April issue 2012
Interview: Quatrina Hosain
Quatrina Hosain works for Express News, most recently as a presenter on Witness with Quatrina on Express English and she is the host of Siyasi Log on Express News. In the past, Quatrina has been the bureau chief for AFP in Pakistan and the chief reporter for Khaleej Times in Dubai. She continues to write for different publications, focusing her research on extremism and xenophobia.
Q: How do women in the Pakistani media need to project themselves to be taken seriously?
A: I think women in the Pakistani media have come a long way. Take Newsline which is an absolute women’s stronghold but has never been considered a women’s magazine; it has always been perceived as a political magazine. Having said that, I think one of the things that is important for women in the electronic media, if they want to be taken seriously, is to be as professional as possible — and to be professionally attired. I’m not saying that they need to be masculine to be taken seriously, but political talk show hosts, news presenters and reporters,in particular, should be neatly and professionally dressed, be careful with their make-up, which is admittedly a necessity for television, but should not be overdone and women must always come across as being sober. They must divert attention from how they’re looking, to what they’re saying. So not too much jewellery, no loud clothing, bold prints etc.
Also, to be taken seriously, I think women in the electronic media in particular need to be less shrill. Sometimes they speak at an intolerably high pitch and that shrillness actually detracts from the seriousness of the work that they’re doing.
Q: You’re not the stereotypical female anchor on Pakistani television. Did you consciously create a strong persona for television?
A: I definitely did. To begin with, I made sure that my appearance was professional. And I’m lucky in the respect that I have a very base voice and that helps because it immediately lends a certain sobriety to your persona. I’ve never really had to scream or yell to get the attention of my guests. I personally believe that if any anchor, male or female, has to scream to get attention, they are losing control of the programme.
Q: What are some of the blatant gender biases that women on television face today?
A: Let’s look at several different aspects. One is field journalism. I think that there is an inherent bias against women being out in the field; it’s easier to send a male anchor, since the belief is that women anchors are likely to get themselves into trouble. But those barriers are being broken. Now I see so many women out there doing field reporting and going into very difficult environments. So I think the gender bias is slowly dissolving, because women are just doing it, they are getting out there, reporting, doing what they have to do in and off the field.
Gender biases surface when women are hired purely on the basis of their appearance, especially if they are very beautiful, but don’t have the intelligence, the experience or the background to come across as formal presenters. So when women who do not qualify to be anchors are hired, quite clearly on the basis of their looks alone, that is really damaging to the other anchors who are there on the basis of their experience and their qualifications. These women, in fact, actually undermine other professional women in the field.
Q: Gender aside, as a professional in the news media what sort of qualifications are required to be an objective and resourceful journalist?
A: The first absolutely imperative requirement for any journalist, in television or the press, is the need to know. The desperate need to know what’s happening: what’s going on and why? If that hunger isn’t inside you, then you’re not going to be a journalist. And the second qualification — and which I harp on all the time — is read, read, read three-squared. Read books, newspapers, online, everything. Nobody can research your topic for you. They can only give you basic data, but nobody can really lodge it in your mind. At the end of the day, the anchor is the one who’s going to be in front of the camera and so he/she has to be on the ball. Anchors have to be savvy, they have to pick up immediately on what’s happening. Somebody may introduce an element in the programme and if the anchor is not familiar with it she/he can be made to feel really embarrassed. I think in such a situation the best way out is honesty: the anchor should acknowledge his/her lack of knowledge or understanding of the issue and ask the guest to elaborate.
One of the things that really irritates me is when anchors try to show their own knowledge. That’s not their job. Their job is to elicit information from their guests — their guests are the experts, and they are the ones that people are really there to hear. So anchors should restrict themselves to the introductions, to a quick question and to not start giving their own opinion, that’s the job of the guest and not of the anchor.
Q: Have you specifically dealt with women’s issues in your talk shows?
A: Absolutely. I have dealt with women’s issues on my shows and I can describe an incident from a couple of years ago. I was doing an Urdu talk show focusing on violence against women. I called up three politicians to come on board for the show, all men. They immediately said, “Why don’t you call someone from our women’s wing.” So the first sensitisation I had to do was right there, and tell them that violence against women is not only a women’s issue — the perpetrators are men and I told them, I really need for you gentlemen to be there. I was really happy when all three senior politicians came to the show and actually appeared to be very receptive to what I was saying.
What really saddened me was the video that was released by Reuters of a woman being stoned to death in the Orakzai agency. It was an absolutely painful video to watch, and I used it on my show which was, in fact, entirely devoted to that one incident. I was very surprised that other anchors didn’t pick it up.
