By Sonya Rehman
From current affairs to social issues and human interest stories, Pakistani journalist Kiran Nazish has written for Al Jazeera, Foreign Policy, Forbes and a host of other local and foreign publications on hard-hitting socio-political issues and poignant stories of those affected by war.
In an interview with The Diplomat, Nazish speaks about the challenges of being a female journalist in Pakistan, and reporting on sensitive issues in a country that has been called “the most dangerous for journalists.”
You recently traveled to Peshawar to report on the deplorable state of the IDP’s living in the Jalozai Camp – as a journalist, how important is empathy and compassion when interviewing those affected by war and tragedy?
Empathy and compassion is imperative for journalists to nurture. If you are reporting about victims of war, ethnic violence or displacement – such as the IDPs; and you are not compassionate, you are missing the whole point. Also, the absence of empathy and compassion will also paralyze your reporting and you will never get to hear the complete story and hence never get to tell the complete truth. Often when I interview people who have been affected by war and tragedy, they complain about how journalists come to them and ask brutal, insensitive questions and take photos of them without their permission. They feel used and deceived. That is absolutely unethical and undermining. Do not doubt me when I say, I have learnt the greatest lessons of courage and wisdom from invisible people we often ignore thinking they are dumb and poor and weak, because they are victims. Trust me, they are smart, and they know a lot about the world.
I understand that you’re currently traveling for work. What story are you working on?
I’m currently working on a story about Veeru Kohli, a bonded laborer in interior Sindh who was freed with the help of an NGO in Hyderabad called Green Rural Development Organization (GRDO). She is standing for elections now against established, powerful and rich feudals who have been threatening her and her supporters. Kohli now lives in a place called Azad Nagar, with two beds, five mattresses, cooking pots and a bank account with life savings of Rs. 2,800 (approx $27). Wanting to interview her took me to Azad Nagar in the outskirts of Hyderabad, where I met dozens of landless Hari’s and farmers who had been freed either by Kohli’s activism or by GRDO. They all had gathered to greet me at the arrival, and complained about the media ignoring them (save news reports of Kohli standing for elections) and not supporting them when the powerful politicians threatened their lives. I hope to help them by writing about their stories, the strength that they show by standing with each other between life threats and hefty offers of bribes. These are the people who change the fate of a nation. The poor, the dignified and the powerful.
Pakistan has often been called “the most dangerous country for journalists” – given your work and experience in the field over the years, do you agree with this assessment?
When we say “the most dangerous country for journalists” what do we actually mean? Do we mean Pakistan as a country is dangerous for journalists? Is it the state that has made reporting difficult? Or the military? Or militancy? Etc. It is important to make the distinction first. We have been called ‘the most dangerous place for journalists’ for three consecutive years by global journalism forums and support groups such as CPJ and Reporters Without Borders. Both organizations also work as advocacy groups, maintaining data on journalistic killings, arrests and other abuses around the globe. While their studies have been very important in highlighting journalistic issues, I feel there should also be a study of patterns that aims to determine the cause of danger. Patterns that determine what countries are dangerous for journalists for what particular reason. Such mapping can particularly help us figure out how to solve the issue of reporting dangers specific to each location. Let me explain.
In Pakistan the dynamics are unique. We are at war but we are not at war. We have a government that supports freedom of expression, but we have a state that does not support the free flow of information. There are some intelligent, passionate and courageous journalists in the country who want to invest themselves in getting the truth out, but are restricted by unsupportive editorial policies, and are often put in danger by unsupportive organizations at times of threats. Do you see the conflict in each instance? In countries like Syria, Mexico and Libya, journalists have been hurt during situations when conflict is in action. Recently, when Syria was rated the most dangerous country for journalism, it was due to the situation of war.
