By: Rabia Ali
KARACHI: Had the bullet not spared Asif Hassan’s heart by a few millimetres, his photojournalism career spanning 16 years would have to come to an end and his young daughter would have been left without a father.
According to the International Federation of Journalists, Pakistan was the most dangerous country for journalists in 2014 with 14 deaths. The bullet that hit Hassan, 39, at the start of the year 2015 makes it seems this year will be no different.
On January 16, Hassan, who works for Agence France-Presse (AFP), was covering the demonstration of a religious party’s student wing, Islami Jamiat-e-Talba (IJT), against cartoons published in French magazine Charlie Hebdo when he narrowly escaped death.
“These days, photographers and reporters are the first ones to be beaten, shot, or tear-gassed during events and protests,” said Hassan, as he spoke to The Express Tribune at his house, recovering from his injuries. “The situation for journalists is getting bad.” He sat on a mattress in his apartment in PECHS, pausing every few sentences to catch his breath. His laptop and phone lay nearby.
Being an AFP photographer does not blend well with the religious protests that take place quite frequently in the city. Three years ago when protesters on Ishq-e-Rasool day indulged in riots, over 200 men rounded him up with another colleague outside the Edhi office at Tower. The men beat them with sticks and took away Hassan’s camera lens.
Day he was shot
Hassan remembered how he was not even scheduled to cover the IJT on January 16. “The demonstration was planned suddenly and I was at the press club when the other photographers told me about it.”
He was standing on top of the protesters’ truck at Teen Talwar and was taking pictures as they marched towards the French consulate in Bath Island. Out of nowhere, the area turned into a battlefield. The protesters started pelting stones at the police, who retaliated with tear gas and water cannon. Then, the firing started, he recalled, adding that he and his colleagues tried to get close to the police who were standing near the water cannon.
One of his colleagues shouted that he was struck with a rock. Seconds later, Hassan also felt being hit by a rock when a bullet hit him from behind. “I was conscious and walked over to the police van to take me to the hospital since there was no ambulance there,” he said. “The police officer refused and that is when I lost my strength. I fainted but I came back around quickly.”
His fellow photographers came out to help him. They carried him to the vehicle of a news channel and rushed to Jinnah hospital. The Associated Press photographer, Farooq, kept talking to him throughout the journey.
The doctors operated on him as soon as he arrived and managed to remove the bullet. He was prescribed a month’s bed rest.
The entire ordeal has, however, not broken Hassan’s resolve to work. “I used to be out all the time and now I feel I am in a jail,” he said, smiling. Hassan felt he will return to work with even more passion even though his family is insisting he give up journalism.
“I will be more cautious now,” he admitted. “I will wear a helmet and a bulletproof jacket whenever I go cover protests now.”
Born in 1976 into a family that owned a photography studio in Korangi, Hassan as a child had no passion for pictures. But over the years, he saw photographers covering strikes with burnt cars and violence, especially during the 1990s operation, and this excited him. He figured out soon that he wanted to be a photographer for a newspaper.
“In 1998, after I did my Intermediate, I joined an Urdu newspaper Aghaaz as a photographer covering crimes, politics, sports and lifestyle,” he said. Hassan worked for a couple of Urdu newspapers before he joined AFP in 2005.
Putting on a brave face
Asif Hassan’s colleagues and fellow photographers feel they are usually on their own if they are hurt in the line of duty.
“If God forbid Asif had died, neither the protesters nor the police or the government would have taken responsibility for it,” pointed out a senior photographer who works for an Urdu newspaper. “There would have been a few protests and that would have wrapped up the incident.”
The photographer said that he was brutally beaten up by a political party when he took pictures of their men torching cars during a strike. “The organisations screaming for journalists’ rights have done nothing to protect us,” he complained, adding that media houses also only care for their own interests. “We have no other option than to go into the field and take pictures.”