There are so many other ‘women’s issues’ that we are not touching on, and we really need to, issues like post-partum depression for example. I did a pilot on it, but it didn’t air. Then there are women’s rights, laws pertaining to women etc. Every time I deal with a story on what we conventionally call ‘women’s issues,’ I realise more and more that they are really not just women’s issues alone. They affect families, the community, society. So now I’m really reluctant to use the term ‘women’s issues.’ I would rather call them human rights issues. I did a show on rape and I had some excellent guests on the show — two men and one woman. It was amazing how openly we were able to talk about that issue and clarify that rape is a criminal offence, it’s an act of violence, an act of power, not an act of sexuality. Tasneem Ahmer of Uks, who was on the show, has done a lot of work on this issue and contends that the language to discuss the issue of rape needs to change in Urdu as well. We don’t have the right terminology to discuss issues of crimes against women, particularly when it pertains to rape.
Q: What do you think of the charges of moral policing being hurled at a certain news anchor recently?
A: I think that was one of the most atrocious things I’ve seen on television in recent memory. Moral policing is not the job of television anchors, either this one or any other, male or female. Live television, where you conduct sting operations or raids, should only be done against people who are violating the law and that is very specific. If she had chosen to do this kind of raid on drug dealers in Lyari, I would have had a lot of respect for her. I would have actually admired her courage and been concerned for her safety since it would have been a dangerous thing to be doing. But to harass people in a park and to lie to them, to tell them that the camera and microphone are off and to carry out, what looked like a witch-hunt, was absolutely despicable. The only good that has come out of it is that perhaps now television anchors, the management and viewers are looking at things more critically than they did. This goes back to training and professionalism. A journalist who is given a camera and a microphone to go live on television should at least have a basic understanding of the law and ethics, and if they don’t have an understanding of either, why are they on air?
Q: With the tremendous information boom of the last few years in Pakistan, where is the news media heading and where should it be going. How will women benefit?
A: The television boom will only be of benefit if there is a more critical approach from the management. Right now I know of way too many television channels that pressurise their anchors for ratings. While ratings are admittedly important, they are not the end-all and be-all of television journalism. In this race to be first and get the top ratings television journalism is, in many cases, degenerating into tabloidism. And that is a very dangerous trend that needs to be reversed. There’s a lot more that television needs to be doing, especially in a country like ours where literacy is really low and television sometimes becomes the only medium of instruction and information. While I acknowledge that there are a lot of shows on crime for example, which are interesting, and I know that crime shows on television in the West are one of the most popular forms of entertainment, and that crime shows here, especially since we live in a society where crime is very high, can be informative and can also be a vehicle to show that you can’t get away with murder, I have trouble with the language used to report crimes, especially against women. Often it becomes salacious, and that is offensive.
Q: Don’t you think people have become increasingly voyeuristic?
A: Yes, they have. That is what bothers me. When I use the word ‘salacious,’ that is exactly what I meant. You can present crime stories, or re-enactments of crime stories but they have to be done in a somewhat clinical or formal way, instead of making it tabloidism. Tabloidism just becomes voyeuristic and I don’t want to see Pakistani television degenerating into tabloidism. It is a very fine line to walk and it is not just the presenters, but the people who are producing the programmes and the script writers who also need to be very sensitive to the language they are using. The producers should be guided by the television management. If the management sets out the rules then everybody else adheres to them. So if the management is going to want salacious content then it’s going to get worse. I think we are already noticing that the ratings are going down for political talk shows where everybody is just screaming and shouting and nothing else happens. So, hopefully, television managements are coming to the realisation that this is not working any more.
Conversely, the ratings for shows that re-enact crimes or tell human interest stories are going up. Something good actually comes out of them. I’ve had numerous people call me on my channel and say, ‘we just saw your programme and would really like to help.’ One of the most beautiful things about Pakistan is the incredible amount of philanthropy in this country. Television can thus become a powerful medium for people to see, understand, empathise and, in many cases, help.
Q: But how long can you continue to report on the same distress stories, even if they are terrible and ongoing?
A: Fatigue is certainly setting in. For example, in the case of the floods. It was really sad when the donations were way less than we had anticipated in 2010. And for the 2011 floods in Sindh, there was virtually no help at all. There are so many appeals for help from so many quarters, I think people are becoming fatigued. But still, a truly sad story can draw viewer support.
Q: What advice do you have for women journalists on television today?
A; Never let anybody put you down. Never let anybody tell you that you can’t do it because you are a woman. Go out there and get the story. There may be many reasons why you can’t do a story, but gender is not one of them.
This interview was originally published in the April issue of Newsline as part of a larger cover story on women in electronic media.
The writer is a former assistant editor at Newsline