March issue 2009
Interview: Saima Mohsin
Q: What made you want to become a journalist?
A: I think I would have gone out of my mind being trapped in four walls all day in a nine to five job! But I’ve just been so interested to learn about the world. I like to talk to people, to learn about cultures, people, places, understand what makes everything tick. So that was the initial thing, just to talk, be out there meeting and learning, and to then impart that to other people.
I was 16 when I decided I wanted to be a journalist. I went to the University of Birmingham, where I studied politics and English literature and I worked with the BBC all the way through university. To be honest, politics had never been a major interest until I came to Pakistan, because here you can’t escape it. Politics, then, was just something that I thought would give me a better access to a worldview of what’s going on and what’s happened, and contextualise international relations. I just thought it would be a good foundation to being a journalist.
But once I became a journalist, I realised the power of knowledge. But I wasn’t able to put it into practice or really feel it meant something until I came to Pakistan.
Q: Why did you come to Pakistan?
A: I was headhunted by DawnNews. In England at that time, two years ago, there were only four or five Asian British Muslims in national broadcasting. I was working for GMTV — Europe’s biggest breakfast show — and I was reading their news bulletins and travelling around as a reporter, when I was contacted by DawnNews. And so, it wasn’t something at that point in my career I was considering at all because I had never worked abroad, never lived abroad.
Q: How did your family respond? They must be worried about you living over here given the current security situation …
A: They’re all quite worried, I get a text every now and then: You okay? You safe? Or frantic phone calls whenever something happens, but they’re also very used to the fact that I’m a journalist and I travel around a lot — and throughout my career I’ve been doing it. When I first told my mom that I’d be moving to Pakistan and I had this offer, she was quite shocked. May 12 had just happened. But, ultimately, when I had to make the final decision, my mum just sat me down and she said you’re my brave beta. I know you can do it. I’ve always been encouraged by my family to do what I want and they have faith that I will ultimately find the right way of doing something I want.
Q: Did you have any apprehensions yourself?
A: I actually didn’t think about it. First and foremost, I’m a journalist — and that’s actually very important to remember. I didn’t think of how hard or how tough it would be to live on my own. It was more of just how will this enhance my career, or how will my career change once I’m there. When I got here, there was no water or electricity in my house and I thought, ‘oh good God, what have I done?’ There are days when you have to wash your hair and look glamorous in the evening and the tap is dribbling. If you can get past all that, Pakistan is an amazing place to live in and I really love living in Karachi.
Q: Were you in tune with Pakistani politics when you were there?
A: That was the hardest thing for me. It was only after I came here that I realised how many layers there were and how complex a situation it was.
From the guy I buy my fruits and vegetables from, to the taxi driver, I can speak to anyone about politics. Everybody is just obsessed with politics here, and I think that is both good and bad. It was a real shock to my system, because in England people are ambivalent. We take for granted [the fact] that we have had democracy and we have had transparency to a certain extent. But here because people have been starved of it, there is a certain intrigue to what’s going on.
For me that was the steepest learning curve, to come here and learn through all these layers, and dig deep through them, to find out what’s what and how things operate.
Q: You tend to ask very direct questions. How do you deal with guests who may not respond to such questions very well?
A: I think people who come on my programme know that they’re not going to have an easy time. And what I do spend time doing is, explaining to them that unless they come on the programme they are not going to have their say.
Q: You have been through two governments. First Musharraf’s and now Zardari’s. As a media representative, do you see any major difference between the two?
A: What is very interesting is that the previous government seemed to be far more media-savvy in terms of access to the nation. They were always willing to speak to the media and were far more accessible to us journalists. But you’ve got to give people a chance, you’ve got to give the [new] government a chance. That’s the main problem in Pakistan. To get to democracy, there is a process of evolution. Each time we go through an election, it is going to be slightly different and slightly better.
Of course, it’s easy for me to say this because I’ve only been here two years, had I been here for the last 62 years I don’t know how I would feel. But sometimes, you have to take a step back. This continuing vicious circle of democracy and dictatorship is only going to end when people give a government five full years. The reason people vote for the same people again and again is because they feel they were never given that chance. They may be wrong or right, but you need time to prove it.
Q: What role has the media played and is currently playing in Pakistan?
