At the time of the Eid-ul-Azha festival, as much of the Muslim world is celebrating, in the morning I receive a call about a suicide attack in a mosque in the Charsadda district. I rush towards the spot. Fakhar Kakakhel, bureau chief of 24 TV at Peshawar, narrates his traumatic story to me. A few months after the Lal Masjid operation, a suicide bomber detonated his jacket in a mosque when the people of Sherpao village were gathered for Eid prayers. Fakhar describes the scene:
“When I entered the mosque I saw shattered body parts and blood stains on the mosque walls. A slice of a human brain stuck to my shoe sole. As I walked it produced a squeak. Although I rubbed and cleaned it, the sound didn’t fade away from my mind – it had reminded me of a crying baby.”
Fakhar remembers it all very well. Fifty people died and 200 were injured in the attack. The target, then Interior Minister Aftab Khan Sherpao, remained unhurt.
“After the coverage I came back to my home but that horrible sound of my shoe sole and the brain kept me agitated. I washed my shoes again and again but the voice accompanied me for the next six months. Whenever at that time I received a call, I just vomited!”
To assess the impact of trauma on the journalist community in Pakistan, a research study titled “Wellbeing Study of Pakistani Journalists” was carried out by four researchers: Journalist Suzanna Koster, Professor Hans Koot, Dr. Jamil Malik and Professor Altaf Ullah Khan. This is a collaboration of their three institutions: the National Institute of Psychology in Islamabad, the Competence and Trauma Center for Journalists at the University of Peshawar and the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, Netherlands.
“A slice of a human brain stuck to my shoe sole”
Suzanna Koster, who is affiliated with the Vrije Universiteit, initiated the study, she says in an email: “I lived in Pakistan from 2005 to 2012. I have very good friends amongst Pakistani journalists. A year ago one of them called. He had been receiving silent phone calls and felt threatened. He couldn’t sleep, couldn’t function. I asked him if he had talked to anyone else about it. He hadn’t. I was shocked. He had been experiencing this for weeks and suffered all on his own. I had heard stories like his before and tried to help by listening, but I figured I now had the tools to do something more. Journalists like him should know they are not alone in their suffering and they should be able to talk about this with their colleagues. A research study would do just that. Highlight this issue and give pointers on how to deal with it. I had just started studying psychology and wanted to do research on the side. I told Hans Koot, a professor in psychology at my university (now one of the researchers of the Study), that I wanted to do this study and he agreed to help. That’s how we started.”
The seasoned journalist Fakhar tells me the following details:
“During 2008 – 2012 most of the time, I opened my eyes to the thundering sound of a bomb blast, and covering such heinous attacks from hospitals was for me an awful experience. When relatives were searching for their loved ones amongst the dead bodies, with tearful eyes…”
I myself am acutely aware that we journalists are humans, just as much as those whose misery we cover. I remember how, after the Army Public School (APS) attack where scores of young students were murdered in cold blood by terrorists, I cried constantly for many nights, unable to get the innocent faces of the slain school children out of my mind.
Covering bomb blasts, suicide attacks and dozens of killings – including incidents of actual slaughtering by militants – made Fakhar Kakakhel and many of his journalist colleagues enter a state of continuous trauma but they were not aware of it. And unfortunately, in any case being a traumatised person in our society is stigma in of itself.
“For many nights, due to flashbacks and nightmares I could not sleep but I wasn’t aware that I am traumatised and started taking sleeping pills and other ways of escapism” he tells me.
Fakhar is not the only journalist in Pakistan who is suffering, often in silence, I am told by Dr. Jamil. Covering extreme violence and daily threats can lead to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). That means Pakistani journalists have a heightened risk for this disorder, as research has also shown.
“Journalists are on the frontline, whether they cover blasts, road accidents or any other deaths. They stay near to the threats but society doesn’t know their physical and psychological problems. These problems could be fear, nightmares, anxiety, hopelessness, depression and frustration”, says Dr. Jamil. “The study will help highlight these difficulties.”
In an email to me, Suzanna Koster explains:
“The study furthermore aims to help understand the extent of Pakistani journalists’ exposure to threats and potential traumatic experiences on the job and what kind of experiences are related to psychological distress. In our questionnaire we look at symptoms of trauma, anxiety and depression. It will also show what may help journalists to prevent or limit these symptoms.”
