Sonya Rehman

The Diplomat’s Jonathan DeHart spoke with Sonya Rehman on the perils of being a journalist in Pakistan, the rising political awareness of Pakistani youth, and hopes that the next generation will ease the divisions with India.

Sonya Rehman
Sonya Rehman

“I am positive that the efforts of the youth in both India and Pakistan can and will act as a balm to ease the pain, prejudice, and misapprehensions that have taken root since partition.”

You’ve written extensively about working conditions for female journalists in Pakistan. Have you personally ever experienced hardship for your own journalistic work in the country? If so, what are some examples?

Thankfully, I never have. I think that also has to do with the fact that I have primarily worked as a part-time/freelance writer for local publications and newspapers since 2002, when I first started out. Also, over the past two to three years, I have shifted my focus to writing for foreign publications, blogs and digital magazines.

One can really luck out being a freelance journalist in Pakistan writing for foreign publications – mainly because you get to set your own routine, pace of work, and of course you get paid far better as compared to what Pakistani publications pay their freelancers (the rates are deplorable and payments are often delayed). Then again, it’s not all roses – because one has to keep deliriously pitching stories, literally going ballistic knocking on each and every door till one day, a wonderful editor takes notice of your frenzied emails and gives your story a chance, rather, gives you a chance. So yeah, being a freelance journalist has its pros and cons.

But for full-time local journalists – men and women – I think the main issue they face today is a complete lack of safety and security. According to the CPJ, 20 Pakistani journalists have been victims of target killing in the span of a decade. Of course there have been numerous other cases where Pakistani reporters and journalists have been picked up, threatened and tortured by intelligence agencies. But that all goes by unnoticed. Local journalists continue putting their lives in danger and working for peanuts.

Overworked, underpaid, their jobs are high-risk. It’s really distressing and at times one wonders if things will ever change for journalists in Pakistan and whether or not local media houses will finally wake up to the murders and threats and provide their staff with the security that they so rightly deserve.

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Do you see any signs that things are improving?

[This will not happen] until local media houses start paying better wages and begin providing security to their journalists.

You wrote about the recent election in Pakistan. From your experience voting and observing others around you cast their ballots, which political direction do you think Pakistani youth lean?

It’s hard to say. I don’t want to generalize. But I will state this: the Pakistani youth has suddenly become quite aware and curious about the socio-political condition within Pakistan. They’ve realized that if change has to come to Pakistan, it is through them, and them alone. Therefore, the conversation has begun – questions are being asked, and answered. The dialogue, the curiosity, it’s all a very good sign. And I’m extremely positive that out of this, out of this collective self-awareness, the youth will begin to make concerted, proactive changes in Pakistan. It’s already happening.

Rickshaws painted with peaceful slogans and imagery and politically critical pop music are two cultural phenomena you have highlighted in a few of your articles. Do you think these forms of soft power are having an impact on the dialogue in Pakistan today? Further, which type of approach – promoting peace vs. directly criticizing the existing order – do you think has a greater impact?

I think these cultural statements are making an impact, yes. Also, I think there should be a mix of both: peace promotion and being vocal, critical about the system. One can promote peace through art and culture and make a statement. It doesn’t necessarily have to be one or the other.

The Peace Rickshaw campaign is one such example, along with young Pakistani musicians who have recently begun producing music with a heavy socio-political bent. Apart from initiating dialogue, endeavors such as these are covered extensively in the local and foreign media. Which is super – the more exposure these efforts get, the greater the impact.

On the other hand it also promotes Pakistan’s softer side, which is quite vital today, given foreign media’s one-sided approach to reportage and coverage vis-à-vis Pakistan.

Another fascinating topic you’ve written about is The History Project, which seeks to encourage critical thought among the youth in both nations about the different ways that their tumultuous shared histories are portrayed in the textbooks of their respective neighbor’s schools. So far the initiative has been well received during an initial trial in Mumbai, with Indian children very keen to understand the Pakistani perspective of history.

Do you see any hopeful signs that youth in Pakistan and India could help usher in better ties as they mature and take on roles of leadership in their respective countries in the coming decades?

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Not only am I hopeful, I am positive that the efforts of the youth in both India and Pakistan can and will act as a balm to ease the pain, prejudice, and misapprehensions that have taken root since partition till today. The young leaders in Pakistan and those across the border, in India, share a lot of respect and admiration for one another. There’s a lot of curiosity too.

You see it in all these wonderful cross-cultural and student exchange initiatives. There’s real love there – a subconscious understanding of one another, because we were and are still one people. Politics has continued to ravage that notion, but deep down, there is a strong undercurrent of acceptance, if not, a want, a need, to ‘know’ the neighbor and re-ignite that long-lost connection again.