A: Access to information is important and the media is adding to all that. It’s about the quality of information you are getting, not the quantity. Sadly, the quality is really lacking in Pakistan. I’m not saying that my programme or my channel is the best. But I think we at least try to work towards being a credible channel which checks its sources. In Pakistan, because of the lack of transparency, there is so much of “according to a source,” “according to an official,” on every level. People need to be brave enough to stand up and have their say and say this is the truth, instead of all this cloak-and-dagger operation and information. We’re not doing justice to journalism if we’re constantly using unnamed sources.
I’m not saying that it doesn’t happen [in the West]. You read The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal, The Independent or The Guardian, they’re peppered with “according to a source,” but only on rare occasions on specific stories and issues. Not on everything.
So the bottom line is that the media has to be responsible for itself. Everyone, from tape editors who are cutting the pictures, to the journalist who is recording the interview on screen, to the cameraman who is filming them, right up to the top to the editors and the employers. I feel very strongly for the need for some kind of regulation. I feel it is very irresponsible to hand out 50-odd television licenses and to not come up with some kind of regulation. It just has to be a basic framework.
By nature, we Pakistanis are quite extreme. So when we think of regulations, we think of restrictions, we don’t think of: oh that’s good we have a framework to work with now. I have been a journalist for a decade now but not a very long time in Pakistan — and I come from a very liberal media. I am aware I have colleagues who have been through very traumatic times during dictatorships. They have been locked up, put in prison, threatened. That’s why I want to really stress the fact that I have only been here two years and that is not long enough for me to pass judgements on colleagues or TV stations or how they have developed themselves because I haven’t been through what they have been through.
The other thing is that there is no media training here. Not up to the standard I would like to see. That’s why I hope I’m making a contribution in a way that I’ve come here, set up my team, hired them all myself, interviewed them myself. Checking sources, checking the story, getting the right angle to the story, getting out the real issue behind what you see on the surface and really probing is what we do.
Q: What is objective reporting or objective journalism? Do you think objectivity is even possible?
A: Yes and no. It depends on what you do. If you are a reporter, you have to be objective. I always tell my team, you’re not Pakistani, you’re not Muslim, you’re not male, you’re not female, you’re not from a particular community or sect. You are just a journalist, you have to remember that when you’re reporting. That’s the key to being impartial and the key to good journalism.
Q: The general view the public has of the hosts or anchor persons of talk shows in Pakistan is a very negative one because they appear to be very opinionated.
A: That’s because they’re not all journalists. They’re presenting opinion as fact. This is a real lack of responsibility. It’s something I’m seeing every day, which really frustrates me and makes me very angry. You need to contextualise what you are telling people. In a place like Pakistan, where people might not have that level of literacy or understanding, television is one of the most powerful mediums, when you are telling the viewers something, explain what is your opinion and what is fact — seperate the two. For many people you are their only access to information. It is a huge weight on our shoulders. We really must recognise that.
Q: On a lighter note, what is a day in the life of Saima Mohsin like. Is it all work?
A: Yes. And some play. Well, I have a TV in my bedroom and usually when I get up in the morning, bleary-eyed I flick through the channels to check national and international headlines, what everyone’s covering, what their headlines are, what their angle is. Then I go through the papers.
Originally, I used to co-produce and I used to sit in on the meetings but now I don’t. I have slowly relinquished power so I could free myself up to meet contacts. I come into the office around two. I get acquainted with what the reporters are doing. I go into make-up around five and I am out by six; then I go through the scripts because they [the team] write me a script and then I edit it to my style. Six onwards, the time just goes so fast, it’s absolutely manic till we get on air.
Q: And what do you do for fun. Do you get time off?
A: I do get time off. Not as much as I used to. I work a five-day week but you are a journalist 24 hours a day.
But Saima Mohsin also loves to eat. She’s a real foodie. On my desk there will always be nuts, crisps, chocolate biscuits, cakes and fizzy drinks because I constantly need sugar. I also love going out and trying new restaurants and places, and I love to cook. I like having people over for dinner.
I love the cinema, which I miss because I don’t get to go in Pakistan as much as I used to, so I buy DVDs. I enjoy music, I enjoy singing. At the moment I am thinking of getting back into singing. I used to sing solo. I’m looking for a choir to join but unfortunately it all clashes with NewsEye.
Farieha Aziz is a Karachi-based journalist and teacher. She joined Newsline in 2007, rising to assistant editor. Farieha was awarded the APNS award for Best Investigative Report (Business/Economic) for the year 2007-2008. She is a co-founder and Director at Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum of Digital Rights.