Journalists on front line of Pakistan's coronavirus outbreak

At least 54 journalists test positive for COVID-19, as media organisations push for news amid lax safety protocols.

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    Journalists on front line of Pakistan's coronavirus outbreak
    A healthcare worker takes a testing sample from a journalist during a government-imposed nationwide lockdown in Quetta [Banaras Khan/AFP]

    Islamabad, Pakistan - At least 30 journalists have tested positive for the coronavirus in southwest Pakistan, taking the total number of journalists infected across the country to more than 50, data from an independent media watchdog shows, as the South Asian nation continues to ease its lockdown amid a spike in cases and deaths.

    At least 54 journalists and media workers have tested positive for the coronavirus across Pakistan, according to data released by the Freedom Network rights group on Monday, indicating that news organisations' guidelines for journalists were either being ignored or needed better enforcement.

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    "I was in the office and my body felt like I had a fever, and I felt really dizzy," said Salman Ashraf, a reporter for local television station Geo News in the southwest city of Quetta. Ashraf was one of the first journalists to test positive for the virus in the country.

    "I left the office before my shift ended. When I returned home […] it was very difficult," he told Al Jazeera by telephone. "I had a high fever, and a lot of body pain. I couldn't stand up."

    Ashraf was one of seven people to test positive for the coronavirus in his organisation's Quetta bureau. The data shows a similar pattern of clusters of coronavirus cases in newsrooms and bureaus across the country, where journalists, technical staff and media assistants often work in close proximity to each other.

    The number of infections in the South Asian nation began spiking last week, with several consecutive days of record increases in new infections and deaths. On Sunday, reported infections rose by a further 1,476 to 30,941, with at least 667 deaths and 8,212 patients having recovered.

    On Monday, provinces began implementing a government-mandated easing of lockdown measures, with smaller markets and several industries allowed to reopen for up to five days a week, operating from sunrise until 5pm each day.

    Prime Minister Imran Khan's government has insisted that a full lockdown is not economically sustainable for a country that was already in the midst of an economic crisis when its outbreak began in late February.

    Last month, the International Monetary Fund estimated that Pakistan's economy would contract by 1.5 percent owing to the coronavirus-related lockdowns, close to the worst such figures since the country gained independence in 1947.

    Khan has insisted industries be required to follow government-mandated standard operating procedures to keep workers safe, or face being closed down again.

    'Not taking it seriously'

    For journalists working across the country, individual news organisations have issued guidelines regarding social distancing and protective equipment while reporting, but implementation on the ground has been inconsistent.

    "We are going into the field in the same way," said one journalist in Quetta, speaking on condition of anonymity fearing reprisals from his employer. "We are working in the same way, in the field and in the office. We are contacting the public in the same way."

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    The journalist said guidelines were in place but were not being enforced or followed by many journalists. Competition in Pakistan's news media landscape is cut-throat, with more than 30 24-hour television news channels competing with each other for ratings, in addition to dozens of national and regional newspapers.

    "The general behaviour that we are seeing, I am mentally prepared that I am going to get the virus. And I do not feel like I can save myself from this."

    Syed Shahzad Kazmi, a cameraman for the local Roze News television station in the northwestern city of Peshawar, said he was reporting live from hospitals and public bazaars days before he became ill.

    "[News organisations] are not taking it as seriously as it should be," he told Al Jazeera. "Their performance is zero on this front [and] they are not protecting the journalists."

    Kazmi tested positive for the coronavirus late last month, spending two weeks in quarantine at home before being certified as having recovered by health authorities.

    Pakistan media
    A health worker takes a COVID-19 sample from a journalist during a government-imposed nationwide lockdown in Quetta [Banaras Khan/AFP]

    Asad Ali, a cameraman for the Gourmet News Network in Peshawar, tested positive for the coronavirus after being infected by a co-worker at his organisation's bureau.

    After spending two weeks in quarantine, he said he was back at work on the night shift, working as normal.

    "The TV channels, in particular, have come up with COVID19 protocols, listing all the precautions that journalists need to take," said Iqbal Khattak, representative for the global media rights group Reporters Without Borders in Pakistan. "The protocol is quite good, but still I think the protocol needs some [additional] steps."

    RSF's recommendations to Pakistani news organisations include no longer requiring television reporters to report live from places with large crowds, restricting coverage of press conferences where large numbers may gather and avoiding commissioning reports from hospitals.

    "I was just watching the 3pm bulletin [on television] ... and these journalists were all on the streets, close to the public," said Khattak. "This is a worrying sign. […] Getting live hits from the field is a risk that they are taking and I think media houses should avoid taking these risks."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News