“There will always be censorship, but there will always be stories”

December 26, 2021

A conversation with Mahim Maher (MM)

“There will always be censorship, but there will always be stories”

Mahim Maher is the editor for SAMAA TV’s digital properties. She is a seasoned journalist who has worked as city editor for the Karachi metro sections at Daily Times and The Express Tribune. She writes on urban issues in Karachi, mainly focusing on city government, roads, transport and water. Mapping has been an integral part of her reportage, a notable first being the Karachi crime map that she created for The Express Tribune.

In this email interview with The News on Sunday, Maher talks about the challenges of a digital newsroom, scope of investigative journalism, the overall evolution of media and how English is the most challenging aspect of journalism in Pakistan.

The News on Sunday (TNS): Pakistan has always been a challenging country for journalists and journalism. When you look back at your career, what remains the most challenging aspect of being a journalist here?

Mahim Maher (MM): English. English is the most challenging aspect of journalism. I say this as a subeditor who has worked on reporter copy and as a desk head who has managed subeditors. People struggled with English in English newsrooms. It is criminal, actually and belies a deep anxiety we have about the language. People who did not get a good grounding in the language are eternally battling it to prove themselves. Twenty years later I find myself still explaining a comma that sits on both sides of an embedded phrase.

TNS: Tell us about a story that has been the most satisfying for you, to cover or publish?

MM: In 2014 I did a long form piece at The Express Tribune on the entire business of how billboards are put up in Karachi, Skin City. It took me three months walking up and down Shahrah-i-Faisal with a measuring tape to map the billboards by size from Metropole to FTC. I always say the story isn’t done until there is blood. I was scared no one would be interested in reading about the nuts and bolts of the business, the KMC auction of sites, the welder’s yard where the poles stripped from Gadani ships are prepared, the soil testing reports for when they sink the poles into sand at Sea View… the kickbacks, political skins thrown over existing paid-for billboards. I was unsure of myself as I soldiered on out of my own sheer interest. It was my first big data and mapping story. The satisfaction wasn’t about how readers or the newsroom reacted, but out of my own ability to answer a long-standing question of how this business worked. I don’t care about the reader; I care about knowing there is no information left to uncover in this masculine world. No question left unanswered. It was also satisfying because my editor’s 13-year-old daughter actually read and understood the entire piece. If a kid can, then anyone can, I figured. Memphis Barker of The Economist called me years later when he was writing a piece on the same topic. So international validation …

TNS: Politics appears to be a major obsession for the media the world over. Would you agree that in Pakistan, the obsession is more pronounced? And if so, does this fascination come from the perception that only politics in the country is newsworthy, or is it merely lazy journalism?

MM: I do not think it is more pronounced here, if I weigh up the journalism I read from elsewhere in the world. Our journalism coverage is sycophantic at best and shallow due to lack of ability to wield language at worst (or vice versa). Reporters like proximity to power and feel politics is the most prestigious beat. I find it overrated. When was the last great profile or piece you read that really captured the essence of power dynamics without being cryptic or assuming prior knowledge? When did you read a piece that made politics relevant to you as a voter? We should cover sewage with the same interest.

TNS: You have led a team that has focused much on urban issues and getting down to the heart of things even when local journalism – dealing with localised social and urban issues – may not appear all that attractive for mainstream news media. What drives you and your team to stay focused on this form of journalism?

MM: I cannot explain why urban infrastructure and systems and how a city is run fascinates me. Arif Hasan has asked me many times why I am a “gutter ki queen.” I was born in London and so my first experience of the built environment was a good one. In Karachi, I am psychologically disturbed till today that we can’t have good pavements. I am driven to keep reporting and commissioning on Karachi (I don’t care about other cities) because it is such a rich city to report on, with such a wealth of people who understand it. Its solutions are so simple (OPP etc.), it suffers at the hands of decision-makers and its own people. I am driven and my team is dragged kicking and screaming to do the coverage as well. They all groan when I triumphantly declare, ‘This story needs a MAP!’ They have no choice. Imagine my glee when the rains flooded DHA. Aha, I thought, you guys all ignored my reporting on sewage and now you want to know how a sewage system works. It’s the only thing you could not buy for your mansions. It’s a collective thing. Everything else you could order in your bubble. My story, Crazy Rich Karachi, on why the city is so rich but its city government so poor was one of our most-read ones after rains. I was vindicated.

TNS: There has been a rise in independent digital news platforms, away from the mainstream, offering greater diversity and innovation in news while appearing to challenge censorship dictates. How do you assess this situation in terms of the media landscape in Pakistan?

MM: It was inevitable and the best will survive and thrive. Big media will peter along but be less relevant to new audiences on mobile phones. Generation Z doesn’t need big media. It doesn’t report for them. They know censorship. So apps and social media are allowing them to cut through the ‘BS’. They will suffer, however, when they will start to feel the need for independent reporting they can trust. We journalists will either have to understand this or flail around wondering what happened to our jobs.

TNS: Digital platforms have also offered personalities, often referred to as “YouTubers”, a greater access to the people to produce content without the traditional interventions of mainstream media. But this has also spelled trouble in terms of the kind of content being packaged as journalism for a digital hungry audience, and that too in the absence of editorial gatekeepers. How do journalists navigate through this information flooding being done in their name?

MM: They have no navigation skills. Tame prime time TV anchors all start their YouTube channels and mimic YouTubers but fail. Independent journalists have still managed to wrangle some space. Younger journalists who are more digital savvy understand this but don’t have the editorial heft to ensure consistent beat coverage. Old big media is struggling to pivot to digital. Audiences are watching all this stuff and being discerning. But there are huge schisms that will hopefully narrow. People know when a story stinks. There is enough spirit of dissent to ensure, for the most part, the crap doesn’t stick.

TNS: What are some of the major challenges in running digital news platforms, when likes and shares are used to determine the “success” of news coverage or digital news platforms?

MM: The tyranny of the maw of a digital newsroom which needs to be eternally filled. The tyranny of digital audiences and their preferences. Google analytics has given me chronic anxiety. The numbers are an illusion. If you read Korean German philosopher Byung-Chul Han, he lays bare what digital is doing to us. I will walk away from it soon. Burnout is a challenge. Ignoring the audience is a challenge and knowing when to listen to them is a challenge.

TNS: Has there been any mentionable innovation in the digital news media in the country?

MM: I don’t pay attention to this stuff. I’m too busy fixing commas and trying to wrangle stories from TV for digital. Any free time is spent with my dog and trying to keep a lid on irreverence.

TNS: What is the scope of investigative journalism in the current environment where journalists are challenged with limited resources, especially finances, on one hand, and censorship and a sense of unprecedented clamp down on journalists on the other?

MM: Lots of scope. Lots of stories. Nothing should ever stop the story. I stopped seeing journalism from an impoverished mindset a long time ago. There will always be limited resources and censorship. There will always be stories and ways of doing them. I’m not letting it get in my way. I am naive and stupid like that.

TNS: In the end, what is your biggest fear and biggest hope in terms of journalism in Pakistan?

MM: My biggest fear is seeing a hyphenated adverb. Otherwise, I am fearless. Journalism will keep happening and getting better and it is already with all the brilliant, smart young people who are still coming to our newsrooms and doing data and mapping and python and coding and small stories and asking questions and paying attention. They are my hope. I am my hope. I can’t do anything else.

The writer is a member of staff. She can be reached at wajiha.hyder9@gmail.com and tweets @wajihahyder

“There will always be censorship, but there will always be stories”