Dawn News

We do not deserve this freedom


-Illustration by Vai Ell.

We were sitting in a half-lit room in a Washington suburb. All five of us had worked as journalists in Pakistan. And what brought us today was the airing of an off camera discussion between two talk show hosts of a prominent Pakistani channel and a property tycoon.

The footage has instigated a war of sorts between news channels as they accuse each other of being corrupt, dishonest and sleazy. We came here to discuss the so-called media-gate scandal, but shame, embarrassment and guilt overwhelmed us. So we started reminiscing about our past, perhaps to avoid thinking about our inglorious present.

Those were the days when people joined journalism out of political conviction, not to make easy money or become famous. There was little money or fame in the media then.

We recalled that in the Zia era, when the press was in chains, we also met in half-lit rooms but out of fear, not shame. Such meetings were illegal and those caught almost always lost their jobs. Some were even jailed and flogged. So we met late at night in secluded places.

We remembered one such meeting that we all attended. The lights were off all over the dark city, so the full moon shone in all its glory.

Free from the dwarfing influence of the neon lights and electric bulbs, it looked beautiful. But we shut the window, lit a candle and one of us tried to read an old newspaper, which carried the story we were looking for.

The jasmine and the Queen of the Night wafted through the closed doors. But even their aroma could not make us open the window.

I could not wipe the picture off my mind. There he was, Nasir Zaidi, chained to a hospital bed with two rifle-toting police constables flanking him.

We were not friends yet, but I knew him as a gentle and soft-spoken man, respected by everybody for his honesty and an almost religious fervour for a free press. But when his time came, his honesty and softness could not protect him. He had to receive all 15 lashes on his back and was now lying on a hospital bed, chained and handcuffed like a common criminal.

His crime? He defied a dictator’s order to close down some newspapers that dared criticise the army’s interference in politics.

On May 13, 1978 the then military government in Pakistan ordered four journalists flogged for refusing to toe the official line. The government issued a brief press note to announce the verdict.

Three of them were flogged within 70 minutes after the judgment and sent to prison to complete their terms. The fourth escaped because the prison doctor declared him unfit for the lashes.

The whipping was in reprisal for a countrywide agitation by the journalists against the government’s media policy. Within a year after taking over, the martial law government had closed down 11 newspapers and fined 13 others.

Two of the journalists flogged during Gen Ziaul Haq’s martial law — Zaidi and Jafri —are my friends now. Jafri is emotional, robust and quarrelsome. Zaidi is quiet and shy. He also suffers from asthma.

We never saw him arguing with anyone. Although we were convinced that all four were innocent, we never understood how anyone could flog Zaidi. He was so friendly and polite that everybody loved him.

Even his editors never called him by his first name. He was always addressed as Zaidi Sahib. His flogging was a shock for the entire media community. I saw several of his friends crying.

Zaidi is so humble that he never discusses his sacrifices. He says that as a journalist he had a personal reason to protest the dictator’s decision to close down newspapers. Like other, he says, journalists also have the right to work and if there are no newspapers, there will be no work for journalists.

Besides, he says, journalists also have professional reasons for disliking dictators. The press, according to him, does not prosper in a controlled society. There is not much a journalist can do in a dictatorship.

A free press and a dictatorship are like oil and water; they don’t mix. And he has a point. In a controlled press, most of the words are handed down by the dictator’s ministry of information and journalists simply reprint or broadcast them.

Nobody knows it better than journalists from Muslim nations. Before the Arab spring, which started only last year, almost all of them had totalitarian regimes. From Central and South Asia to the Middle East, the media was run by the rulers. Journalism, as it is known in democracies like India or the United States, does not exist.

The government already ran the electronic media and newspapers, too, were brought under direct government control through coercive laws that closed all options for freedom.

Every evening we had to take our newspapers to the information department where a bureaucrat — and sometimes a military officer, usually a major — would read the entire paper, front to back. They would take out anything they did not like.