She adds: “Once you have this information, you can make informed decisions on how to prevent psychological distress as much as is possible or how to help those who already suffer from it. You can think of training a person in the office in how to recognise psychological distress and keeping an eye out for his or her colleagues and advise them to seek help if needed. Of course, here also, the participants remain anonymous.
A specific report like this could help the organisation take more specific action, and as I said they don’t need to cost much. So we would like to call on all organisations that are interested in their staff’s wellbeing to get in touch with us. In the end, as we all know, organisations benefit from psychologically healthy workers. They are more effective, creative and productive than those who are not. Who wouldn’t want that?”
Further investigating the nature of trauma that Pakistani journalists on the frontline of war and terrorism endure, I meet Waheed Afridi, a journalist from the Khyber Agency in FATA. He recalls:
“I was sleeping in my bedroom at midnight and an enormous sound woke me up. I rushed towards the door and started screaming and shouting: ‘Help me, help me!’. All my family members came in a hurry to my room. When militants blew up the nearby school I felt as if I myself was under attack.”
The militant commander called – one by one – all the journalists and asked them, “Who told you that I surrendered?”
Waheed Afridi is an active journalist: he worked with a private TV channel, and with radio and newspapers. Afridi writes for a popular Urdu newspaper and covered the incidents and events for a 24/7 news channel and radio in the Khyber Agency since years now.
In his career Afridi has received dozens of threats from various groups and mafias for being a journalist and doing his job. During the war against terror, journalism and journalists became a soft target for them.
“Journalism became one of the hardest and toughest professions in this part of the world,” Afridi feels.
“Keep your cell phone on for twenty-four hours – these were the standing instructions from head offices” he says, describing the difficult conditions imposed by employers in the media. During our discussion he forgets some details of events and even the names of his close relatives.
“I have lost my memory due to pressure, depression and frustration, and any loud sound inside the home or outside in the markets can shake me!” the hapless Afridi exclaims. “When I talk to my elder cousins or other relatives, suddenly I forget their names and it brings embarrassment for me, of course.”
Waheed Afridi shares terrifying incidents with me from his career.
Once a local militant commander surrendered at Landi Kotal, Khyber Agency, and announced full allegiance to the local administration. All the correspondents including Waheed reported the big news and the print media carried it in three to four columns as fresh news. The next day the commander called one by one all the journalists and asked them, ”Who told you that I surrendered?”
Although Waheed and other journalists had sufficient proof of the event, not one of them could dare to tell him that, because at that time guns were ruling the region: mostly Taliban-held guns. The commander warned them to publish retractions or else to be ready for consequences. In such a suffocated atmosphere, Waheed says, journalists have worked relentlessly, and the result is damage to their very inner and outer personalities.
“In 2012 my dear friend and mentor Nasrullah Afridi was blown up in a planted bomb in Peshawar’s Khyber Super Market. That tragedy really made me ultra-careful while doing my journalism and to be honest, I began to turn away my eyes and unheard many stories around me. His killing deeply affected me and my family, and my friends would warn me ‘Now is your turn’. I still remember that only a few friends would accompany me during my journeys. The rest of the people avoided my company because I was on the top hit-list of terrorists.” Journalism under the pressure of barrel and butchers is a danger and life threatening game, he confirms. Even militants threatened us for not writing them “Taliban” “Fidaeen” etc. to be honest we were sandwich between two heavy weight burgers.
Pakistan is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists. Since 9/11, the region became a hotspot for so many foreign intelligence agencies and local dissident groups. According to Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF) data – an organisation which works for journalists’ safety – from 2002-16 in Pakistan 47 journalists were killed, 185 were injured, 88 were assaulted, 22 were abducted and 42 were detained.
In the recent past a militant commander was killed in a mountainous area and the news was widely covered by national and international media. Qaiser Hassan, a local journalist from the same village, spoke to media about the incident and the future of the militant groups. Someone heard Hassan’s analysis and told the relatives and accomplices of the deceased commander.
The journalist and his family members were threatened and informed about the grave consequences to come. The militants also asked him to present himself to their Shura (court), who would decide his fate. Qaiser was understandably worried and could not sleep well for weeks.
