PESHAWAR, Pakistan -- For more than 35 years, Abdul Ghaffar Baig chased some of the most dangerous stories as a news photographer in northwestern Pakistan.
He was often one of the first to arrive on the scene of suicide bombings and shootings in the teeming city of Peshawar, capital of northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province.
Baig, 52, has faced every conceivable danger in his line of duty, and yet this year brought a new type of insecurity: unemployment.
In October, he lost his job at the Daily Express newspaper, where he had worked for the past 17 years. His firing is part of mass layoffs across Pakistan’s media industry.
“After working for 17 years, I was fired on short notice [effective immediately],” he told Radio Mashaal as he flipped through a stack of newspapers and magazines containing some of his best work. “I was not even allowed to go into my office. I was just asked to hand over my equipment before being sent away.”
Baig is among the hundreds of Pakistani reporters, photographers, editors, television presenters, and other media workers who have lost their jobs since the beginning of the year. As the media industry faces increased censorship and financial uncertainty some of its most valuable workers have lost their livelihoods.
Now journalists across the country are up in arms. Saiful Islami Saifi, head of the Khyber Union of Journalists in Peshawar, says one of the major reasons for the media’s financial woes is that the government was late in paying its dues to most newspapers and television stations. The various branches of the central and provincial governments in Pakistan are the largest providers of aid revenues to the media because of its control over official advertisements. This leverage has also traditionally granted authorities tremendous influence over the competitive industry.
“Since assuming power [in August], the current government has stopped granting government advertisements while authorities have not paid dues since the beginning of last year,” he told Radio Mashaal. “Our protest movement, however, has prompted the government to begin writing cheques for its past dues, but it has not translated into our colleagues being called back to work.”
Since the turn of the century, the media industry has mushroomed in Pakistan. With hundreds of new magazines, newspapers, and television stations, media outlets have multiplied, but many journalists feel their freedoms have shrunk because the new media moguls are eager to compromise journalism for financial gain.
Last month, Pakistani Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry blamed the country’s previous government for the media’s financial troubles.
“We are ending the government’s control on media advertisements. Now, advertisements will be granted to media groups [companies] on merit,” he said in a video statement on November 12. “We are not in favor of using the advertisement [revenues] as a political tool, which affected the media business [adversely]. I hope this relief will immediately stop retrenchments in major media houses.”
But nearly a month later, such pronouncements ring hollow for the journalists who have lost their livelihood. “I sold my wife’s jewelry to provide food for my family,” Baig says as he points toward a crumbling roof in his small house, which badly needs repairs.
He is bracing to make more painful adjustments as he expects his elder daughter to drop out of university. His younger daughter already must walk a long distance to her college, as her father can no longer afford to pay for her commute by taxi.
Every day Baig and hundreds of other journalists visit courthouses and protest camps in the hopes of finding some solution or justice.
Visits to newspapers and television stations in search of jobs frequently end in disappointment.
Abubakar Siddique wrote this report based on Radio Mashaal correspondent Zaland Yousafzai’s reporting from Peshawar, Pakistan.