Getting our issues "out there"

IssueDecember 2003 - February 2004
Feature by Beena Sarwar


PN: Tell us a bit about yourself, what kind of work you do and what your focus is - in terms of the reports or opinion pieces you write.

BS: I am a full-time journalist with a visual arts background, but over the last decade the painting has been sidelined bymy professional involvement with journalism - as well as activism in human rights issues, which includes, of course, women's issues and peace issues - and, for the past couple of years, television documentary. (I did an MA in TV Documentary at Goldsmiths College, University of London in 2001.) Having been in charge editorially since 1989 (Features Editor at the Frontier Post and Editor, The News on Sunday, until 2000), I pretty much assign myself the stories I want, and these tend to be based on the issues mentioned above as well as cultural issues which I feel are part of the overall human rights scenario.

Currently, I contribute articles to The News, as well as monthly Himal South Asian and occasionally to Indian papers, and some features agencies (Panos, IRIN). So far my print media work is all in English, but now, as a producer with Geo TV (Pakistan's first 24-hr news channel, launched in Aug 2002), I am doing special reports in Urdu (10 minutes or longer,as opposed to the standard 2-3 minutes (and more widely understood than English)), on topics of my own choosing (once they've been approved). I am now also commissioning special reports from reporters around the country again, on topics I assign, although the reporters themselves initiate some of them.

PN: So, as someone who works in both the relatively mainstream media - as well as alternative media - where do you find greatest receptivity for your ideas/perspectives/opinions?

BS: Hard to say. I get the most written responses (by email) when I write in The News op-ed pages or in any Indian newspaper. Writing in English in Pakistan means writing for a select few, really, which is a drawback. Geo is in Urdu and the reports I've done have generated a lot of verbal feedback, but only when the report in question has been broadcast several times as opposed to once or twice.

PN: And what do you feel are the necessary conditions - in both mainstream and alternative forums - for making your voice heard?

BS: Well, for that of course there needs to be an atmosphere in which you can say what you need to. There are various constraints that restrict our voices today. Firstly of course, there is overt censorship in countries with undemocratic governments; we've had our share of that in Pakistan, but now when there is supposedly a functioning democracy, the pressures are more subtle - unspoken threats from intelligence and state agencies, threats from non-state actors like the extremist parties and those with feudal or commercial interests, and the self-censorship that journalists begin to exercise as a result of such pressures.

But still, people often know that they shouldn't believe everything the media tells them. Perhaps more dangerous, are the situations where the media is generally believed to be free and impartial, but is really following a nationalist or ideological agenda, which is what we've seen particularly post 11 September 2001, in the western media - whether in the demonisation of their government's stated enemies, glossing over these governments' real agendas, or in the marginalisation of dissenting voices like the anti-war groups. There is more receptivity for voices for peace when emotions are not involved in the name of nationalism, ethnicity or religion - it's hard to get through when passions are riding high on these feelings.

PN: The impression we tend to get of journalists working in the “straight” press is of ordinary people - some good, some bad - but all working under enormous pressure, often from the spoken or unspoken culture of “what sells”, impacting the range of topics and perspectives acceptable to editors and owners. Do you think this is an accurate reflection and is it something that you have experienced or which has impacted your work in any way?

BS: Yes, this is true it's part of what I just said. I have personally not experienced this too much except that I have fight a lot harder, really keep at the bosses, to get “my” issues out there, especially in television, where the emphasis tends to be on power-politics and events. This is unfortunately the nature of the beast that is 24-hour news.

PN: As a journalist who works for publications that appear to have a broad - and international - audience, do you feel that you have influence as a “voice for peace”, either locally, regionally, or internationally?

BS: To an extent, perhaps yes. Although I wouldn't call it influence as much as being part of the peace lobby, keeping our voices “out there” for those in the local, regional and international frameworks to see and hear, an assertion that we are here, we are not going away, and we will keep making these demands for peace, for social justice in any case, whether or not they listen to us. And our persistence, I think, has contributed to getting our agenda out there in the public discourse and even in the discourse of our political leaderships and our governments (for example, the insistence that Kashmir should not be treated as a territorial dispute between two countries, but should be solved taking into account the Kashmiri people's aspirations, something which more and more people are saying now).

PN: What kind of dilemmas, frustrations, or political challenges have you faced in your work and, conversely, what have you found has worked--in terms of creating spaces for postulating progressive ideas on peace, justice and human rights?

BS: Working primarily in the English language media has its advantages and disadvantages. The disadvantage is that we don't reach a large mass of people is offset by our disproportionate influence regionally and internationally.

