

The inspector general police informed Arab News he had already issued directives to ensure transgender representation in DRCs across the province.

"Transgender people face problems in hospitals, schools and other places due to their gender identity," Naseem said. "The government should launch a campaign to sensitize members of our society to own such marginalized communities."

Pakistan health chief calls for caution as coronavirus surges again

Updated 05 March 2021

Pakistan health chief calls for caution as coronavirus surges again

  • National Command and Operation Center on Feb. 24 relaxed most of coronavirus-related restrictions
  • On Friday, Pakistan recorded the highest daily number of new COVID-19 cases in in over a month

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan's de facto health minister, Dr. Faisal Sultan on Friday called for caution as the country's coronavirus positivity and hospitalization rates had increased over the past week.

Pakistan recorded 1,579 new COVID-19 cases in the past 24 hours, the highest daily number of new COVID-19 cases in in over a month,  health ministry data showed on Friday. The total number of infections rose to 587,014, with 13,128 deaths.

"COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations in Pakistan are increasing once again," Dr. Sultan said in a tweet, adding that the positivity rate had risen from 3.31 percent to 4.16 percent within just one week.



"Save lives by following SOPs. Please avoid crowded places (esp indoor & if poorly ventilated), wear a mask and wash your hands frequently," he said in another tweet, urging healthcare workers and all Pakistanis above the age of 60 to register for coronavirus vaccination.

The increase in COVID-19 cases comes after the National Command and Operation Center, which oversees Pakistan’s coronavirus response, on Feb. 24 eased most of the restrictions, allowing commercial activities to resume with no time limits and offices and other workplaces to function at full strength, without the 50 percent work-from-home condition.

Regular five-day classes restarted at schools from March 1.

The NCOC also allowed Pakistan Super League pool matches with 50 percent spectators. On Thursday, however, the tournament was postponed after a number of players tested positive for the coronavirus.