The government issued broad guidelines to newspaper editors: They could not publish anything against the government — federal, provincial, or local. Any news that a government officer thought could incite people against the rulers was censored. Criticism of the army, the judiciary or the religious establishment was not allowed. Even stories that could arouse sexual feelings were censored.

Newspapers also needed permission to re-print what had already been published, such as excerpts from a book or a poem. Many times the censor officers showed their personal likes and dislikes in selecting news items. For example, if a newspaper wanted to carry a feature on open sewers in an area where a censor officer lived, he could take it out if he thought it would make his neighbourhood look bad.

Sometimes even film reviews were censored if the officer happened to like the film that the writer was criticising. All decisions were arbitrary. There was no appeal.

Journalists hated these restrictions. The rules denied them some of their basic rights and spawned various professional problems. It was already difficult to find stories that would not cross the guidelines.

But even when they did, they were not sure if the censor board would approve the stories, so they had to write two or three covering stories for every story they feared could be censored.

The officials insisted on seeing the pages after they were designed, complete with headlines and photos. This meant that a story removed by the officials disturbed the entire layout and the whole page had to be redesigned. Sometimes it also disturbed other pages where the censored story was carried over.

Those were not the days of computers; everything had to be done with scissors and glue, such changes often delayed the newspaper. To overcome this problem, editors tried to complete the pages as early as possible. Thus they often missed important late events. But sometimes missing a story also annoyed the government. Authorities believed newspapers missed stories on purpose to let people know how strict the censorship was.

The intention behind all these restrictions was to teach self-censorship to the journalists. The government wanted them to learn how to write “positive” stories. It wanted to create a docile and subservient press. But this did not work. Most journalists resisted these restrictions at every stage.

In the beginning most newspapers refused to fill the space left behind by a censored story. Instead they just printed a sketch of a pair of scissors in that space to show that the news item or article had been censored.

Sometimes one newspaper would have several scissor-filled spaces. This made the government look bad and so the censor officers prevented newspapers from doing it.

The newspapers then found another device. They would print a neutral, non-offensive headline and the writer’s byline but leave the rest of the space empty. Thus sometimes a newspaper would have eight stories, which only had headlines and bylines. The government also banned this practice.

Now newspapers started printing irrelevant or unimportant stories on the front or back pages to fill a censored space, stories that would not have been published at all in a more normal world. When the government banned this too, Pakistani journalists learned to write between the lines.

In the beginning, they were not sure whether the readers would understand what they were trying to say. But the readers proved more intelligent than the writers thought. Readers understood everything and would often do their own investigations, based on the clues they found in a newspaper.

If they read about a sudden shortage of tomatoes and eggs in a particular market, and another story somewhere else in the newspaper reported that a federal minister had visited the market the same day, they guessed that the minister had had to face a barrage of rotten vegetables when he visited the mall.

Sometimes newspapers just published the sketch of a story, allowing the readers to fill in the gaps. In the early 1980s a worker of Murtaza Bhutto’s Al Zulfikar group fired a rocket at Zia’s helicopter near Islamabad, the next day’s newspapers had a story about a rocket fired at an unknown helicopter and urged the police and intelligence agencies to be more vigilant against terrorists. The censor officers were not aware of the attack, so they allowed it to be published. And the next day everybody knew that someone had tried to kill Zia.

Scores of political jokes started making rounds: some new, others adapted from the outside world to suit the local situation. The journalists struggled and the people supported them. But this enthusiasm did not lead to a popular uprising. It was more a passive resistance.

In Pakistan people seem to have a lot of patience. No matter how bad the situation, they can sit and wait. They wait for years until their patience runs out. Then they wake up, hold rallies and processions.

The rallies lead to countrywide strikes. Buses and shops are burnt, people are killed, and the government changes with the help of both violent and peaceful methods.

But before it can lead to a real change, people go back to their passive mood. So the change is always cosmetic.

Only a few faces change; the system remains as oppressive as ever. We get another set of corrupt rulers. We curse them, but we learn to live with them until the next uprising.

