According to Pakistani journalist Amar Guriro, it’s been difficult for reporters in his country to keep up with a rapidly evolving news industry. A multimedia environmental journalist, Guriro credits his success doing so to a fellowship he found on IJNet a decade ago.
“I became a digital journalist thanks to that training,” Guriro says. “And that has changed my entire life.”
His interest in the environment has a personal connection. Growing up in the Thar desert, which stretches along the India-Pakistan border, Guriro witnessed firsthand how dry spells and droughts left those around him hungry and suffering.
“I grew up in that area, so the environment was in my heart,” Guriro said. “When I started working as a journalist I decided I would be covering the environment.”
Today, Guriro is a correspondent for The Independent Urdu, the Pakistani edition of The Independent London, in Karachi. For the past five years, he has also been writing his first book, which examines the effects of climate change in Pakistan.
We spoke with Guriro about his work in environmental journalism, the difficulties Pakistani journalists face and his advice to others in the field.
IJNet: What are some challenges journalists face in Pakistan today?
Guriro: Nowadays, it’s a tough time for Pakistani media, and many outlets are shut down. My previous newspaper, Daily Times, shut down its Karachi office, and many TV channels also shut down.
There is also the issue of budget cuts. Recently, the English language newspaper, Dawn, has cut 40% of entire staff wages. In Karachi, over 2,000 journalists are now unemployed because of layoffs at all the different media outlets. The newspapers are also frequently unable to pay journalists on time. While I was at my previous newspaper, they would not pay me for four to five months [at a time].
Finally, if you talk about the problems that the media people face — like the journalists or the newsrooms — the biggest is lack of training and updates. Pakistani journalists do not learn modern journalism. They often don’t know how to do digital journalism.
Amar Guriro, working as a CCMP Fellow, on his story in the Media Room of COP 24 held in Katowice, Poland in December, 2018.
You said the ICFJ fellowship was a turning point in your career. Why was that?
In 2009, I was searching for different fellowships on IJNet. I found ICFJ’s Reporting Across Cultures: Freedom of Expression in the Digital Age program. They took us to Nepal and they gave us the basics of online and digital journalism.
Right after coming from there, I launched my own personal website. I started portraying myself as an environmental journalist and as a digital journalist on that site. That helped me get freelance work.
I also started photography and videography. I got myself prepared for the changing media landscape. I don’t think many Pakistani journalists have their bylines in 30 media outlets — because I learned a lot, I survived hard times.
How do you integrate multimedia into your reporting?
In Pakistan, when the media landscape was changing, every newspaper was going online, and they needed videos and photos with the stories. They wanted journalists who had the skills of all these things. They cannot afford a cameraman, then an editor, then a photographer — they cannot hire an army to write the news. They were seeking any journalist who had all these skills, so he or she alone can report all these aspects.
If you are a journalist, you have to look around your surroundings. If they are changing and you will not change, your journalism dies.
Photo credit: Saif Jiskani
What are some of the challenges you face in doing environmental journalism?
Pakistan has habitats that are some of the most vulnerable to climate change. For example, there is river pollution. There are droughts in our desert area. There is urban flooding, plastic pollution, air pollution, deforestation and natural disasters.
To cover these issues, you need money to go to these areas. But Pakistani media, which is not paying the salaries of journalists, is unable to afford the traveling costs to help journalists go to these areas. For environmental stories, I need money to go out into the field to get the stories and come back to the newsroom. I always face difficulty negotiating with the media outlets and explaining that these are not routine Karachi-based stories.
How do you overcome these obstacles?
When I pitch stories I always start by explaining the importance of the issue — why [news outlets] should cover it. I talk about why this story is very important for your paper, for your reader and for the entire region.
How do you make your environmental stories impactful for the people who are reading them?
Pakistan has complex issues. If you can explain the current status of environmental degradation and the effects on the future, the story will be readable. If you can explain those effects and tell those interesting stories and portray your work online as an environmental journalist, the world will come to you — even if you live in Pakistan.
You've been able to find the victims of climate change and the water crisis to show human impacts. How do you find those people?
I find myself different from other journalists here in that I don't go and just ask the people. I go and spend some time in an area, either two or three days, to absorb what is in the air and observe how the people are suffering. Then I talk to them. I figure out what is the best story and who is the best person to talk to. I spend a lot of time there. I talk to the community, I talk to people and I try to understand life.
Like in Rehri Goth, a fishermen settlement along the Karachi coast, established by the climate migrants from River Indus delta. The fishermen migrated from their native villages hoping for a better future, but even at this new place, their homes are submerging. I spent an entire day there, and by the evening I learned they had to make hanging toilets. Then I realized, if you are pregnant, how will you go to the toilet? If you are disabled, how will you go to the toilet? If you are a child, how will you go there? So I just wrote that story, and that was heartbreaking to everybody.
Hanging toilet. Image courtesy of Amar Guriro
What advice would you give to aspiring journalists trying to break out into this field?
I would tell them this is not a 9-to-5 job. It's a passion. When you are chasing a story you need to realize, what is the story? Who is the sufferer? Who is the hero of the story?
You should start with one beat, because you will still work on almost every subject, but you will have expertise on one subject and you can portray yourself as such.
Learn the modern skills. Learn how to do digital journalism — otherwise, you will not survive in the field.
Each month, IJNet features an international journalist who exemplifies the profession and has used the site to further his or her career. If you would like to be featured, click here.
Main image courtesy of Abhaya Raj Joshi. This interview was edited for length.