Riding with Karachi’s motorbike journalists
Press photographers go to great lengths and brave great dangers to be first at the scene of a bombing or shooting.
The first danger is the traffic – be it the lorries that indicate left before pulling out right, the speeding SUVs of Karachi’s playboy elite or the donkey carts that bring everyone to a sudden, screeching halt.
If Athar Khan, a photographer with the Express Tribune newspaper, can weave his motorbike around such hazards he is in with a chance of a scoop, being one of the first journalists to the site of a bombing or targeted shooting.
But once he arrives on the scene, he knows he faces another danger.
“If you go to cover a blast, there might be a second blast. We all know that. We have all seen it happen once the journalists and emergency services arrive,” he says.
Khan is one of Karachi’s small band of motorcycle photographers. Mounted on their Hondas they can navigate the city’s choked streets with ease, racing past the rush-hour gridlock to be the first on the scene.
But in a megacity of almost 20 million people, riddled with insecurity, their motorbikes can keep them out of danger or put them right in the line of fire.
Speaking quietly above the keyboard jingle of a city centre hotel coffee shop – secured behind layers of barbed wire, bomb-sniffing dogs and guards armed with AK-47s – he describes his morning routine: how he joins his colleagues at the city’s Press Club to drink tea as they wait for their phones to ring.
At the first warning of an attack, they are off.
“It’s a double risk,” he says. “You are riding on a bike in undisciplined traffic. You don’t know who will hit you: it might be that truck or a bike, even a donkey cart. But you have to rush as soon as you can. That’s the commitment to my profession. We have to be there before anyone else.”
During the past decade the Pakistani government has loosened its strict control over media houses. More than 100 TV channels, many dedicated to rolling news, now compete for viewers in rambunctious manner. Politicians decry their sensationalist coverage of attacks, broadcasting hours of coverage from bombing sites and even interviewing spokesmen for the groups alleged to have carried them out.
That means journalists frequently find themselves in the firing line.
Karachi’s darkest day
Khan left for the United States during the 1990s, spending a decade out of harm’s way while the government launched a brutal operation against Karachi’s MQM party, which was effectively running a state within a state. He returned in 2004, leaving his wife and child behind in Atlanta.
He had a ringside seat during Karachi’s blackest day in 2007. Benazir Bhutto, the country’s former prime minister, had just returned home from years in self-imposed exile. Corruption charges against her and her husband had been dropped as part of a general amnesty to allow politicians to return and help ease Pervez Musharraf, who had seized power in 1999, from office.
With a band of other photographers, Khan was watching her convoy from a footbridge, all the better to get a sense of the crowds who had gathered in their thousands. Then came the first blast.
“It was not a big one – like a fire cracker or even a tyre exploding. So we ran over there. Then the second blast happened, not far away. That was the big one,” his voice trails off.
The attack killed at least 130 people. Khan was only about 100 yards away when it struck, killing many of Bhutto’s police escort. The photographers did what they were there to do and documented the carnage in photographs that Khan says haunted him for weeks.
“The dead lying there, the body parts,” he recalls. “There was the smell of burning flesh. I can’t really describe it.”
Targeted by the Taliban
He tells his story at the Karachi Press Club, a solid stone building in the centre of the city where journalists drink tea on plastic chairs beside a well-watered lawn, waiting for the call to another blast or demonstration.
In 2014, a black flag flew here for 10 days as a memorial to three employees of Express News .
Their satellite van had been parked close to the Matric Board Office for a routine story on the city’s education system when four men rode up on a pair of motorbikes. According to police reports, they carried 9mm handguns. They leaned into the news van and opened fire, pumping 17 bullets into the vehicle.
Waqas Aziz Khan, a technician, Muhammad Khalid, the driver, and Muhammad Ashraf, the team’s security guard, were all hit and were dead by the time they reached hospital.
Not only are motorbikes used by the city’s journalists; they are also used by their killers.
It did not take long for the Pakistan Taliban – or the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan in Urdu – to claim responsibility, telephoning one of the channel’s hosts when he was live on air.
The attack was the third on Express Media Group in no more than six months and prompted sit-ins and demonstrations by other journalists, who blamed the provincial government for failing to provide security to all citizens – not just the men and women of the press.
It is a losing battle in Karachi.
At the same time that the city mourned the Express News employees, it also mourned one of its most senior police officers. Chaudhry Aslam, who led Karachi’s Anti-Extremism Cell, had survived at least nine assassination attempts.
He died in January 2014, the victim of a suicide attack on his armoured car, prompting an outpouring of grief – and a number of tributes – from political leaders and ordinary residents alike.
‘More important than life’
Then there are the other dangers. Demonstrations can rapidly turn violent. Religious and political groups frequently vent their frustration on the media, who are sometimes perceived as biased.
“They think certain news channels or newspapers might not be reflecting their views properly, or they don’t cover us,” Khan explains. “Or they accuse [us] of reporting with angles. It makes them mad. They might get mad with one organisation and blame all of us.”
During the floods of 2010, trips into the surrounding region occasionally had to be cut short as angry villagers who had lost everything tried to rob journalists of their vehicles or cameras.
And then there are government agencies, which have in the past been accused of intimidating and even killing journalists.
The result of all this is that Pakistan is consistently ranked as one of the world’s most dangerous countries for reporters and photographers. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 57 have been killed in Pakistan since 1992.
Yet there is no shortage of young men – and increasingly women – joining the journalists’ ranks.
Around the corner from the Press Club stand rank after rank of battered motorcycles. Hondas are the favoured ride, usually a 70cc version which is cheap and easily maintained. Incidentally, the Taliban also prefers Hondas. In one edition of it’s English-language magazine, Azan, it profiled the higher powered Honda 125, calling it a “steed of war”.
“This is mine,” says Saeed Lashari, a photographer with Ibrat, a regional newspaper, pointing out a 30-year-old Honda City that has seen better days. Both indicators were long ago lost to close scrapes. The chrome, which must have once sparkled in the sunlight, is pockmarked and reddened with rust.
“There’s not much we can do to stay safe,” he tells me. “We travel together, so that we can watch each other’s backs and spot signs of danger but it’s the nature of the photographer. You have to be at the hot spots and you have to be there when the light is right.”
“It’s more important than life.”
Khan’s Honda, which he proudly says has never let him down on the way to a job, was lined up nearby.
“I’m addicted to this life. Sometimes I like the adventure but I suppose really I don’t know why I do it,” he says before chuckling at the thought of using his talents in a safer environment.
“I’m not interested in taking photographs of weddings.”
An earlier version of this article first appeared in the March 2014 issue of the Al Jazeera Magazine.