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Minority Citizen Journalists And Covid-19

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“My neighborhood has been affected badly by the Coronavirus and most people have been facing an extreme financial crisis as they work on daily wages or run small shops”, Dharminder Balach, a citizen journalist from the Hindu community in Cholistan desert narrates his ordeals rising from COVID-19. Turning to his own situation he adds, “We citizen journalists can’t rely completely on the journalistic profession because most of our work is on a volunteer basis and our parents are not well educated or holding permanent jobs. We need to help them in agriculture or small business.”

But businesses, education and tourism along with all other daily life activities are at a standstill as the numbers affected by the virus in Pakistan continue to rise.

With travel curtailed or banned, getting reliable news from remote and isolated regions of Pakistan has proved difficult. This is where Bytes for All’s project PakVoices which is a community-based initiative for highlighting news and updates from “information dark” regions have become ever more relevant. These citizen journalists are mainly focused in three regions: Tharparkar, South Punjab and the Makran Coast where religious minorities are also present and the network of citizen journalists includes those belonging to different sects and religions.

As volunteer citizen journalists give their time to the project for free, they subsist on casual work which has been heavily disrupted by the pandemic – with consequences for their finances. However their presence in situ, in places where journalists can no longer or are no longer willing to travel to, freely presents us with a unique opportunity to hear these voices unmediated from the field.

“Most of the Hindu settlements are underdeveloped which poses many challenges i.e. lack of quality education, basic health facilities and access to clean drinking water. With the surge in the Coronavirus count, we are unable to continue our work in homes due to a lack of tech tools and quality internet” says Imran Kumar, citizen journalist from Rahim Yar Khan.

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Youth in these areas are mostly associated with three other workforce segments.

A major portion of the youth migrate to metropolitan cities to pursue professional jobs but due to the lockdown, they also have to return to their home cities. Another segment is associated with local businesses i.e. general stores, shoes and clothing businesses. They are also facing financial problems due to the closure of markets and the enforcement of a lockdown. A third segment is mainly associated with the labour sector. They are also facing similar challenges and are living hand to mouth. Of course, for young people in religious minority communities, the problems of youth unemployment and poor conditions of work are compounded – where they experience religious discrimination or marginalization.

The Christian community is facing financial problems and unemployment. Most of the community in Rahim Yar Khan is associated with churches, transportation and sanitary work. With the Coronavirus outbreak in Pakistan, most of the people have lost their jobs. “I also have to work in a private courier service to make my ends meet,” says Maryam Sardar, citizen journalist, who belongs to the Christian community in Rahim Yar Khan.

Citizen journalists from Hindu, Christian and minority Muslim Zikri communities have been actively working with PakVoices and are part of the Association of All Pakistan Citizen Journalists (AAPCJ). Due to the economic divide, most minority communities are deprived of opportunities.

People belonging to the little known Zikri Muslim community usually live in the areas of Kech, Gwadar, Pasni, Ormara and Karachi. They face problems ranging from lack of basic necessities to opportunities in mainstream professions in Pakistan. Most of the reporters work voluntarily here due to lack of interest by mainstream media channels in these areas.

Most of the Zikri community in Turbat rely on visit by their community members from Karachi and other cities to celebrate religious festivals. This year, due to the Coronavirus, no festival took place and they were unable to set up markets. “[Zikri] people in the Kech area are undergoing financial crises”, said one of the community members who preferred to remain anonymous.

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While most of the Hindu community lives in Tharparkar and Cholistan, they have been facing a lack of transportation facilities to travel to major cities for their work and professional needs. These areas are deprived of quality education, health facilities and other basic necessities. Quality internet and digital technology is also weak compared to other cities, which makes it more difficult to perform journalistic work i.e. editing, recording and sending big files to their channels and platforms.

While the government remains focused on metropolitan cities to control the spread of the Coronavirus, rural areas have been somewhat neglected. And so, most of the people in Tharparkar are still unaware of precautionary measures and preventive strategies. “Only 200-300 masks were distributed by local social activists. Sanitizers are unavailable and people don’t wash hands frequently either”, says Poonam Kolhi, citizen journalist and construction contractor from Umerkot, Tharparkar.

Citizen journalists are facing a difficult situation: on the one hand, the need for the outside world to hear about the conditions in these remote areas is acute and they hope that a continuous flow of information will help remind those in the cities of the dire forms of deprivation experienced in isolated rural settlements. On the other hand, they need to spend more time to earn enough money to cover their most basic needs.

Projects such as Pak Voices invest in and build up capacity and skills in otherwise neglected segments of society; young people who are unemployed or working in insecure daily jobs. PakVoices has been particularly effective in reaching out to and engaging young people from religious minority communities. There is concern that with Covid-19, such social investments will be fragmented and lost – which will be a great loss for social progress in Pakistan.

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