By Maheen Ghani
She faces off against some of the most influential people in Pakistan – if not the world – on live television and explores some of Pakistan’s most controversial issues every Friday through Sunday on her show, Lekin. Newsline sits with Sana Bucha for this exclusive interview to get the behind-the-scenes scoop on women in the electronic media and much more.
Q: Does the electronic media offer women a level playing field?
A: ‘Do we play fair?’ is the real question. Men will brighten up their boring suit with a colourful tie but we doll ourselves up. So I believe we do not offer men a level playing field.
Q: Talk shows have generally been regarded as a male domain. How did you manage to break through?
A: Women are everywhere. When I first joined Geo Television, I noticed there were lots of women working there – all kinds of women. There were women in hijab, women in jeans, gorgeous women and plain-looking women.
Back then, talk shows were mostly hosted by men, but I never really believed it was a ‘men only’ domain. I don’t think the media in general is male-dominated. But more importantly, I have never really thought ‘I’m not a man, therefore, I can’t do something.’ Actually, in our society, there are many fields more dominated by women than men. There is a perception, for example, that modelling is a women’s profession, not a man’s.
Q: When you are out in the field rather than the confines of a studio, how do people respond to you? Are they forthcoming?
A: I think the basic difference is that when you go out in the field, people want to talk to you. When you’re doing a show in an air-conditioned studio you need to call people in and beg them to talk to you.
I have done a lot of outdoor work and I think one of my best work was the outdoors shows I did, especially during the Swat operation. It was quite scary but it was exciting, and people wanted to tell you their story. When you are outdoors, there is a story everywhere. There is a story from the place where someone was killed and hung naked from a tree, to the place where there once used to be a little store that sold CDs and does not exist anymore. But when you’re in the studio, you have to create the story. You have to create the storm.
The Swat operation was my launch-pad. It was the first time I came on screen and it was actually by default. I never wanted to be an anchor – I hate criticism and I had no desire to pursue this career for too long a time. But things change.
Lekin is my baby, and that is certainly not by default. It is something I have created and it stands for who I am. It is the counter-narrative of the channel and society.
Q: Recently someone created a Facebook event accusing you of being a PML-N agent? Have you ever been accused of being partisan as an anchor?
A: Yes, all the time. These accusations come from the PTI and the party takes responsibility for them. Members of the PTI have often said things like “aapka tilt nazar aata hai” to my face.
I got Shahbaz Sharif on the show and I take full credit for that interview. He’s got 19 ministries under him and I am the one who exposed this on prime time. I asked Shahbaz Sharif if he thinks he is God and why he’s in charge of so many ministries and why he hasn’t established a health ministry. Subsequently, the fake medicine scandal broke. You will find all of these videos on YouTube. My critics should look at all my Lekin videos before they accuse me of partisanship.
Q: To what extent do Television Rating Points (TRS) determine the content and direction of Lekin?
A: At the end of the day I make the final decision. But my producer is very, very good and everybody on my team has an input. I have about seven people in my team and everyone from the non-linear editor to my senior producer has a say in what we do. This works because we are all on the same side and we all look at things the same way more or less. But sometimes we have differing opinions about specific issues and that also helps because then we have different perspectives and cover each side of the story, not just my side of the story. So while I decide the content, I don’t want to take credit for everything because there are some ideas that come entirely from my team. However, nothing is decided on the basis of ratings – although thankfully we have good ratings even with those stories I thought were not going to be popular.
I know what sells and what doesn’t but I don’t decide my content on the basis of what will sell.
Q: You have covered some extremely emotional stories like the one on the Sialkot lynching. Being a woman anchor, was it difficult for you to hold your emotions in check or did you manage to keep your cool?
A: I am a very emotional person. I try to be professional most of the time, but to be very honest, I am too emotional to be entirely professional. But, I think, the only reason I have created some sort of an impression is because of the way I am.
During my programme on the Sialkot lynchings, I was crying throughout. Regardless of who those boys were and what they had done, they did not deserve to be treated that way. We cannot be an intolerant society and we are not the moral police here.
I went to their house at the time their soyem was taking place, so it was not the most professional environment to begin with. The mother of those boys was far more in control of her emotions than I was. There was an uncle of the boys present who revealed gruesome details of how their bones were so badly broken that they had difficulty giving them the last ghusal. Hence, there were quite a few overwhelmingly emotional moments. I remember, I cried the whole way back on the drive from Sialkot to Lahore and on the flight from Lahore to Karachi. And I could not sleep for two nights.
