Reporting from the frontlines
(This profile of Shazia Gul, who works for Internews in Pakistan, was published in this UNESCO report - Inside the News: Challenges and Aspirations of Women Journalists in Asia and the Pacific.)
Swat, in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province is a more conservative, tradition-bound part of Pakistan than the country’s larger cities. Here, a female reporter like Shazia Irum Gul is a rare sight.
However, Gul, who is an executive producer with Internews, thinks being a woman gives her an advantage over male reporters in certain ways. By virtue of her gender she is able to enter homes, communicate with women and draw out their perspectives on events and issues, which are usually not reflected in news stories.
Women’s voices are rarely heard in conservative regions like Swat because male reporters only have access to men; the women are hidden away, not permitted to interact with strangers. According to Gul, her endeavour always is to highlight the human angle in a news story and, in particular, to highlight the experiences, concerns and opinions of the women of the area.
Since Swat has been a hotbed of conflict for a long time, especially when the Taliban were in control of the region, Gul has personally experienced problems connected to reporting from a conflict-ridden area. In her experience, male colleagues were not supportive of female reporters working in the field. For example, only male journalists were invited to a press conference held after the military regained control of Swat, and Gul had to run from pillar to post before she was ‘allowed’ to attend it.
During question time, only male journalists’ questions were answered and they evidently did not view that as unfair. Instead of respecting her as a colleague they taunted her, implying that she was there just for a taste of adventure and was sure to run away at the sound of even a firecracker. Later, she even received threats that she would have to pay a high price if she continued with her work.
When she visited the press club in Mohmand Agency in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) after applying for membership, she was told not to come again because the lives of other members of the club had been threatened on account of her presence.
According to Gul, despite such experiences, she was not discouraged or afraid. Referring to her report on the floods in Swat in 2010, she said that while many male colleagues refused to go to the flood affected areas, she did and was able to file a report from the ground. The fact that reporters get no backing from media houses or the government in terms of security while working in dangerous territory is another problem highlighted by Gul. This is a serious issue since journalists working in frontier areas like Swat are often on the hit list of militants.
According to her, reporters working in conflict zones need to be sensitive and ensure that their reports would not expose any individuals involved in the stories to danger. For example, when she wrote about a German organization working on the rehabilitation of children who had been recruited by militants, she refrained from mentioning details from her interviews with the children recruits in an effort to protect them from harm.
Another reporter working in a remote and conflict-prone area said it is really important for reporters to go into the field, meet people and do research in order to highlight issues of social value. In a country like Pakistan, reporters whose work takes them to conflict areas need to be aware of the particular circumstances of each place and think of ways to minimise danger, she said. For example, “travelling by car in isolated areas would make your movements obvious – so it’s best to travel by bus. Also, it’s important to try and complete your assignment during the day as the darkness of night poses its own dangers”. She also stressed the fact that a supportive management that provides mechanisms that can minimise the dangers faced by reporters is also essential.