Sadaf Naeem
Sadaf Naeem (File photo) Image Credit: Sadaf Naeem/Facebook

Sadaf Naeem, reporter of Pakistan’s Channel 5, died on October 30, 2022

During the coverage of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s long march, Sadaf had an accident in Sadhoke, Punjab, and was crushed to death.

The video of Sadaf running parallel to Imran Khan’s vehicle (a modified shipping container) in his Haqeeqi Azaadi Long March, barely a distance of few inches between her and the concrete road divider on the other side, is a terrifying reminder of the transience of life. It is also a jolt to the collective conscience of a male-dominated society that pays scant attention to the awfulness of working conditions for female reporters employed in second or third tier TV channels. Carrying a backpack that held her camera and other stuff, Sadaf, forty, ran to get on the container with a simple agenda—do a short interview of Khan, get a memorable quote from him, talk to other PTI leaders standing with Khan. In those few seconds lies the full story of Sadaf’s career. In the line of duty, Sadaf sprinted to her final moments.

Sadaf Naeem died searching for her big story. That is just one dimension of the incredible tragedy of Sadaf’s untimely, terrible passing.

Working in a field that focuses on reporting on the latest newsworthy happenings, breaking a story, and searching for that rare big moment that catches the attention of an increasingly fickle audience, Sadaf’s career was long but unobserved. And that is just the hard reality of the job of a reporter. Fame, glory, wealth, and power are reserved for prime time talk show hosts of the top ten, perhaps five, national channels. The rest work on the periphery, noticed sporadically. Between major journalists and reporters, the chasm is too wide. News channels rely on reporters to add newness to their 24/7 transmissions, but reporters exist in a world where they remain invisible despite being in the most visible of mediums.

Reporters, assigned to different beats, work for endless hours but are rarely given more than a minute or two on screen. That too if their body of work is substantial. Female reporters, mostly, are not even assigned a particular beat. Without any prior notice, they are designated to cover multiple events in multiple fields in one day.

Working conditions for female reporters are dismal. Criminally, in most cases. Small salaries, that too unpaid for months in some channels and media houses; unavailability of transportation; non-existent insurance; non-existent safety training; long, backbreaking hours; unpredictable timings in which working 24/7 is literally the norm; absence of fixed holidays; harassment in various forms, that too without provoking a reaction from the employer, and invariably hushed in the necessity to keep a job.

Sadaf’s sixteen year-long career was a chronicle of her hard work, commitment, perseverance to make her name and dedication to finding that rare story that would give her professional acclaim and sustained admiration of the audience. In death, Sadaf found what she sought in life. That is heart-wrenching.

Dawn reported: “A correspondent on the container said that [Sadaf] Naeem slipped while trying to climb the container.” The convoy stopped. The identity of the victim was not confirmed immediately. “A female [from] media personnel was killed.” Rescue 1122 was alerted. Although the death was immediate, Sadaf was taken to a nearby hospital. Imran Khan came down from the container and inquired about the incident. In solidarity, PTI called off the march for the rest of the day.

Imran Khan condoled the great tragedy: “I say this with utmost regret that due to an accident we are postponing the march today. We pray for the patience and strength of the woman’s family to deal with the tragedy. I have no words to express my sorrow.”

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, Chief Minister of Punjab Pervez Elahi, Minister of Foreign Affairs Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz Leader Maryam Nawaz Sharif, and top PTI, PPP and PML-N leaders posted condolence messages with generous praise for the deceased journalist. The posthumous credit the kind of which Sadaf never received in her journalistic career.

On October 31, former prime minister and Chairperson PTI Imran Khan, accompanied by a few PTI leaders, visited Sadaf’s residence to offer condolences to her family.

The federal and Punjab governments have announced monetary and other assistance for Sadaf’s family.

If Sadaf’s tragedy had not occurred during Khan’s Long March, the news of her death would have gone unnoticed beyond a few lines in her channel’s newspaper, a short obituary on the channel she worked for, a sentence or two on the back page of some other newspaper, a ticker on a few TV channels. The woman who had worked for sixteen years in media would not have been remembered in media if her death wasn’t on a high-profile venue, and in a manner that wasn’t that nightmarish.

Sadaf Naeem, in her death, became her biggest story.

The family is devastated. Sadaf’s husband Naeem Bhatti. Her children, Nimra, twenty, her son, Mohammad Azan, fourteen. I can’t begin to imagine their pain. The news of her death deeply saddened me. I kept thinking about Sadaf. Unable to watch the video of her crushed, bloodied body, I prayed for her. On the day of her death, I dm’ed the journalist who had spoken to her husband: “Just read your report on Sadaf’s death. Unbelievably tragic. Could you please share her husband’s number with me? People will forget about her in a day, but I want to write about her. Who she was, from the perspective of her family.”

On October 31, I spoke to Sadaf’s husband Naeem Bhatti. My tribute was delayed for a few days because of the turmoil of the assassination attempt on Imran Khan.

There was so much pain in Bhatti’s voice in his responses to my questions about Sadaf:

“Sadaf was born in 1982. She had two sisters and one brother. We got married in 2000.

“Sadaf worked for the Khabrain Group for sixteen years, in their Channel 5 for many years. Mostly, she worked for six days a week, but if there was an assignment on Sunday or any other holiday, she never missed it.

“The best thing about Sadaf was her innocence. She liked summers. Her favourite colour was black. In food, she only liked chicken, nothing else. All her life, she didn’t eat beef, mutton, or fish, it was just chicken.

“In her free time, Sadaf was with our children. She had long conversations with them, she did everything with them. When she wasn’t with her children, she listened to music, mostly, Sufi music.

“It’s considered an unusual thing in our society, but Sadaf loved my mother, her mother-in-law. She is buried next to her.

“Another very important thing about Sadaf was that she had no fondness for money. She never made any demands to me that she wanted this or that thing, that she wanted a gift. The one demand she had was that on the day of our wedding anniversary, we had to have a meal in a restaurant, and I had to give her a gift. It didn’t matter to her if I didn’t give her anything the whole year, but a gift was mandatory on our anniversary.”

Reading the few things Nimra, Sadaf’s daughter, wrote about her mother, Bhatti’s voice broke almost constantly. Nimra and Azan, motherless, their pain forever.

“We love our Amma very much. All our lives, we will never stop missing her. She was a great mother, she looked after us, she took care of us all the time. It was her big desire that we complete our education and stand on our own feet. That would have made her proud of her children.

“When Amma was home, her entire focus was us, my brother and me. All her time was for us. She used to say: ‘I work the whole day, but when I’m home, that time is only for my children.’ Once she was home, she didn’t answer anyone’s call or talked to anyone. She would just talk to us.

“There was this thing that she always said: ‘Children, one day, Allah will bless your father with so much.’

“My brother was deeply attached to our Amma. Whenever she had a free day, he was with her the whole time.

“Amma was very sociable, good-humoured, and she never reacted to anything anyone said. My Amma was very innocent. She was unaware of the ways of the world.

“I will never forget one thing. During her entire career, she left the house without saying much. But that day [October 30, 2022] when she was leaving, she said ‘Khuda Hafiz’ [may God be your protection]. Before that day, Amma never said Khuda Hafiz to us.”

Sadaf lives in the hearts of her loved ones. And that is her most beautiful legacy.

May Allah give Sadaf’s loved ones strength. May Allah protect them always.

May Sadaf Naeem rest in light and love.