The Freedom Chat Transcripts: A Conversation with Naziha Syed Ali
The Freedom Chat is a new video series by Sampsonia Way featuring interviews with journalists and other media workers facing censorship and repression in their home countries as well as defenders of free speech. In these Q&A’s, conducted via video chat, journalists talk with Sampsonia Way about press freedom, anti-free speech legislation, and exile.
For our first segment we talked to Naziha Syed Ali, an Op-Ed writer for Dawn, Pakistan’s oldest English-language newspaper. She has also produced three documentaries: The Miseducation of Pakistan, Are We Keeping the Promise?, and Moving Mountains. She is also the General Secretary for Citizens for Democracy Welfare Organization, which is dedicated to increasing interfaith dialogue in Pakistan.
You can see the video conversation here. Below is the full interview.
When and how did you become a journalist?
When I was in graduate school in Pakistan, I was doing my masters in literature, and I was toying with the idea of either doing advertising or journalism. At that point I wasn’t quite sure, I just knew I wanted a career that had to do with writing and words.
Since then, how has the journalistic environment changed for you in Pakistan?
At that point, there was no electronic media, with the exception of television news channels. Even through print media, there were not many newspapers in publication. About 15 years ago, it really began to change. The amount of media and open news channels exploded. We now have over 25 news channels, and it’s a very lively scene. So it has changed a lot, in terms of the number of outlets available to viewers. It has changed in terms of content as well. Journalists are looking at a lot more things, but that brings its own set of problems because you can run into problems with the security establishment. There wasn’t near that much corruption back then. That’s for sure.
Have you ever been threatened or attacked for anything you’ve written or filmed?
I’ve come close to it. Inadvertently. I was making a documentary, Two Children of the Red Mosque with foreign journalists, and I had gone into an area that was high security. But we managed to talk our way out of it, and I think being a woman helped in that situation. After that, there have been instances where the situation seems to be a bit out of order. Once, I was working in a refugee camp on the outskirts of Karachi. We had a fixer, a local man, and close to sunset we could see he was getting really antsy. The men from the refugee camp work outside of the camp during the day, and they were coming back. He told us, “Get out of here!” We could sense some hostility and were being looked at in a way that makes me extremely uncomfortable . And lately, the last month or so, I have been working in Baluchistan. I wouldn’t call it a threat, but groups there have definitely let me know I’m on their radar.
Does this affect your work in terms of how you cover topics, or even what you cover?
Censorship is a huge reality for journalists in Pakistan. Depending on the story there are checks from multiple quarters, from the security establishment, governors, criminals, mafia, and political parties. There are a number of threats that you receive depending on what story you are doing. Of course, not all stories are like that. But the minute you start talking about Pakistan’s relations with India or Baluchistan, that’s when they start taking notice of you.
Are there any topics that you would not dare to cover?
Because it’s going to be in the public domain, I actually don’t even want to name the kind of things I wouldn’t do, living in Karachi. Threats from this group is something most Karachi journalists face. Anybody who writes about politics in Karachi is going to face intimidation and threats from this organization.
Have you ever been censored by an employer or a publisher?
There was a story I was doing on a particular party, and it did not get printed because it was a dangerous story. You constantly have to parse your words very, very carefully. You just have to be extra conscious that somebody could take it the wrong way. At the same time, give the information as best you can, it’s your job. I think that is what we should be doing, so somehow as journalists, we manage to.
Are there additional obstacles that you’ve had to overcome as a female journalist?
It might be a huge handicap in other aspects of life, but a lot of the time, people go out of their way to help women out of some weird, old-fashioned chivalry. It can actually help you; in some cases, it’s difficult to make contacts with women if you’re a man. To some extent you get an advantage.
In 2011, you talked a little bit about how journalism has become very sensationalistic in Pakistan. I think the piece was called, ‘If there’s no blood, there’s no lead’? Is that still a problem? Why do you think that has become such a trend?
It has become a trend because there’s a lot of competition, because “breaking news” reporting has developed. There is this desire to outdo each other. I think the way that electronic media has grown is based on competition. In the process, journalistic ethics are compromised.
You’ve also written a fair amount about the increase in blasphemy charges in Pakistan. Are there any precautions or specific rules that you follow in your writing in order to avoid a blasphemy charge?
Journalists are not that susceptible to blasphemy charges. It’s ordinary people that are at risk. When you’re writing about a blasphemy charge, you actually need to be careful to not make the situation worse for the person who is accused. You can’t put them in further danger. You have to be careful when you’re writing so you don’t further compromise their safety.
You’re also the general secretary for the Citizens for Democracy Welfare Organization?
Yes, but that has been dormant for a long time. It was formed after Salmaan Taseer, the Governor of Punjab was murdered. Those involved in his murder said that he was committing blasphemy by working against the blasphemy law. The Citizens for Democracy started in the wake of that. We brought a lot of people and organizations onto one platform to give space to progressive thought.
How does the lack of a platform for open dialogue affect journalists?
Well simply because, if journalists could have a platform to discuss these issues it would be a lesson to ourselves on how to be better journalists. Recently, there was an attack on a media group, and they have now stopped reporting on the militants, or even writing editorials about what has happened. A better strategy would have been to band together with other journalists, other media groups. Instead, we are all more in danger. We are more vulnerable.
Since 2011, 31 journalists and media workers have been killed in Pakistan. How is this affecting you and other journalists psychologically?
There’s more censorship. There are more stories journalists don’t do. More stories where you have to be careful that you sanitize the content. But one good thing that has happened was that, recently when one journalist was murdered, his killer was convicted.
And how do the media cover these killings?
One journalist, Saleem Shahzad was covering the infiltration of militants into the navy, and he was murdered, and journalists were really up in arms about that because it was brutal murder, and there was a strong suspicion about who was responsible. So it was covered in the electronic media especially. Originally the authorities were doing nothing about it, but after the coverage, they had to look into it. But there are several murders that don’t have coverage or are not extensively covered by the media.
What is the effect of this on citizens? How involved, aware, or concerned are they about these killings?
If they are covered extensively in the media, some of the cases become noticed. But to everybody else in Karachi, I don’t think it affects them as much. They are dealing with their own security issues as well.