That's frustrating, and the dilemma is how to overcome that, considering that English is my first language in a country where this is not the lingua franca. Being with Geo has helped in this aspect.

Another dilemma can be whether to,and how far to, critique people who are doing good work in crucial areas like human rights and peace, people who are already fighting heavy odds someone might be too publicity hungry, for example, or too possessive about “their” area of work. In terms of creating space, we just have to continue to be persistent, to build as many alliances as possible, in any way we can, to keep not just writing and reporting,but also speaking about these issues and discussing them, generally, speaking out. Sometimes total strangers will support you and your ideas, which would never have known if you didn't approach them and if you'd kept to your own limited circle. It's also good to catalyse other people into making alliances, networks or lobby group seven if one can't be involved in these.

PN: Maybe you get asked this question a lot--but it would be interesting to hear some comments about your specific experience as a woman working in a traditionally male-dominated field, particularly as someone putting forward progressive, peace-oriented ideas. Do you feel that you have a gendered analysis that differs from the dominant one when writing about issues for print?

BS: The first time I was asked this question, years ago, I was quite affronted. “I'm not a `woman journalist', I'm a professional journalist.” But the answer I got set me thinking and it was that, even as a professional journalist, I was bringing my own experiences and world views to my profession, and that my background as a woman's rights activist in Pakistan would necessarily differentiate me from my male colleagues who hadn't had that experience. Of course that is all true. We all bring to our respective fields, our own unique perspectives and world-views and political ideologies. It is not necessary that just by virtue of being a woman, a female journalist would bring a gendered perspective, just as it is not necessary that all the women sitting in the reserved women's seats of the Pakistani parliament today advance some kind of feminist agenda in fact, many don't.

So an individual's analysis depends on who they are. As a woman, as an activist, yes, my view would be uniquely mine, different, as you say, from the dominant one. But I can think of several male colleagues journalists and activists--who could be considered “feminist”, and who advance progressive, peace-oriented ideas that are also different from the dominant ones. Generally, as an educated woman in Pakistan, I have a pretty privileged position and get accorded a lot of respect in most areas, including the workplace. I'm much better off, in terms of social clout and power, than male Pakistanis who are illiterate and poor. I also do get my share of the occasional harassment in public areas, but this is probably less than someone with less confidence may have to deal with.

PN: Do you have much contact--either within Pakistan or further afield-- with other journalists and editors trying to promote similar values to your own within the media? And are you part of any kind of progressive journalists network or other form of media-related campaign/activism group?

BS: There's a loose networking, yes. There are also more formal structures like various regional organisations and media groups, like the South Asia Free Media Association (which includes journalists from the extreme right and the extreme left), and the Kathmandu-based Himal South Asian. Also, the South Asia Forum for Human Rights in Kathmandu has a very strong media component and often brings together like-minded journalists.

PN: Thinking specifically of the Kashmir situation, do you feel that the media is sometimes/often/rarely used to sustain or raise tensions in the region? On the other hand, looking to the positive, do you see potential for the regional media to contribute to peaceful resolution of the conflict? For example to improve the conditions for dialogue and openness across communities and between the major political actors. Or to raise confidence that a peaceful resolution is possible and that real options exist.

BS: To answer the first part, yes, often;the media can be “more loyal than the king” in promoting its respective government's agenda. And of course yes, there is a great deal of potential for the regional media to contribute to peaceful resolution of the conflict if it is allowed to function independently, which is currently not the case. In Pakistan, we are not allowed to go to the Indian side of Kashmir, and vice versa. So we have no way of independently verifying facts, and depend heavily on our respective security agencies and foreign news media. The Pakistani media has to always refer to “Indian Occupied Kashmir”, any lapse brings a rap on the knuckles from the Foreign Ministry, which also keeps a vigilant eye on any maps printed in which the Line of Control is marked as a permanent border. The state owned media also actively promotes the government stance on this issue; there's a lot of propaganda.

Interactions with our Indian counter-parts have always been useful, firstly in helping to see each other as human beings, and secondly, to have discussions and arguments (sometimes heated) about contentious issues. In recent years, Indian and Pakistani journalists have begun to write in each other's newspapers, and even participate in television talk shows. Geo, in fact, did a series of talk shows co hosted by Indian and Pakistani journalists. All this does, as you suggest, help improve the conditions for dialogue and openness across communities and between the major political actors. It can also raise confidence that a peaceful resolution is possible and that real options exist especially if those involved in such dialogues come to them with open minds, and not just to promote their respective governments' agendas.

Topics: Global south, Media
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