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This article was republished from Media Matters for Democracy.

Media Matters for Democracy is deeply concerned about reports of journalists in Pakistan forced to cover the Covid-19 public health crisis without adequate protective measures and safety precautions. According to one estimate, around 40 journalists and media workers have tested positive for the coronavirus across the country and at least two have died. This is an alarming situation. It not only puts at risk the lives and mental well-being of the journalists but also endangers their families and colleagues.

The physical safety risks and psychological pressures on journalists restrict their ability to supply accurate information on the pandemic to the public. People around the country are constantly looking for reliable, verified, and evidence-based information on Covid-19 so they can protect themselves and their loved ones against the coronavirus spread. Trustworthy information has become all the more important due to the coronavirus-related disinformation and rumours circulating on social media. In the current pandemic, the quality of information can be a matter of life and death. This means that the need for independent and credible journalism is now more urgent than ever.

At the same time, the Pakistani news media is going through an unprecedented financial crisis. Journalists, many of whom have not been paid for months in some instances, are continuing to work tirelessly to report on Covid-19 responses. Reporters and camerapersons in the field have a high risk of exposure to the virus, as indicated in the dozens of confirmed cases among journalists. The anxiety of getting infected with Covid-19 adds to the high-stress work routines of journalists. Critical journalists are also facing online harassment for their independent reporting on government responses to Covid-19. Anecdotal evidence available with Media Matters for Democracy shows that Pakistani journalists are currently operating under tremendous emotional strain.

In this context, we call upon the federal and provincial governments to:

1. Recognise the role of journalists as frontline workers during the pandemic and accord them the protections and support being provided to essential frontline workers such as medical doctors.

2. Facilitate the media organisations to conduct coronavirus tests for their employees and properly implement coronavirus safety guidelines for their workplace personnel and field staff.

3. Release the outstanding advertisement payments to media houses and ensure that the owners of media organisations use these funds to pay the pending salaries of their staff.

4. Ensure that government policies and actions uphold the fundamental rights of freedom of expression and access to information, and direct their political supporters to stop the online and offline harassment of independent journalists. 

We call on the media organisations to:

1. Provide necessary protective equipment to their employees and implement safety protocols at newsrooms immediately.

2. Conduct random, pool or mass testing for employees, and provide the employees the opportunity to self-isolate while their test results are awaited.

3. Work with official health departments and private laboratories to ensure that the test results are delivered without excessive delays.

4. Ensure that journalists who have tested positive for the coronavirus receive complete organisational support, including job security assurances and full salary payments, during their recovery.

5. Use national and international health advisories on Covid-19 to develop standard operating procedures and clear safety guidelines for employees, especially for field reporters and camerapersons.

6. Initiate work-from-home policies for programming and support staff.

7. Release pending salaries for employees on an urgent basis.

8. Pledge to avoid job terminations of journalists during the pandemic.

We call on the representative bodies of the media industry to:

1. Develop an industry-wide coronavirus safety policy to protect media workers from Covid-19, and ensure that media organisations enforce the policy effectively.

2. Start a relief fund to support the journalists who contracted Covid-19 and the families of journalists who died as a result of the coronavirus.

3. Negotiate with the government to expedite the release of outstanding advertisement payments.

We call on the civil society organisations to:

1. Document the physical, financial, digital, and mental risks to Pakistani journalists due to the pandemic, and advocate with governments, media organisations, and industry representatives to protect journalists against these risks.

2. Develop response mechanisms and support systems to help journalists against the threats to the physical, digital, and psychological safety of journalists.

3. Provide safety awareness, technical training and learning resources on Covid-19 to journalists to help them report on the coronavirus safely and accurately.