Pakistan had experienced press censorship many times before, but General Ziaul Haq’s tenure was a cut above. On Oct 15, 1979, Gen Zia began clamping down on the news media, after he began feeling that newspapers were gaining liberty to the extent that they had begun criticism over his continued rule. In comparison, the colonial masters’ Press Gagging Act-1857 seemed benign.
A new reign of censorship was thus unleashed, with the government now actively involved in what was being printed and what was not. Provincial governments were asked to enforce the pre-publication censorship through their administrations. On Oct 17, 1979, the Sindh government went ahead with slapping a ban on the publication of two newspapers from Karachi, Daily Musawat and Daily Sadaqat.
Every publication centre soon adopted its own mechanism to comply with the new directives. The most accepted mode was that at a certain cut-off time, the pages that were ready to go into print were physically taken to the information department, where designated officers used to check every piece being printed. These could be news items, feature stories, opinion articles or even pictures. Contents were quickly examined and if found proper, the pages were approved and signed.
If any news item or article appeared objectionable to the officers, for its criticism on the government or its functions, the officer would chuck that piece and ask the newspaper staff not to print such items. In the beginning of the censorship days, some parts of news items were simply deleted; newspapers would then be published with white space on the pages.
It was all about controlling perception: Gen Zia’s new wave of censorship stifles any and all criticism of the government
To defy censorship, some editors used to slide some part of a news item with criticism against the government, and allow the censoring officer to delete it. This method allowed the reader to understand what had been deleted. This practice carried on for many days.
Authorities ultimately understood what was happening; they issued new directions for newspaper staff to keep some extra news items on hand, so that if any part of the newspaper was deleted, it could be filled and the newspaper did not show any blank space the next morning.
During the struggle for press freedom, a number of journalists were arrested and prosecuted under Martial Law regulations. Eleven journalists were sentenced by the military courts on May 13, 1978.
They were prosecuted under Martial Law regulations No 5 and No 33 for organising meetings at an open place, raising slogans, displaying banners and starting hunger strike. For the first time in the subcontinent’s history, four journalists — Masudullah Khan, Iqbal Jafri, Khawar Naeem Hashmi and Nisar Zaidi — also received lashings.
On Dec 19, 1980, Gen Zia issued Martial Law Regulation No 49, banning the publication of any matter prejudicial to the integrity and security of Pakistan, morality and maintenance of public order or against the purpose of Martial Law. In case of violation, the offender was to be punished with rigorous imprisonment, which could stretch up to 10 years, 25 lashes and a fine.
In the case of defamation, bars to publication were brought through an ordinance that amended sections 499 and 500 of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC). Compared to past modes of press gagging, this ordinance said that with the exception of court proceedings reportage, the publication of defamatory matter against any person, even if it was true and in public interest, would constitute a cognisable and compoundable offence punishable with five years rigorous imprisonment or with fine or both.
A new section, 502, was also added to the PPC, under which a person could be punished for the sale of material carrying defamatory articles. The interesting part is that while these laws were promulgated with the purpose of taming the media, they were also used as leverage in newsprint and government advertisements.
Press censorship continued but radio and television emerged as the more affected sections of media. Besides general censorship, the government was quite particular in changing the formats of broadcast media content. The subjects of general discussion were changed; only those segments were allowed to be aired which had authority-friendly messages.
All male participants were asked to wear sherwanis while all female newscasters and participants in discussions were asked to wear dopattas, else they would not be allowed to appear on screen.
Script editors were asked to strictly check the scripts of those plays and discussions that communicated a message of liberalism. Since there was only one television network (PTV), every programme was planned very carefully. More religious programmes were put on the air, replacing drama serials and other entertainment programmes.
At least one programme from Karachi Television created a stir in society as a result of these measures, and that too on the issue of the presenter’s appearance.
Mahtab Rashdi, a university teacher at the time, would host a programme named Apni Baat, one that was based on viewers’ letters. One day, when she reached the PTV Centre in Karachi to record her show, the general manager of the station informed her to don a dupatta. Mahtab flatly refused, taunting the management that now Gen Zia was going to tell her how she should appear.
The debate gained traction from across the country. The GM appeared cornered, but Mahtab refused to oblige. There wasn’t much the GM could do either.
After Gen Zia’s death, PTV invited her again to announce election results along with two other presenters. This time, she asked whether there was any dress code. They replied she could wear anything she liked.
Slowly, it seemed, there was space to breathe again.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, May 3rd, 2015