However, we always believed that the media was an agent of change. It rejected the status quo. It was with the underdog. How wrong we were!

Sacrifices offered by people like Zaidi did bring freedom to the media but the free media in Pakistan is no longer an agent of change.

It is part of the establishment now.

Journalists play the same game that others in the establishment do, of becoming rich and powerful overnight. And the so-called media-gate scandal shows that they are no better than eggs and tomatoes. Anyone can buy them if he is willing to pay the right price.

I never thought I would want the censorship back. I still do not.

But I must admit that we were better human beings when we were in chains. We do not deserve this freedom.


The author is a correspondent for Dawn, based in Washington, DC.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (44) Closed

Sikandar Hayat
Jun 17, 2012 04:29am
From over last 10 years, media growth both TV channels and print media was robust, rather it became the forth pillar of society, it became the voice of people, pakistani lost their faith in political ruling class whoever PPP or N league, establishment including militery and spying agencies and to some extent in judicery except the last 3 years of present CJ of supreme court, pakistani were blind to believe in media, they were their hopes for future, they sit hours to listen ancherpersons but people forgot they are also pakistani, they can sold,they ca be bought only difference is different price. but journists/ancherpersons just forgot how people trust them, these media faces ruthlessly took advantage of people faith in them and cheated and played with their trust. now they nowmore spokepersons they also need BMW/big house and then on tv channels they disgrace anyone they want it is a moment of crying atleaset for me, my only hope rests with talat lets see how long it will stay, we are really a garbage society if yet anyone does not believe than look for Allah help
Jun 28, 2012 03:29pm
I second you -- Any comment not in favour of the Saudi's or any Arab Country is not printed -- You can't write factual things which the whole world knows about the Saudi's but the Dawn staff do not have the moral courage to print it. Why? ? ? This comment will be published -- Let's wait and see - and I challenge any of the readers to write something about the Saudi Regime and wait for it be seen on Dawn. You will be dissapointed
Jul 04, 2012 09:27am
Alas! dark history of oppressive system and passive resistance. Let the relevant persons of existing of media-gate be the agents of change rather than agents of status quo.
Jun 17, 2012 11:47am
Hmm. Its not a big shock really, such corruption is now easily expected from anchors or politicians in Pakistan. But what is horrible is that we are immuned to such things now.
Jun 17, 2012 09:19am
politicians , cricketers, establishment and now media . . . . is there anyone left to be trusted ?
dhiraj garg
Jun 16, 2012 12:54pm
again an excellent, relevant and thought provoking article by an excellent journalist. thanks anwar sahab :)
Jun 17, 2012 10:54am
Our media is immature, illiterate,selfish, short sighted, negative, self centered, hypocritical, and good at scandalizing ordinary incidents. They want to be called as pirs and awuliahs, the saviors of morals, society, and country. Just listen to any anchor on TV, he will teach you about armed forces, accounts, foreign affairs, law, medicine, and obviously politics, its simply joke. The way they hassle the politicians, it is insulting. But than this is Pakistan, my poor country, where there is no electric, gas, water and law.
nasir abbassi
Jun 16, 2012 03:22pm
well to say now that journalism is part of establishment and every one is corrupt and want to become wealthy within nights and censorship was a way of teaching the journalist how to self control will be a little too much. If we want to improve I think it will be the time that will bring out the positive attitude in everyone of us. Freedom of press is something new for our country and for our people ,so right now it needs time and it needs co ordination in itself and a little bit professionalism ,but no interference from government or any other institution.
Jun 16, 2012 12:59pm
I have no respect for any newspaper including dawn.All are commercial and watch their own interest. some time kill the truth if it hurt their business. This year 7girls died in concert stampede in Lahore organised by Punjab group of college. No newspaper including Dawn dare to expose the organizer because organizer belonged to media business community. If Dawn has courage publish my comments otherwise it means Dawn deserve no respect either.
