LAHORE: An event to mark one of the blackest days of Pakistan’s history was held at the Lahore Press Club on Friday, to speak about the flogging of four journalists in the Zia regime on May 13, 1978.

Speakers included Dr Mehdi Hasan, Husain Naqi, and Munnu Bhai, as well as Khawar Naeem Hashmi who was one of the journalists flogged in public. Representatives of the media and members of unions also spoke.

Mr Hashmi began by alluding to Ehfazur Rehman’s book ‘Sab Se Bari Jang’ or ‘The Biggest Battle’, which highlights the journalist who fought against Ziaul Haq. He said the book should be reprinted by the press club and given to journalists.

He said the institution of editorship had been rendered useless and editors did not have as much power as they ought to. “Our movement for freedom in 1970s began when Zia closed down over 100 papers which left so many journalists unemployed,” he said. He described the experience of being whipped, saying that they were naked in the heat of the sun, and were bound and shackled to a slanted board after which they were whipped.

He condemned the PML-N government for being Zia’s protégés, saying bureaucrats and ministers were against the freedom of speech.

“Chaudhry Nisar audaciously admitted to having banned Bol TV. Of the 2,200 employees of Bol, 1,600 are still unemployed,” he said. “I promise that the rest of my life will be lived like my past life – fighting for freedom.”

Dr Hasan said that Pakistan had been ruled by unconstitutional governments for 35 years, and it was obvious that the freedom of press could not go hand in hand with such governments.

Today, he said, Pakistan’s main problem was religiosity or the fanfare and show of religion.

“This display of religiosity cannot determine the freedom of any kind. Only statement journalism is reported. We have more than often given up our right to know.” He said those who contributed were always working journalists, not the owners.

“There used to be gatekeeping back in those days,” he said. “Today it is free for all. Whoever owns a cellphone and has a few sources begins calling themselves a journalist, without any professional training. There are those who volunteer to provide information and these people often resort to exaggerations, blackmail and distortion of facts. Talk on news channels is full of meaningless and defamatory conversation, because no one bothers to research for any knowledge or facts. Unions which ave been banned since 1983 remain banned.”

He said Pakistanis had begun to hate modernity and progression, and we only want to cut each others throats and label each other as infidels. According to the Social Responsibility Theory, the media must have a responsible role to play and be a watchdog rather than a lapdog, which is what every government wants the media to become.

“Accountability is spoken of but even then our prime minister says he cannot speak for his sons if they have any businesses abroad,” said Dr Hasan. “When Thatcher became the prime minister, her husband closed down his business in order not to have any dirt flung at him.”

Mr Naqi, who was arrested many times for his protests against any repression against the press, said that jail had marked so many points of his career that once his senior Mairaj Burna had pleaded him not to put himself in that position for some time.

He recounted several such incidents and anecdotes which highlighted the grim career of journalists in those days. “But we always found a way out of it, even though we were not allowed to publish much. It is often within the system that we must find our way out,” he said. He said once Indian journalist Kuldip Nayar had wondered at how Pakistani journalists had managed to struggle their way out of the chains Zia had shackled them in. He had said that journalists in India had not been able to fight against the state of emergency that had been established there.Munnu Bhai said those who used to call the country ‘Napaak-istan’ and who called Jinnah ‘Kaafir-e-Azam’, were now acting as the country’s caretakers. It was because of these people that so many channels and newspapers have been forcibly shut down.

PPP leader Jahangir Badr saluted journalists, saying values were considered, not power. He called the democratic system in Pakistan as ‘feudal democracy’.

PUJ president Shahzad Hussain Butt said the problems faced by journalists were more or less the same. “If they flogged backs in those days, they kick us in our stomachs today, and so many of us are sacked today without reason,” he said. “Our Wage Board issue is still unresolved.”

Ajmal Laghari said journalists should speak up for marginalised communities.

Supreme Court Bar Association President Ali Zafar said the media was more pervasive and it was being controlled through money.

Published in Dawn, May 14th, 2016

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