I cannot take a certain Sana to work and bring home another Sana. I carry everything with me and I have a lot of emotional excess baggage. I bring home the stories from work all the time and I take to work most of the stories that are happening at home. I don’t know how to separate the two. However that did not stop me from doing my job. I was there to get the story out and I wanted my programme to be able to make people understand why it was wrong to kill those two boys. When people are going through such emotionally traumatic experiences they are not going to be sitting there looking pretty for your television channel. You have to be able to strike a chord with them for them to be able to communicate with you otherwise, you are going to walk away with the same kind of interview that most people did. There were four different programmes carrying the Sialkot story simultaneously over the next 48 hours, but I know that my show had an impact.
Q: Do you feel that it helps to connect with people in order to get a better story?
A: The only thing that will help you connect with people is feelings. When you step off the car and get on to the field you drop the whole facade of brandedness; you forget about wearing designer shades and carrying designer bags. I always go in my chaddar whenever I do outdoor shows. Also, I find it very pretentious for women to be totally made up particularly for such shows. For example, I saw that while reporting on the floods last year, some of my competitors wore too much make up and some were even wearing heels in the water. While I am sure that I have also made my share of mistakes in this respect, I feel that the more you look like the people you are featuring, the closer you get to them. It may not always work but it certainly makes it easier.
However, sometimes nothing works. I went to a village in the outskirts of South Punjab by boat which had become separated from its main town as its roads were now streams and had been completely eroded. When I reached there, people started to stone my cameraman and myself because they did not want to be photographed: they wanted to be fed and given shelter.
Q: You have interviewed several national and international figures. Has anyone been particularly intimidating or particularly patronising because of your gender?
A: Patronising, no. Intimidating, yes, although not because of my gender. I do not like Hillary Clinton at all. I have interviewed her twice but I feel she is too diplomatic. I know it is her job to be that way, but you cannot get a straight answer out of her and she is not comfortable with a one-on-one interview. So, whenever I have interviewed her, it has been as part of a group interview. I know that she does not want to say too much or give away too much, but I don’t like that arrangement. So the third time she was here and I was asked to go interview her, I declined.
I interviewed Harbiyar Marri in London and he was very difficult to interview. Firstly, he was so hard to get hold of and even harder to convince. And when I finally got to him in London, with my camera in tow, he just turned around and told me he did not want to give this interview. He hates anyone who will tell him that he’s wrong in sponsoring a separatist movement in Balochistan; he thinks all of us have sold our souls to the establishment. He is very difficult to talk to and with each question that I had asked, I was scared that he might get up and leave. In the end, however, it went well and I ended up asking him everything I wanted to.
Q: There is a general perception that in order to be taken seriously or considered as ‘one of the boys,’ women anchors have only gone for political stories and have refrained from tackling issues related to women. Is that true?
A: When I look at a story, I think, ‘how am I going to do this story without getting myself killed.’ For example, I want to do a story on how we treat are minorities, specifically, the Ahmadis, but I find that the perception exists that if you do a story on a minority, you are part of that community. For example, people ask me if I am Balochi and if that is why I do so many stories on Balochistan.
The only thing that I consider – and I can only speak for myself and not for other women because I do not how they gauge themselves – is that I want to do a story that is going to be of some service to society. The only time I do not do them is when I feel there will be some serious danger to my own life.
There are certain debates I cannot have, not because I am a woman, but because our society cannot take it.
Q: You have reported on some controversial and extremely sensitive subjects. Has that ever proved to be dangerous for you?
A: Yes, I have had serious death threats but I cannot tell you who they are from. The only reason I have not gone public yet is because I live in Karachi and anybody could kill me and then subsequently blame them.
Q: Who among the male and female anchors in Pakistan would you rate highly?
A: I would say Najam Sethi as I have great respect for him and he is somebody I aspire to be like. As for women, I do not even think most of them are worthy enough to talk about as they have no clue as to what they are doing and they are not really talk show hosts. It is very important for any anchor person – regardless of whether they are male or female – to know what they stand for. However if I had to choose, I would pick Munizae Jahangir as she has the knowledge, she has the content and she has the guts.
Published in the April 2012 issue of Newsline Magazine