Well known face of Indian Journalism, Suhasini Haidar, is Diplomatic Editor of The Hindu. She has also worked with CNN and CNN-IBN. Over her 22 years long career, Suhasini has covered the most challenging stories and conflicts. From Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Libya to Syria. She is the only journalist to have interviewed Former PM Manmohan Singh and his family.
In this interview, she talked to us about all the above-mentioned things in detail.
How did your interest develop in journalism?
I was always interested in the news and used to read a lot of current affairs throughout my childhood. And I guess when the opportunity came along to first work in a film and then to apply for a journalism degree, it seemed an obvious choice and the rest just followed.
In which film did you work?
(Laughs) I worked in a documentary for Doordarshan in 1992 while I was in college. I enjoyed the process so much that I decided to apply for a masters in broadcast journalism in America. And that became a kind of launching thing for me. This made it quite clear that I enjoyed journalism. I was actually studying statistics at Lady Sri Ram College. I enjoyed it and I still find statistics a very useful subject. But I didn’t have the same kind of passion for it that I did have for journalism.
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How was your experience while doing masters and how did it help you in your career?
The thing about studying journalism is that of course, it’s a profession, a vocation and people learn a lot of it on their job. But it is important to have a degree in journalism, to study journalism.
One, because you are taught the best practices, and in today’s world, it is more important to get the ethics of the process right. Then it helps us to even know how to do things. Before you pick up a camera, before you write your story, it is important to know what are the do’s and don’ts of journalism. And that is something only a degree can really ingrain in you. So it was very important to do the masters at that time. And I certainly tell young students, who ask me how to get into journalism, to try and get a degree before they come into the newsroom. Because once you hit the newsroom you will learn a very different set of skills. But the original skills, which are about introspection, about doing journalism of a certain principle, will come only by studying journalism.
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Which was your first job in journalism?
My first job in journalism back in India was at a small outfit of Mexican television in Delhi. I did that for a few months, before I got a job with CNN, for the CNN south Asia bureau. And I was a producer and reporter there for the next 10 years.
How did you get the job at CNN?
I started out because I was doing my degree in America and I applied for an internship. And internship is not paid in television. Nobody pays you for an internship. And for many people they think they should rather get a job instead. But I always think that it’s important to do internships. Because if you like journalism, you will love it from the first day. If you are not going to like it you will hate it very quickly, because of the kind of work and the kind of details that go into it, and the lack of obvious rewards. You don’t really earn much money and become a very important person in journalism.
You essentially do journalism because you want to be a journalist. And that is a reward in itself. So if you take that into account then it is necessary to know whether you will like it or not, because suppose you are to put the same amount of energy and time that you put into doing our job, say a bank or investment firm or some kind of business, you would probably make a lot more money. So you have to really know that this is where you want to be.
While working at CNN which was the most difficult report you undertook?
Every kind of story is new and different. I certainly got into a few stories where I wasn’t really well prepared, and I really landed myself into risk as a result of that. I don’t think journalists are the obvious target, but you can become a casualty. When I was in Kashmir for example, in 2000, I happened to be there when a car bomb went off. We were trying to cover that and I got injured. So I think the important thing was the lesson I learnt from it. It put me in trouble for some time because I had surgeries. But more than anything else, it taught me a lot.
Any memorable incident while working at CNN?
There are a lot of them. But I think the most memorable ones are the stories that had a kind of impact on everyone. You do a small story on a child who is studying in a school but can’t afford a pair of shoes, and within a week people start donating shoes to the boy and to the entire school. We went to cover a kind of social evil in a village. We brought a spotlight on it, and the government took action.
We went to cover a Tsunami in 2004 and as much as we were laid down by the sheer losses of the people. They lost their children, they lost their home, they lost their businesses. We were also amazed by the sheer generosity of people around the world who didn’t really know these people but they were sending money, food, and clothes. So I think what remains with you is an enduring feeling that what you are doing does make a difference. That is really most memorable.
What is it like to come back to work at a national channel, after working for a decade at an international channel?
It’s very different, it’s a completely different side focus because initially you go from explaining India to the world to explaining the world to India. I am more of a correspondent for CNN South Asia bureau, which made me travel to Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and all around India to become the foreign editor at an Indian channel.
Now I was travelling to Pakistan certainly but I was also traveling to Libya, Syria, etc. to cover stories from there. So it’s literally like the opposite of working for an international Channel vs a National channel, but I think I enjoyed both.
What are the major differences between the way of journalism in India and abroad?
I don’t think there is that much of a difference to be honest. Journalism in its purest form is the same wherever you are, whatever part of the world you live in, and whether you work for a magazine, television, or a newspaper. You will end up doing journalism the same way.
But there are some cultural differences. There is an idea that, in the west, system is the most important and in India perhaps personality takes the front page and there is this idea of glamour that is attached to television, but in actual fact none of them is really a lasting thing. The lasting thing is the kind of journalism you do.
Television journalism is considered to be more powerful and glamorous. So why did you leave CNN IBN?
