The people of Swat were caught in the middle. “The media in Swat were under pressure to give positive coverage to the Taliban,” Malala writes in her book. “But many local journalists were unhappy about what was happening to their valley and they gave us a powerful platform, as we would say things they didn’t dare to.” In such a situation, Malala’s voice stood out. In an interview by ATV, Pakistan’s only private Pashtun-language channel, Malala was interviewed for the first time, along with a dozen or so girls, “about girls dropping out of school due to the militancy.”
Malala instantly impressed. While most other girls stopped appearing for fear of reprisals by the Taliban, Malala began offering herself for more interviews. With the support of her father, she developed her skill at reading journalists and responding to their questions. Malala also became a faithful believer in the power of the interview to change the course of history. One day, in 2007, she arrived at the offices of Geo News, one of the largest TV news outlets in Pakistan, and saw a wall of screens tuned to dozens of stations broadcasting simultaneously in Pakistan. Malala had an epiphany: “The media needs interviews. They want to interview a small girl, but the girls are scared.” But she knew that she was different. “I have a father who isn’t scared, who stands by me.” Malala submitted to the power of the media with the zeal of a convert.
Malala burst onto the international English-language news media scene, anonymously and unexpectedly, in 2009. An editor for the BBC’s Urdu service was searching for a female teacher or a young girl who could document her life under Taliban rule in Swat, when he met Malala’s father. The editor asked Ziauddin if he had any ideas. “Why not me?” Malala remembers asking her father.
To introduce her to his journalistic concept, the editor told Malala about Anne Frank and the diary she kept under Nazi rule. But instead of leaving Malala with a pen and paper, the editor began working closely with her over the phone, like a reporting partner, or a source. “He would guide me, asking me questions about my day, and asking me to tell him small anecdotes or talk about my dreams,” writes Malala. The editor would then post her responses as weekly diary entries on the BBC’s Urdu website. The blog appeared under the pseudonym “Gul Makai.” The editor instructed Malala that she must not let anyone, not even her best friends at school, know about the scheme, as it would put her life in danger.
This was a more intricate and involved journalistic process than what Malala was used to with the Pakistani media, and she revealed her more personal and honest thoughts. It “proved to be such a hit, the blog was translated into English,” Jon Williams, the BBC’s world news editor, later wrote. It was posted on the main BBC website in early 2009. The BBC also made a recording of the diary using another girl’s voice. “I began to see that the pen and the words that come from it can be much more powerful than machine guns, tanks or helicopters,” Malala recalls in her book.
But through the process of working with the BBC, Malala was also learning more about the art of the interview and the complexities of journalistic storytelling. “I got to know the kind of things Hai Kakar [the editor] wanted me to talk about,” she writes. “He liked personal feelings and what he called ‘pungent sentences,’ and also the mix of everyday life with the terror of the Taliban.” Malala gave the interviewer what he wanted, and she was rewarded. “It was thrilling to see my words on the website.”