IT may have been an abortive attempt, given that it had to be abandoned due to the outrage expressed in the media, but that someone in the corridors of power was willing to make a crude, sinister attempt to muzzle the press in the country is reason enough to trigger alarm bells.
Once the draft of the planned law was leaked to the media and condemnation started to pour in, government ministers were quick to distance themselves from it. Even then a question that remains unanswered is who instigated or initiated it if the government did not.
It would be in the government’s own interest to find out who was the culprit if it was indeed ‘innocent’ itself. Although the print media (Urdu papers in particular) has largely remained benign, certain stories in the English newspapers may have caused some institutions a spot of bother.
That’s why whosoever is to blame, what was contemplated or attempted was sinister and shameful. Yes, shameful for some of the biggest tragedies in Pakistan’s history could possibly have been averted with debate on issues and a little more information in the public domain.
But censorship ruled supreme. The rulers of the time wanted total and complete immunity from any public scrutiny of their policies and actions. Notwithstanding the handful few, whether journalists who knew the facts and couldn’t publish or political activists, the public at large remained ignorant.
Take for example the censored newspapers in the week preceding Dec 16, 1971, when the follies of the generals led to surrender to the Indian army in East Pakistan.
What did the banner headlines scream literally on the eve of the surrender? The Commander of the Eastern Command, Lt-Gen Amir Abdullah Khan (Tiger) Niazi proclaiming that any Indian tank would have to roll over his body to enter Dhaka.
Had we been able to raise our voices frequently and loudly enough, many Pakistanis would have escaped the fallout of disastrous state policies.
Of course, on Dec 17, 1971, the newspapers did not carry photographs (which most papers around the world did) of Niazi signing the document of surrender, of emptying his sidearm — a revolver — of bullets, before handing it over to the victorious army’s Lt-Gen Jagjit Singh Aurora.
What we read were a few paras mostly in single-column displays which said something along the lines that as a result of an agreement between local (Pakistani and Indian) commanders in the eastern sector a ceasefire had taken place.
What a travesty of news. We had heard the same story on state-controlled radio and TV the day earlier. The shock at the country’s break-up here could have been cushioned had the people been aware of how the Bengalis were treated in their own home province by the western wing.
But years of censored content in the newspapers and the state-owned electronic media made most West Pakistanis believe that when the sublime crooner Shehnaz Begum, a Bengali, sang “Sohni dharti Allah rakhe, qadam qadam abad”, she was echoing the main sentiment in East Pakistan.
The predominant sentiment may have been that in 1947 at the time of the country’s birth as the Bengalis had voted in droves for it but by 1971 West Pakistan’s treatment of the majority province had led to cries of “Joy Bangla”.
One can go even further back and look at the coverage of the election campaign of Mohtarma Fatima Jinnah against the incumbent military ruler as also Ayub Khan’s policies to muzzle dissent and calls for a transition to democracy.
Ayub’s Press and Publications Ordinance and his takeover of the newspapers belonging to the Progressive Papers Limited stable had dealt a deadly blow to freedom of expression and independent press in the country. All his policies are well-chronicled and a matter of record.
Although the elected government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto also tried to muzzle the press and journalists faced imprisonment, his efforts were far less effective than those of the brutal military regimes that preceded and followed him.
Recent pieces in this newspaper by its editor and veteran rights activist and eminent journalist I.A. Rehman have articulated how the press was censored and attempts were made to beat it into submission.
I started my own career in the early 1980s and my regret of working in the press then is that while many of us may have made small gestures of defiance towards the regime there was very little editorial scrutiny of Zia’s policy of making Pakistan a base of transnational jihadis’ indoctrination and militancy.
Had we been in a position to raise our voices frequently and loudly enough, perhaps many Pakistanis would have escaped the fallout of some of the most disastrous policies of our nation’s short life. Today, we count and continue to mourn the thousands of sons and daughters lost to that folly.
We also count and lament the billions of dollars in losses the country materially suffered as its economy lurched from one security-related crisis to another. If only had we been free to debate and discuss the merits of such a policy and the havoc it would wreak on Pakistan.
Today, a new kind of censorship is spreading with many newsrooms (TV and newspapers) articulating the position of one powerful institution or party or the other and abdicating their responsibility of dispassionately scrutinising such positions as neutral, impartial observers.
Against this backdrop, it is to their credit that a small number of players in the media world are still doing their job as professional ethics demand, despite facing pressures from multiple quarters, and even abuse on social media.
They must soldier on. Succumbing to pressure or censorship is not an option. Doesn’t our bloodstained and often tragic history make that clear to us? Upright journalists must say in unison: never again.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
Published in Dawn, September 16th, 2017