The Pulse

BBC Urdu: A Conversation with Sairbeen Hosts Erum Gillani and Nosheen Abbas

The Diplomat spoke with the Pakistani hosts of BBC Urdu’s first TV program.

This year in February, BBC Urdu launched Sairbeen , a current affairs program broadcast on the local Pakistani television channel, Express News, with a team of all-female Pakistani presenters.

The Diplomat spoke with Sairbeen’s Erum Gillani and Nosheen Abbas about their meticulous training at the BBC’s headquarters in London prior to the launch of BBC Urdu’s first-ever televised program and the state of broadcast journalism in Pakistan today.

Both of you initially joined BBC Urdu as sports journalists for radio – how difficult was it to make the transition from covering sports on the radio to presenting current affairs news as television anchors?

Erum Gillani: The transition from sports to mainstream current affairs was initially a bit difficult. Current affairs and news is huge, especially in our country where the media industry has really grown in the last decade. The challenge was big.

Here a journalist has to be very well-informed, following stories and new developments round the clock. There’s no excuse for a mistake. For a journalist, information solely is not enough. We need to see the hidden stories within the stories in an unbiased fashion.

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As BBC news broadcasters or telecasters, we are not mere news readers. We work as the program’s producers and work really hard from the beginning of the day till late at night to develop the content and refine our productions.

Did you have to undergo rigorous training at the BBC, prior to the launch of Sairbeen?

Erum Gillani: My training started in November last year when we were due to launch in December. The program launched in February, this year. We underwent an intensive three-month training. We were trained by Maxine, a very senior and experienced BBC news anchor. She was lovely.

We had long sessions on delivery, facial expressions, posture, how to use one’s breath and were given some breathing exercises to practice at home as well. We were even told how to hold the script or pen in our hands.

In these sessions, reading the scripts from the teleprompter was not the only task. There were hundreds of other things we had to keep in mind while presenting the news. It was really tough and sometimes distracting as well. But it all became very smooth with practice.

Then there were other sessions presided over by speech therapists, dress stylists and makeup artists. It was all done quite systematically.

Erum GillaniYou’re part of the first team of all-female anchors for BBC Urdu’s first televised program broadcast on a local television channel in Pakistan. In your opinion, what is the future of broadcast journalism in the country?

Nosheen Abbas: Broadcast journalism in Pakistan has a long way to go, but it has come quite far from the state-controlled media monopoly we had prior to 1999! We didn’t consciously create an all-female team for a current affairs show; we ended up filling the positions because we were the most qualified.

What’s needed in the local media, or even the media in general for that matter, is training so that journalists understand the importance of being professional. And media houses in Pakistan need to treat their employees with more respect and accountability.

Erum Gillani: The future is great. Pakistan is a changed nation. Independent media in Pakistan has brought a lot of awareness to people. You cannot hide or fool them, especially when there’s e-journalism also in practice. People have smart phones in their hands and with internet access – everyone is a journalist.

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Even in the recent elections, we were informed about rigging in different polling stations by ordinary people who uploaded information (photos and videos) on social networking websites! President Obama’s first election campaign was successfully carried out by social media. We are now witnessing the impact of this new kind of journalism in different societies. The uprising in the Middle East and the resignation of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt are another few examples.

Pakistan is a great country with very progressive and intelligent youth. You have to come up to the expectations and standards of our readers and viewers or you are out of the game. So it doesn’t really matter who the team consists of, males or females, good quality work is imperative for the future of journalism in Pakistan.

Do you believe press freedom exists in Pakistan? If yes, what contribution do you think local television channels have made towards strengthening freedom of the press in the country?

Nosheen Abbas: In theory, Pakistan has freedom of the press, enshrined in its constitution as the right to free speech. And across a broad range of topics, that freedom is almost without bounds.

Yet there are other subjects that touch upon certain sensitivities in the country that often remained closed; critical examination of certain political parties, the unbound excoriation of allied nation states and certain religious principles come under this category.

Addressing these topics, though technically not restricted, can result in reprisals from powerful political machines, the military establishment and even the populace at large.

Though the media has the right to bring up any worthy, or even unworthy, subject for discussion, we tend to self-censor out of fear as the dysfunctional state apparatus does not have the capacity to protect free speech.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), in the past decade, over twenty Pakistani journalists have been murdered. While broadcast media in Pakistan may be thriving, local journalists aren’t provided enough security or protection. Please comment.

Nosheen Abbas: I think there are multiple reasons for this: the general state of law and order in the country has made it difficult for the state to provide protection for even its most valued citizens. In such an environment it comes as no surprise that journalists, who bravely choose to put themselves in harm’s way, are disproportionately affected.

On the other hand, the media houses of Pakistan are at least partly to blame as they do not place enough value on the their employees, and refuse to provide adequate HEFAT (Hostile Environments and Emergency First Aid Training) to their people. Nor does the government feel any obligation to improve the safety of journalists or provide vital information that may save their lives.

Erum Gillani: It was never safe before either. The journalist who raises his or her voice about the wrongdoings in Pakistani society is continuously victimized. But someone has got to do it.

I know our country is counted among the most unsafe countries for journalists, but our journalists are still doing their jobs. And I have faith that they won’t stop. As they say, journalism is in the blood of a journalist. You cannot make one and you cannot change one.

Sonya Rehman is a journalist based in Lahore, Pakistan. She can be reached at: [email protected].