Lahore literary festival: Live with Lyse – for some lovely laughs
“Wrong accent, wrong background” — she may say so. But her reports from Afghanistan, the Middle East and Pakistan have made her into somewhat of a reporting icon in these parts. Now she is to make her appearance at the Lahore Literary Festival – Lyse Doucet of the BBC World:
Q. How did you get into journalism?
A. I finished my graduate studies in Canada in 1982 when the country was in an economic recession. I tried to find a job in journalism but was told I needed experience or a journalism degree. I had studied African history and politics and went to Ivory Coast on a volunteer assignment in a village. Then I went to the commercial capital Abidjan to start trying to be a journalist. The BBC was setting up their first office in West Africa. And there I was — wrong accent, wrong background, but they took me on. And I am still at the BBC!
It is a great privilege to be a journalist. So many people, including complete strangers, open their hearts and homes to you. But it also carries great responsibility.
Q: How do you manage to work all these regions, considering they are literally hubs of information?
A. I am very fortunate in that I tend to mainly report on regions where I have lived so I always feel that I am, in a sense, “going home” when I travel. It’s always more than just a story or my job. I am cautious as a journalist so I always want to talk to as many people as possible to make sense of any situation. I never assume I know the story before I arrive.
I am incredibly grateful for the kindnesses extended to me over the decades and the friendships which endure. That includes Pakistan which remains, for me, one of the most hospitable cultures I have lived and worked in. So when I received an invitation to the first Lahore Literary Festival I wanted to be there, partly because so many friends were part of it, and partly because it was such a nice way to come to Pakistan and focus on its rich culture and heritage, rather than the more negative stories that are often in the headlines in Pakistan and abroad. I am really looking forward to some great conversations, and some lovely laughs in a beautiful city.
Q. Pakistan and Afghanistan are considered two of the toughest places for women. What do you think are their challenges and what do their futures hold?
A. I have been privileged to meet many strong women in Pakistan and Afghanistan who play key roles in their societies, fighting on many fronts. Women do face major challenges in both these countries but… I have been inspired by so many extraordinary women I have met in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, some of whom confront incredible. In general, a society which tackles poverty and injustice will help an entire nation, including women.
Q. What has been your experience in reporting from Pakistan which is usually shown internationally as dangerous and volatile, with little or no tolerance for foreigners?
A. I cherish many wonderful memories in Pakistan between 1988 and 1993 and afterwards too. I first arrived at a critical time in 1988 when the country was returning to democracy and it was an exciting time for journalists. That was the period when mobile telephones as big as briefcases were introduced, which meant live reporting could take place. But I have also reported on devastating floods, and sectarian and political violence: terrible moments for the nation.
Sadly violence happens all too often and too many people live in grinding poverty but Pakistan is also a place of inspiring literary festivals, impressive fashion shows, world-class novelists, terrific cuisine, hospitable people, and wonderful humour.
No wonder so many of us keep coming back.
Q. In journalism today do reporters actually invest themselves into the people’s lives? Do you think that with the development of news media there is an increase in empathy? Which age of journalism do you consider as the Golden Era in terms of ethics and consideration?
A. Journalists and journalism come in all shapes and sizes. But I think journalism should always be about people, and telling their stories.
Q: It must have been an incredible experience to be present in Egypt during the ‘revolution’…
A. I will remember 2011’s Egypt as one of the most amazing moments in my reporting career. The moment was truly historic.
This was truly an uprising for change. You could feel the intensity of the euphoria and optimism at Tahrir Square. Slogans resonated around the world. Sadly Egypt is now a much less euphoric, less optimistic place. It seems it was relatively easy to bring down a regime, much harder to build a new one that is truly democratic. That includes the position of women who have been shocked and saddened that the solidarity soon evaporated.
Q. Throughout your experiences have you ever felt unwelcome or overly vulnerable as a female journalist?
A: For the most part, I have been extended kindnesses and protection as a woman, as a journalist, as a foreigner, wherever I have worked.
Q. Does gender make a difference when covering crimes or conflict in general?
A. Some people like to say men and women cover war differently. I don’t share this view. Sometimes, in conservative cultures, being a woman makes it easier to talk to women who live secluded lives. But I know men whose focus is always on the human cost of war, and women who are interested in the military details. I don’t think it comes down to gender.
Q. What would you say has been your most memorable journalistic experience so far?
A. There have been moments which mattered a lot to me including those I spent in Pakistan and then Afghanistan after the events of 9/11 and right up to the swearing in of a new post-Taliban government in Kabul. Natural disasters like the Tsunami in 2004-05, the Kashmir earthquake in 2005 and the floods also stay with me. Some things are terrible to see but it’s important to be there.
The interview was conducted via e-mail.