In some countries journalists are outright harassed if they report, e.g.: Russia, China, Egypt and Iran, do not allow their journalists to report in the first place. So you see how the term “the most dangerous place” is defined in each instance. But in Pakistan, the government openly supports media but does not give protection to its reporters on the field. Media organizations that are run by conglomerates and the Saith culture, further dilapidates the chances of journalists’ safety; where tribal journalists working in the harshest conditions, between military and militants, reporting on the war in the northern regions, are not even paid, or given logistical support, let alone are provided any safety when they are on duty. So you see, where reporting is made possible in Pakistan and the structure is there, reporters here still don’t feel free, because they know, if they tell the story, it may take their lives. So, I would say, yes it is the most dangerous place, but there is an infrastructure that makes reporting possible and the problem of danger and safety is solvable. To conclude: it is the most dangerous place for journalists but not necessarily.
What have your greatest challenges been working as a Pakistani female journalist covering current affairs, social issues and human interest stories in the country?
To be honest, as a reporter, when I am on the field interviewing people, especially war victims, I feel I have a greater advantage of being a woman. People open up more easily and they also respect you. Being a female journalist has made it easy for me, in gaining people’s trust to hear their stories. My male counterparts have often had difficulties getting the stories from people.
But of course, there is also a greater challenge – and that is of security. Since I work independently, I have to travel on my own sometimes, without a male colleague, often attracting uninvited attention, being hit on by all kinds of men, often senior analysts whom you respected before they asked you out and offered you wine.
In our culture that is deeply conservative, and may I say, judgmental about women, it becomes hard not to be umpired. People think, because you are a woman, you are incapable of understanding things. There are times they spoon-feed you, and there are times when sources will simply not give you the information or let you get ‘access’ because they think, you are incapable of the task simply because you are a woman. It’s quite irritating and has often brought out the worst in me – instances which led me into thinking that I needed anger management!
What advice would you give to other Pakistani female journalists like yourself vis-à-vis personal safety on the field during reportage?
Always keep your eyes open and a pepper spray handy. If this amuses you, I also learnt some boxing; sadly it’s been futile so far, never got to punch anyone.
What has been the greatest high of your career?
The greatest high of my career has been the lowest paying times of my life. Which would be now, haha. When I don’t have enough money to upgrade my laptop, I miss that consistent financial support, I had while working for GEO [a local TV channel], when everything was company-paid, travel, communication, on-set meals, I never realized I was spending so much on a production. But of course, the best time in my career only came with the independence of ideas. Being an independent journalist I now choose my own stories that interest me. I am not bound to work on an organizational issue bias, or an editorial policy limitation. Of course this is just the beginning and there is a whole world for me to further unravel. At times I am financially challenged, but it’s worth it.
As a young journalist, how do you foresee the future of journalism in Pakistan taking shape?
Foreseeing is a big word. It’s hard to say actually. How journalism is as a career in any country has to do with both the political and economical situation in a country. There will always be issues and stories to report on, but during conflict and struggling economies like Pakistan, it becomes really hard for a journalist to survive in the profession. Pakistan is becoming deeply unstable with time and the country will be in the global spotlight for a long time, so the importance of reporting from Pakistan will always be there.
You travel regularly within Pakistan to bring to light stories that are infrequently reported by the local media at large – what is your inspiration behind choosing subjects and stories to interview and report on?
It all started with my urge to write the book that I am currently working on. The research of which required me to conduct field work in war zones and conflict areas. Living in Karachi – one of the most populous and diverse cities of the world; most of my life, the issues that mattered to me earlier were the big issues, the foreign policy, the larger picture of sectarian conflict in the country, the aerial view of militancy and terrorism, etc.
When I started traveling for my research to places like FATA and Gilgit-Baltistan and interior Sind and Punjab, I met people. People who worked day and night to build the economy unit by unit. People who had directly been affected by war or conflict, and had lost a loved one, a breadwinner of the family and just people who saw the bloodshed and were escaping it in IDP camps leaving their homes behind. People who struggle for one piece of bread, literally, and those who sold all their savings to save the life of an ailing mother. People whose lives were taken in revenge of politics or ethnic affiliations. It’s these people who I have a relationship with, and I work for them. It’s that never-ending story of a survivor that keeps calling me whenever I go.
The Diplomat Magazine