Jun 16, 2012 02:49pm
So it is back to the very basics. Morals...family, values and what transpired in these last 30 years to make us look at everything with a price tag attached to it....In 1988 when i was in Colombia, a journalist at El Tiempo wrote an article about the birth of CNN and a complete news channel..He said now the news will be manufactured, / Produced/ acted/ and dramatized just like morning soaps...No one believed him. CNN was such a novelty that I kept it on 20/7 His words come back to me now as we see the journalist now. BTW it is a useless degree now .instead,multimedia, law, graphics, design people are running news channels. Good piece Anwar..Made us all think...
Shaheen Sehbai
Jun 16, 2012 02:52pm
Anwar, your account is absolutely authentic and stunning, as those who did not suffer those days of humiliation cannot imagine what the media went through. But I do not agree that we don't deserve the freedom. We do. We have fought for it. What we need is to clean up our ranks, throw out all the eggs and tomatoes into the trash can. We must fight for it, not surrender our freedoms.
Jun 16, 2012 02:13pm
I have long stopped listening to any talk show and therefore I came to know about media gate once someone called me to discuss it. The best punishment for these anchors is to stop listening them. Just shut them out of your home. Get History channel or Nat Geo and enjoy.
Jun 16, 2012 02:04pm
Yes definitely well said. We were in the fantasies of our independent and free media and thought that it will someday bring the change but the circumstances have gone otherwise. Actually we can't either blame the media rather its us! Yes we are! This shows the general attitude of the nation as a whole. Now it is high time for us to make our lines better by eradicating such curses from ourselves because only we can be the agent of real change.
Jun 16, 2012 01:50pm
Well Abdul sahib, looks like you have to eat humble crow.Your complaint has been published.
Jun 16, 2012 01:29pm
"Freedom is name of some restrictions"
Jun 16, 2012 01:25pm
Wow! I tell you what I thought it from the day when private TV channel was initially allowed by Gen Pervaiz Musharraf, and even more when Perviaz Musharraf in those days said "some people (private TV channels) say this freedom of media is because of them, there is nothing like that I have allowed the private TV licenses and there are more in pipeline". See the falsehood that the media never accepted the godfather of theirs and I personally disagreed with the people talking of the lime light news that were again & again & again & again telecasted as breaking news on the channels & what you say now I belived more when there heard no 'Pakistani thought' in the media and even more when in the era of extreme FREEDOM Geo telecasted new against a political party and after threatening wall chalking in the city they could not dare to publish & say against that party & even more when Imran Khan suddenly came to lime light and now more firmly by the media-gate scandal........... I agree to what you said "I never thought I would want the censorship back. I still do not." but you'll have to agree with me that we deserve censorship now and yet you might disagree now but you won't when you'll hear the ugly CIA & India linking to the media & the so called journalists at that time it might be too late to call censorship now or never.
T Khan
Jun 16, 2012 01:24pm
Mr. Iqbal, perhaps you don't like present freedom of speech, but we the readers/listeners do. The current Pakistani Media especially the TV anchors are having the moments of joy and excitement like a child receiving his first toy. They were given the toy however, most of the anchors have come from the background where the sense and the responsibility to use and maintain the toy was not taught. The journey from the control & confinement to liberty & righteousness is treacherous, however, Pakistani and Pakistanis are getting there. The maturity of listeners and professionalism of the anchors is only across the road. It shall come! PS: you write well however, you also need to toss your chains away and be balanced.
Jun 17, 2012 02:32pm
Dawn used to be the best channel few years back. They produced a few very good investigative documentaries by the title "Equinox" which focused on real issues and had detailed research. But then probably commercial reasons forced them to change tactics... they probably realized that spicy talk shows by star anchors focused on non-issues is much more commercially successful and less hardwork than serious documentaries focused on real issues. Cannot really blame them as at the end of the day media is a business that needs to cater to its customers. The customer base in Pakistan wants masala, heroworship of some and demonization of others....
