Pakistan: “Someday I will write a book and tell the stories we can’t share now”
Farzana Ali has been working as a journalist since 1997. She is Aaj News TV Bureau Chief in Peshawar, the capital city of the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. She has reported extensively on human rights, militarisation and terrorism-related issues and shares with us her daily challenges in the field, her resilience and courage in times of danger and how she has responded to psychological traumas.
You have been uncovering stories of human tragedy throughout your career. What are your takes from this experience?
Covering human tragedy, in my experience, has been difficult, especially in the region where we live and work. As I work for the broadcast media, I have found that covering human stories in conflict areas – especially in those areas where a conflict has been brought and affected locals – becomes difficult, in particular, telling the stories of affected, victims and survivors as these are issues of national interest. We can cover and air stories on poverty, inflation, and even the public’s criticism of political issues and politicians, but reporting on those who are responsible for these wars – whose policies have been the reason why these wars broke out– is extremely difficult.
What was your most difficult experience in covering these events?
We have to work extremely carefully when doing these stories. For example, right after 9/11, we covered many things during the (military) operations carried out against terrorists and many things were aired. But in the second phase of operations, such as Operation Zarb-e-Azb (2014), the media was not able to cover the situation as freely as we did in the first phase. We had to edit a lot of things.
We cannot air the questions and pleas of the mothers of victims of the massacre in the Army Public School in Peshawar in 2014*. Similarly, the stories of missing persons – I worked on some of these, I met some of the parents, mothers, wives and children of the missing people but we can’t air the real feelings or questions of those mothers who are waiting for their loved ones. I think that we have been restricted and can’t work as freely as we should.
I think someday I will write a book and tell the stories behind the headlines; those stories we can’t share now.
What are the most pressing challenges for female journalists in Pakistan?
Personally, after 2008 I had many difficult experiences while covering stories, such as blasts in Peepal Mandi market** and Qissa Khwani market ***, and especially the incident at the Army Public School (APS) because we were told to follow some restrictions and cover the incident in a particular way. We were facing a lot of difficulties in airing the content of APS’s parents.
We also face many personal difficulties. I am one of the few women journalists of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa who had the opportunity to run live programmes at 7 pm during the conflict phase ****. I had to travel a lot for this segment, so my personal life was also affected and there was always a kind of threat looming especially when I was going to Bajaur (117 km Northwest of Peshawar) and Waziristan (367 km southwest of Peshawar).
At the time many were told not to go to these areas, but as a journalist, I thought I should go and experience things myself. I think it was a good decision as I got a chance to see the ground realities. If journalists aren’t aware of the ground realities, they don’t know anything. It is easier to ask others and get a story, but it will include the opinion and viewpoint of the person telling you the facts. When you experience things by visiting a place then the experience is completely different.
You have travelled to Afghanistan after the Taliban took over. What difficulties did you encounter in your reporting that you hadn’t faced before? Were any of these related to your gender?
Visiting and reporting in the tribal areas is always a difficult experience. About two years ago, I went to Afghanistan and the situation was quite different from the previous times I visited the country. I went in September; it was an extremely difficult experience, and we faced a lot of problems. The Taliban captured my team and I felt guilty that this had happened because I was a woman, and I could be the reason for this.
I knew that my team could get into more trouble for travelling with me, being a woman who is not their relative.
Sometimes while covering conflict zones, you have to make some split-second decisions, so to speak. We were told not to move ahead and go to Jalalabad – it was difficult to make a decision that could further endanger us. There was psychological pressure on me to be the “boss”.
The leader of the Taliban questioned my team as to why they were travelling with a woman when it was against the shariah, adding that women cannot be bosses according to the religion. That was quite alarming.
During our trip, we were able to film. We didn’t stop at any place for too long and we also faced problems because we came from Pakistan, but gender was an even bigger issue.
One thing that the Taliban were surprised about was that a woman was leading a male team, which could have also become a problem. Thankfully it wasn’t.
How did you deal with it psychologically?
While travelling in Afghanistan and getting caught, I was under tremendous psychological pressure that the news of our capture would reach my family – news had already reached the media fraternity. We were not the only teams to be stopped and picked, many media teams had been picked right at the border and kept all night. My family had reservations from the time I decided to travel to Afghanistan and rightly so. But as a journalist, I felt it was my duty to go on the ground to report and get the stories – especially give women a voice.
Another time I was really affected while reporting in conflict zones was when I covered the Army Public School (APS) massacre. I was extremely disturbed for a long time, and I even had to get therapy. I was emotionally affected and would cry at the slightest thing; it was quite tough. On top of that, I was running a weekly show, which at the time was constantly covering APS stories. We had to stop it eventually not because of the mental stress I was facing but also because we got a lot of other pressure.
The recent attacks against a mosque in Peshawar killing 100 people have marked a return to terrorism in the country. Do you take any additional precautions when you go into the field?
I think additional precautions are based on the circumstances and the decision of the journalist. You are alert not to go somewhere which could be dangerous, where there is a firing or something. Our media organisation has not provided us with any protective gear such as helmets or bulletproof jackets.
In 2008-09 when terrorism was high, we were provided with some bulletproof jackets at the Peshawar office but in 2011-12, when the situation went back to normal, they were taken back. When the mosque blast occurred, we were covering a live scene without any protection. After that incident, we realised once again that we should be provided protective gear, especially in areas such as Quetta and Peshawar.
If our teams do not carry protected gear, we avoid crowded areas or if we see any suspicious people, we alert the authorities. All the media usually stay together so that if required we can help each other and ensure that there are some police personnel with or near our group.
When I go into a conflict zone, I personally don’t share my location with many people especially when I am recording. I share my images or videos after I return. I don’t disclose my location.
We also try not to take risks that could be dangerous to us. Sometimes journalists and teams are asked by newsrooms to take unnecessary risks without being actually aware of the situation on the ground. This is something that should be discussed with the media teams.
Are there any gender stereotypes associated with the news coverage of the conflicts in Pakistan?
The situation is quite difficult. When I joined this field, I was told I was revolting against the customs and traditions of our society and region but over time people began to get used to women reporting in the field. The family is also affected when you join broadcast media as there are stereotypes. And when you work with men, it is an issue.
Social media has added to the issue, our opinions are not taken seriously in a male-dominated society. Women are also afraid that they will become subject to defamation, which deters them from joining the media.
Male colleagues can cause issues for women in the field, especially those who are doing a good job. I remember when I was running a show, I used to get a lot of pressure for doing a good job and I felt the pressure. When I became the bureau chief, I faced a lot of problems as it was hard for people to think a woman was moving up which meant she must have done something to get this promotion.
Some offices have no facilities for women. I worked in an office where there were no bathrooms for women. I asked my boss and was permitted to use my boss’s bathroom – which caused even more issues.
I was lucky I had my husband’s support as he is a former journalist. When I was selected for the post of bureau chief and I was doubting myself, he supported me.
Travelling to report from out of the station is an issue for many women, and then reporting on ‘hard news’ is also an issue. It is generally assumed women can’t work in conflict zones as they need proper, safe places to stay; other precautions need to be taken when women journalists are going to cover conflict zones or go out of the station. Many of our media organizations have not adopted Safety Standards Operating Procedures (SOPs) that make it easier for women journalists to work in the field which is why women are reluctant to do hardreporting such as reporting in conflict areas, covering crime and terrorism.