In Pakistan, journalist Shabina goes green

IN Media Practice | 02/06/2010
By putting environmental issues on the agenda in the Urdu Press, Karachi-based journalist Shabina Faraz was able to tap the mass circulation of that media, and take green concerns to an entirely new audience.
TERESA REHMAN profiles her in an article for Women~s Feature Service.
A cynical editor from a leading Urdu newspaper in Pakistan once told her, "Who would read drab and lacklustre stories on environmental issues? You have exceptional writing skills. You should concentrate on political writing." 

This observation, fortunately, did not deter Karachi-based journalist Shabina Faraz from pursuing her passion for the environment. Today, she is credited with having introduced environmental issues in the mass-circulation Urdu press in Pakistan. Through sheer persistence, Faraz managed to push her climate stories into the vernacular media, past unyielding editors, and eventually won the hearts of many of her readers. So much so, that the same editor who had advised her to concentrate on politics earlier, proposed to start a regular page on environmental issues, although he still remained skeptical: "Are you sure you will find enough issues to write regularly on the environment?" he had questioned. Of course, his skepticism was well-founded: The Urdu press normally did not have much to say about environmental issues. 

For Faraz, however, there was no looking back. She recalls how things changed so much, that her writings went on to actually influence government policy. For instance in 1999, the authorities gave a petroleum company permission to undertake exploration activity in the Kirthar National Park, located in the Kirthar mountain ranges of Sindh. Spread over an area of 308,733 hectares, it was Pakistan’s first National Park to be included in the 1975 United Nations's list of National Parks around the world.

Protesting against the exploration activity was not easy. Although civil society groups and NGO activists had taken a stand against the government's decision, the media was indifferent to it. There was only one television channel, PTV, at that time and it was government-run. "There were hardly any private players in the electronic media in Pakistan then. The media boom started only much later -- in 2002. In such a situation, the role of print journalists assumed importance," recalls Faraz.

Slowly English newspapers started focusing on the issue. Faraz was the lone campaigner in the Urdu media, which reaches out to hundreds of thousands of ordinary readers. As an editor of the Urdu environmental weekly, 'Jareeda', supported by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), she wrote detailed and compelling reports explaining in layman's language what exactly a national park is, its importance and the legal aspects. After a two-year crusade, the government was forced into withdrawing its decision. 

For Faraz, this was a personal victory. She now found it easier to write on other environment-related issues. Support from her readers grew, followed by general public attention. She went on to win many accolades, including the Green Media Award (First Prize) 2009 for Recycling, the Green Media Award (First Prize) 2007 for Desertification, the Media Excellence Award 2007 for Industrial Pollution, and Green Journalist Award 1999 for Climate Change. Recently, it was a proud moment for her when she received the Green Journalist Award 2009 from Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani. The award was in recognition of her work on the issue of climate change and women in Pakistan. 

Faraz had indeed come a long way. To explain her journey to the top, she goes back to her early experiences. Born in 1965 into a family with a strong literary background, it was a natural choice for Faraz to take up Urdu literature for her higher studies. As a child, she had read the works of Mirza Ghalib, Meer Taqi Meer, Meer Dard, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Muneer Niazi and Nasir Kazmi. "It was difficult to grasp many things then. But I was eager to learn," she says. Of course, there was one other thing that was close to her heart: the environment.

Equipped with a Masters Degree in Urdu Literature from the University of Karachi, she did not take the conventional path of joining academics, but instead started working as an Assistant Editor with the Jasoosi Digest Publications, the largest group of entertainment magazines in Pakistan. She wrote many short stories and translated classical stories from English to Urdu during this phase. Three television dramas and two documentaries in Urdu followed. While doing this, she also managed to introduce environmental issues in stories for the first time.

The turning point came when she was invited by the IUCN for a five-day workshop on Forest and Wildlife at Faisalabad. It opened a whole new world of possibilities. She started writing on environmental issues for the Jang group of Publications, the largest media group of Pakistan. "In Pakistan, 95 per cent of the readers read Urdu newspapers and 85 per cent readers read the Jang. I felt like I was doing something worthwhile now," she says. 

Faraz specifically recalls an issue that she had played up in her hometown. In 1995, Karachi witnessed unusually heavy rains. The old port city has two rivers, the Malir and the Liari, running through it, besides many rain-fed drains. However, the land mafia and influential citizens had encroached on the drains and, as a result, after the heavy showers, the entire city, including the posh localities, found itself reeling under flash floods. "We pointed out the illegal encroachments on the drains and the rivers. We even published the original maps of the city to clarify our position. Finally, after a month, the authorities took action and demolished many high rise buildings. I am happy that as a journalist I could manage to mould public opinion on the issue," she says.

It upsets her that most of the government's efforts on environment are only cosmetic in nature. "The Government of Pakistan declared 2009 as the National Year of Environment but they did nothing but organise two conferences," she rues. Faraz feels that the public is very apathetic to climate change and the environment and the media have to bear some responsibility for this. "Pakistan's electronic media revolve around politics and politicians and, of course, around stories of corruption. If they telecast any environment-related news they fail to cross-check facts and tend to regard every environmental issue through the lens of corruption and politics," she says. 

Faraz, however, sees the environment in a far broader perspective. This is why she created and supported the Forum of Environmental Journalists of Pakistan with the help of IUCN. Today grassroots organisations seek her advice; television channels HUM and AAJ TV invite her for talk shows on the environment; and even the regional language press like the Sindhi media, often reprint translated versions of her articles. She also works with BBC Urdu and has even written a book on environmental issues in Sindhi for children that will soon be part of the local school curriculum.

Currently, Faraz is engaged in an onerous task: Delving deep into the lost water resources of Pakistan like the legendary Saraswati river, which disappeared because of geographical and climate changes. "We have already lost three civilisations -- the Indus, Mohenjo-daro and Harappa -- to climate change and water scarcity," says Faraz. She hopes that history doesn't repeat itself and her work goes a little way towards ensuring this.
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