Jun 16, 2012 11:44am
Wonderful write up. Glad to see you are on a roll with stories that highlight your writing abilities.
Arshad Awan
Jun 17, 2012 04:51pm
Anwar Bhai we are lucky to work with Nasir Zaidi, as we called Mammo. I wish that today's journalists, especially these hi-fly good for nothing anchors as you and me know them well, would have learn ethics and some journalistic zeal from people like Zaidi Bhai.
saeed awan
Jun 18, 2012 07:21pm
While the writer has elaboated on the "dark era" of Zia ul haq, he has failed to mention the torture and the atrocities that were being meted out to editors and journalist during the time of "Fakhar e Asia", Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Is it pure ignorance or outright professionl dishonesty? We know, and we seen the enlighnted times of Quaid i Awam. The "Jasarat", an urdu daily was banned in 1973 and its editor Mr. Salahuddin was put behind bars for 5 years only to be released by martial authorities in late 1977. A good numbers of weeklies published from Lahore and Karachi like "Zindgi", Afkar, "Tahir" and many more were banned. Even a monthly magezine "Urdu Digest" has to fight its battlle of survival in courts of law. That was the time, Mr. Anwar Iqbal, when telling truth was not only a sin but also a crime under Press and Publication Ordnance. it is really sad to mention here that Journalist bodies like PFUJ did not muster enough courage to challenge such a totalitarian regime by self proclaimed "Civilian Martial Administrator"
Jun 18, 2012 11:12am
I am afraid - that freedom will never come . . .
Liberty pan wala
Jun 18, 2012 11:02am
I used to respect Dawn as an unbiased news source. However, after the Talal Hussain show aired on 14th of June I was appalled to see that even Dawn is turning into a tabloid news source which makes baseless allegations.
Jun 17, 2012 12:24pm
I am surprised that anybody is surprised by the media gate. TV anchors tend to think they are king makers. In India BUrkha Dutt of NDTV was caught trying to influence the Delhi government in allocation of portfolios! Again there was this journalist in Pakistan who invented his own Wikileak to show India in bad light and got away even without a wrap on the knuckle. In this connection I should congratulate Dawn for boldly bringing out unsavoury truths in the Opinion and Blog columns.
Majid Sheikh
Jun 17, 2012 12:22pm
The problem is that newspapers and the electronic media have started recruiting 'journalists' who have not been through the test of time and even when it is known that they are corrupt they are still retained. The absence of good honest journalists as anchor persons on TV is proof of this. All we have now is 'baiters' for anchors who want answers that provoke. I have researched time consumed by anchors and guests. It is 65 per cent time consumed by anchors and the rest by the guests. Find anchors with good manners and skill and finesse and a basic problem will be solved.
Jun 16, 2012 04:58pm
Not a day goes by when we do not get to hear a new story of corruption and deceit.Then naive and optimist like me think that this is the utter depth we can stoop to.Still the very next day another saga of corruption erupts.There is no end to it.No respite.No light at the end of this long and dark tunnel.
Jun 16, 2012 05:11pm
Im just surprized that people never have suspected this earlier. How is it possible that the whole media is clean. Nothing is ever totally clean anywhere. It is practically not possible there are always going to be people who will have sympathies towards one side. Read any country's newspaper and one immediately understands that nomatter how neutral or clean one tries to be the writer as a human is always biased. If you have a strong opinion you will be biased. How long one will go with this bias is another thing , will some go as far as to do illegal or criminal acts is something which can be stopped not strong opinions.
Jun 16, 2012 06:17pm
Is Pakistan reaching its end? I hope not so!
afia salam
Jun 16, 2012 07:24pm
so we wait for the phoenix to rise from the dust and ashes and muck. Am I being naive or will my gut feeling for my fraternity prevail and we will see a better, cleaner media? I will go for the latter!
Jun 16, 2012 07:27pm