“I was almost on the verge of becoming a patient of depression and anxiety, but a local Jirga resolved my issue!” he tells me with a sigh of relief. “I have decided to visit a psychiatrist because of nightmares and the nagging fear of someone following me!” Qaiser adds.
“Due to my nightmares and screaming, my family is disturbed and from frustration and depression I fight with everyone. I shout at my kids…”
Anwar Shah is in the field of journalism since five years. He hails from Bhagan in the Kurram Agency. He has been harassed and tortured more than one time by the local administration invoking its unlimited power under the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) – whenever Anwar exposed the political administration’s corruption. Two months ago he published a story against the local administration’s malpractices. He was locked up and his family was continuously harrased.
“Dadaki [Daddy] doesn’t like my profession due to pressure from various parties but I love it and I’m trying my level best to be balanced in my writing!” Anwar assures me enthusiastically. “Repeatedly, interruption from the administration made me worry about my life as well as my family members and their safety. Every unidentified call on my phone disturbs me”, Anwar says.
The All Tribal Union of Journalists (TUJ) in FATA reports that its members suffer from various types of mental illnesses due to trauma. They cite pressure from the state, militants and local mafias. Most of them are patients of depression, anxiety, stomach and other stress-related problems, I am told.
Pakistani journalists particularly from KP and FATA worked in a warzone for years. Many have witnessed beheading scenes, shooting, torture and then on top of it all, endured pressure to break from their organisations.
“Correspondents in remote areas work without any salary. Their own employers at times demand advertisements and advance security deposits from them. Those organizations that do pay their reporters offer a meagre sum!” Waheed says. “Ironically the non-qualified editors and assignment editors dictate terms to us as they are masters of the field…” he smiles bitterly.
Along with a German organisation, the DW Akademie, the University of Peshawar’s Journalism and Psychology Department opened a Trauma Centre to help traumatised journalists. A few journalists have successfully completed rehabilitation periods and are now contributing on their particular beats. Expert psychologists in the Trauma Centre helped restore them using therapy and long discussions.
Trauma Centre Coordinator Professor Altaf Ullah Khan says that 68 journalists have fully recovered. He also says that they have visited press clubs and media organisations but the response from the journalist community was lukewarm so far.
Journalists are professional first-responders to crisis and disaster, but they are among the last of those groups to recognise the psychological implications of that responsibility which they fulfil, according to the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma – an American resource centre for journalists who cover trauma.
Consequences of trauma also impact those around the sufferer of trauma, explain both Fakhar and Afridi to me.
“When we see horrific scenes, injustice or brutality from any group and we can’t report beyond the red zones laid out by state or non-state actors, it frustrates field reporters and even makes them react violently in their personal lives.” The veteran journalists tell me. “Due to my nightmares and screaming, my family is disturbed and from frustration and depression I fight with everyone. I shout at my kids, although previously I was a caring father and a loving husband” Afridi says.
According to Lala Hassan, Senior Program Co-Coordinator at PPF, the problem is simple:
“State and non-state actors are responsible for the extreme pressure on journalists in this country.” He believes our journalists need proper training in conflict reporting and a better understanding of their own safety before they rush towards the violence-hit zones.
“The best thing, of course, would be to eliminate trauma from society. But given the current law and order situation, that is not possible!” says Dr. Jamil. He continues:
“But with the help of psychological training one can improve his or her capacity and cope with psychological distress. But first they need to recognize the risks and factors that are causing this problem. So basically there are two steps: how to recognise psychological distress and then learn techniques to address them. Then psychological distress will become manageable and will have limited effects on their functionality. These techniques should be part of the curriculum of journalists’ professional training. Future journalists who are being trained in university should receive training to work in risky situations which may cause psychological disturbances. Journalists who are already working should receive such training too.”
An expert on such matters herself, Suzanna highlights the conservatism of Pakistani society as a major problem in this regard:
“We knew that amongst journalists’ psychological issues because of their work was not something very much recognized or accepted. Even here in the Netherlands taboo surrounds psychological issues.”
Yet, there were heartening responses on the survey forms she issued.
“In the form we ask why journalists participated. One of them wrote ‘I want to express myself’. And that’s exactly what we want those suffering from psychological problems to be able to do, because that’s the first step to recovery.”
Abdur Rauf Yousafzai reports for The Friday Times exclusively from FATA and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He tweets at @raufabdur