I had, by then, done 20 years of journalism and I felt the need for more challenges. And to be honest, over the period of time, (don’t laugh when I say this) the whole physical aspect of television journalism, carrying the tripod, ensuring that the satellite connection works, getting your tapes out, editing your tapes, making show audios, and the whole physical aspect of it takes up time, and I began to feel like that I wanted to be more analytical. I wanted to spend more time with my thoughts. I wanted to write about what I was seeing in a more considered way. Also, I have never been a print journalist, so I felt that this was the time to try something new, and I got an offer, which honestly, I was very excited about. I have to say that I don’t regret it.
On which skills should a student of journalism focus?
There are some skills that cannot be taught. One is love for news, another is interest in people and getting to meet new people. Third is courage. And, fourth is integrity. These are the skills that you cannot learn, you either have them or you don’t have them.
But there are lots of other skills which journalists should focus much more on. One is their computer skills, and their ability to get a story out as quickly as possible. So it is not an excuse to say that I am a good journalist but I can’t work on a computer, and I can’t figure out the technology involved in getting my story out. So the first thing I say is technical skills.
Secondly, we are losing bit by bit, the art of reading, and any new student of journalism must read more and more and ensure that at any time in their profession they should always have at least one or two books with them that they are reading which keep them up to date with their own profession.
The third thing I would say is the language skill because much of journalism depends on it. You must try and learn other languages, you never know which part of the world you might be in. Whatever languages you know, make them better.
I think if you have armed yourself with these skills, the rest will follow.
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What are the initial challenges for a journalist?
Initial challenges are the hard work, the long hours, and the idea that you are not actually getting a by line or that you are not able to break your own story. The great thing about journalism is that everyday you wake up and you will have a new story to do. You don’t get bored.
But I think the biggest challenge is that there are unrealistic expectations from the kind of salaries and glamour this profession offers. People think that this is a glamorous profession which is good and nothing can be farther from the truth. So I think if you have these unrealistic expectations, then it becomes a challenge. If you are just there to do your story and to try and get a better story tomorrow, and full of enthusiasm, like to see the world, like to meet people, I don’t think there is any challenge.
Please give a brief overview of today’s Indian Journalism.
Indian Journalism is passing through one of its drastic phases in the sense that we have not yet evolved in terms of television because it’s a newer medium in India and it has the dangers of political partisanship which should be avoided.
A journalist have often complained about the problem of Lutyens’ media. What is the problem with Lutyens’ media? The problem is… the term doesn’t exist.. whoever comes to power, there will always be some journalists who have more access as compared to others. The problem arises when that access becomes the only kind of journalism you do. So, you do stories in order to maintain your access and then that becomes a kind of vicious circle. I think Indian journalists are yet to understand that the value of journalism they do has to be regardless of whether they have access or not. However, access certainly helps. But an actual story does not count on knowing people, it counts on good research, leg work, kind of tenacity and persistence you have. These are the things that somehow keeps pushing you instead of just focusing on whose bites did you get, who have you interviewed, and where did you get the story from. The question is how good your story is?
You have received several awards. So how helpful are these awards in the career?
To be honest, in journalism, it’s a cliche to say, but your work is your reward. Secondly, when you are being judged amongst your peers and you are not sure if an award necessarily means that someone worked less than you or more than you, you must bear in mind that prominent awards are basically encouragement to journalists to keep doing good work. That’s how I see them. But I don’t think that it changes you as a person and journalists should not be graded on weather they have won awards or not. Some of the best journalists in the world never won even one award.
You have extensively reported from Kashmir. So if you would have to give your opinion, what are the solutions to the Kashmir conflict and is our government taking necessary steps to solve the problem?
The answer to the first part is that the situation in Kashmir keeps changing. You need peace there in order to start talking about resolution. But unfortunately, the problem is that the moment there is peace, absence of violence, people stop talking about the resolution. It should actually be seen as a window of opportunity. The people should then start working on a resolution.
What does the resolution involve? In my years of journalism and covering Kashmir, I have understood that borders are not going to be redrawn. So, despite the fact that Pakistan lays claim to Jammu and Kashmir, and despite the fact that our own parliament and our own government has said that we are going to take back every part of Kashmir that is occupied by Pakistan, the truth is that if you have given up land in a war, you are probably not going to regain that land without another war and I don’t think that is really the solution.
If you are willing to accept that the current Line of Control will eventually become International Border then you have to start working backwards. What will be needed in order to make that an International Border? How will you make it easier for the Kashmiris who will be divided across this border to see each other? I think Kashmiris have been involved in the discussion since the last decade by both India and Pakistan but never really brought on to the front burner and not certainly on the front channel. I think that is the controverse of what will be a solution at the end. It certainly has solution that neither India nor Pakistan…the people in Jammu and Kashmir have objected and rejected. So it’s one of the few places where you see a kind of consensus and I think one could still notionally work towards that.