Anwar Saheb, The nation cannot take your pains away. But we can thank you with utmost gratitude for all your sacrifices. May all those who have or are struggling for their fellow countrymen or a cause get their due reward. There are always a few good people who ward off millions of evil and bad ones. I do not wish ill of any human being but I pray to Allah that misguided people are shown the correct path. The alternative is the gruesome and agonising life in Hell for those who turned this beautiful Earth and our country into hell!
Jun 16, 2012 09:07pm
hehe do you mean humble pie ...
haseeb talal khan
Jun 16, 2012 09:34pm
in my opinion, these media persons and media channel owners who brought shame to the whole pakistani society, should be banned for life, no matter whatever explanations they have for their heinous crime, it is irreplaceable and would not be forgiven at all. under whatever circumstances this drama unfolded. we dont need such people to tarnish the image of the whole society.......
Jun 16, 2012 11:00pm
Anwar, this is not freedom. From the chains of one kind, they have now fallen into the chains of the rich & wealthy who buy them with it. Freedom is yet to come.
Syed A. Zafar
Jun 17, 2012 02:47am
Shaheen, your comments are short but, to the point and convincing. I have always been allergic to right wing media for true reasons in my opinion and now I am getting to form same opinion about the the liberal newspapers like Dawn, It needs to get back to basics to honor the expectations of its founder. It is not only leading towards the other side of extreme in my opinion but also getting away from journalistic ethics. Dawn seems to represent its foreign masters especially...
Jun 17, 2012 03:53am
We have Great Hopes from the Dawn Newsgroup since it itself was part of the movement which got us this beautiful Country, the owners have been helping a lot of poor people in Karachi but I think the new generation of the Haroon Family think themselves as pragmatic persons.We all have lost the Vision that we had when we made a promise to Allah about giving Social Justice to all and that there will be Justice for all, But being a Muslim we never loose Hope,We have lost the lesson that we learnt during the Freedom struggle that we have to make the change ourself no other person is going to come and make the change.If we want a change let us make an effort to make that change.This is again a wakeup call to us remember that life here is just a test and whatever we do for the betterment of Humanity Selflessly will increase the strength of our Soul and it can make it easy to go yo the Next Dimension which is the Hereafter.May the Almighty keep Pakistan in his Amaan.
Mohammad Ali Khan
Jun 18, 2012 01:30am
After more then 60 yrs. of experience people should have learned by now that they need to bring change in themselves.Learn to organize,develop neighborhood institutions,help each other in a collective way.Pakistanis need a change in culture.
Jun 18, 2012 03:08am
Are you saying that the Pakistani journalism needs a dictator to keep it on "Sirat-ul Mustaqeem"?
Umesh Bhagwat
Jun 18, 2012 05:57am
Journalism has become another name for sensationalism! The media wants desperately to preserve the status-quo and it is no use expecting the media to promote social-change. In fact the media is distorting the priorities of the nation. The Media only promotes those people who will perpetuate the rotten system and who do not rock the ship of the state. The level of reporting in the media has been going down day by day.
Jun 19, 2012 05:21am
@abdul Dawn is a newspaper. It brings you news only. It is not a CID. When a certain incident is reported, It has to be investigated by the people(govt) who are appointed by the govt. If at all Dawn or any newpaper take up the CID work, then there is no necessity of having police etc.
Jun 19, 2012 05:22am
Let me add that Dawn is the most ethical newspaper along with The Hindu in the subcontinent.
Cyrus Howell
Jun 23, 2012 06:53am
"Educate and inform the whole mass of the people... They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty." -- Thomas Jefferson "You only have the freedoms you are willing to fight and die for." -- Thomas Jefferson
Cyrus Howell
Jun 23, 2012 07:15am
People in Pakistan don't understand politics. That is why so many are confused. Religion teaches us to follow the rules. Do Not Follow the Rules. Politicians love people who follow the rules. They are easy to manipulate, whereas many people break the rules to survive and prosper. The people who don't pay taxes, the people who don't pay their electric bills, and the thieves and robbers know that people who play by the rules are born to be the victims.
Jul 08, 2012 12:28pm
A brilliant piece of writing! It truly is thought provoking.
Jul 21, 2012 06:40pm