Last few years have seen an upward shift in violence not only on the Line of Control but also within Kashmir. It’s one thing to say at the Line of Control, we have an army which can protect us, but when we start talking about insurgency inside the territory, these are eventually Indians. You have to treat them in a different way. Even the Army chief, when asked in an interview a few weeks ago, said that there is no military solution to Kashmir. If that is the case, then what is the non military solution? The solution to this is political. In order to have a political solution one must eventually have some kind of talks on what would be a resolution. So we come back to the same psychos that we have seen in the past in Kashmir. But I don’t think we have a way out of this, if you are asking for a resolution.
Interns from all the fields often complain that they didn’t get paid. So, if an intern is working in a media house and learning while working 10am to 4pm; should they be provided with at least the minimum wage rate?
That’s a hard thing to say. If you want to make that a requirement, I fear that a lot of news agencies would just say – well, then we don’t take interns. However, it is important for people coming into this profession to intern to understand whether they want to do this for the rest of their life or not.
Which 5 people would you like to interview if given a chance?
Oh dear! I would have to think for even one name, but I’m sure I would like to interview both, Mr. Trump and Mr. Obama. I would have loved to interview Ahmad Shah Massoud (an Afghan political and military leader) but he died in 2001.
How did you access the interview of former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh?
That was a very strange one because from the day he took the office, I had been writing to Miss Gursharan Kaur as a journalist and I used to send a letter every few months, saying, I would like to interview her and her family. As luck would have it, she agreed to an interview along with her daughter. They had gone into an election campaign, so in order to interview the Prime Minister, I followed him on the campaign trail and I was told that it may not be possible and it may not happen. But then one day I was told that if I went to the place where he was giving a speech, just outside Amritsar, I can get half an hour with him in a cooler shed. He spoke about the Kashmir solution at that time in 2009. Then a few months later, they invited me back to interview them with children for Children’s Day special. I didn’t actually interview him but the children did and I moderated that. That was also the time when I think there was more access to our leadership. Over the years that has become less and less.
Several journalists allege that the present Government has been ruthless in intimidating and influencing the media. Would you like to comment on it?
I think what has started that feeling..let’s be fair everybody has example of the Emergency behind us. We know where this can lead. It is quite likely that all of us are more aware of any kind of restrictions on the media. No doubt this is a very sensitive government in the sense that they do react badly to criticism of any kind and they are quite prepared to push back when it comes to any kind of criticism regardless of whether it is correct or not. We often hear the government officials asking, what was the need of doing this story?
Now there is a self-censorship. You yourself, before you put out this story, would think thrice, because it is such a sensitive government. And finally there are threats of cases that we see on various media owners which seems to be a signal to journalists in general, but at the end of the day, I think, in a democracy, journalists are often required to put it against the government and need to take those positions. We need to be on the opposite side because that is the best thing for people in a democracy.
So long as there is respect for each other’s role, the rest of it will follow, and by that I mean that the problem that we face most of the times with this government is that, not only it dislikes the media, it doesn’t see a need for the media. If you like to cover a story which involves any big government initiative and related things, you will not even get close to the story.
I do think that the question is the existential one. Does the government feel that the fourth estate is needed? The moment you use terms like ‘prestitute’, ‘news traders’, you are certainly saying the journalistic community is irrelevant. There is a bad side in every community, there are bad journalists and good journalists, then there are unethical journalists and ethical journalists, but by saying that the press community as a whole is corrupted, I think the government tends to negate them in a way which is not necessary. I think in any democracy you do need the press to be as a provision which is not necessarily a government provision. So they should not take it badly when stories don’t appear exactly as they dictate.
You have also reported from Pakistan. Being an Indian how is it to report from Pakistan.
Reporting from Pakistan is always very interesting for an Indian because we have grown up with such beliefs and over the years we have built a very strong wall in the minds of Indians and Pakistanis. We just don’t think beyond the border. We assume that across the border is a completely different country. I think it always shocks an Indian when they travel to Pakistan and realize there are many things in common. Having said that, I think they have also gone their own way. So I’m not saying that we are the same country, I am saying we have many basic similarities. We appreciate the same humour and have a very similar culture in many respects. So I think that is always interesting. Pakistani elections have been particularly interesting for me because you get to see how the politicians and the parties involved have not really changed that much in the last 20-25 years unlike the way we have seen a greater churning in India. With the exception of Benazir Bhutto who was tragically assassinated, most of the leaders have been talking ambiguously. It’s a very interesting time and they really do enjoy their elections.
I think the downside in Pakistan’s history is the extreme surveillance that one goes through and as an Indian journalist you often not just have surveillance, you also have people following you. On some occasions, these people get very aggressive and violence takes place. However, I have been told that this is a reciprocal event.
Unfortunately, over the years, comparatively less Indians have visited Pakistan and less Pakistanis have come to India.
What would be your message for students across India?
My only message is to be honest to whatever you do. If you treat your work as what you love, you will never have to worry about working or working long hours. As long as you are honest to your profession and commitment you will eventually find success in it.