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Recording history for posterity

The press in Pakistan learned to gang up against itself and its freedom fairly early in the country’s history.
Published 16 Sep, 2017 01:33pm
Zamir Niazi remarkably chronicled excesses committed against media and mediapersons by successive governments of all shades and hues. The effort continued till the very end of his life. | Photo: Private collection of Niazi family
Zamir Niazi remarkably chronicled excesses committed against media and mediapersons by successive governments of all shades and hues. The effort continued till the very end of his life. | Photo: Private collection of Niazi family

THE pen, as goes the adage, is mightier than the sword. This is an adage that journalists fervently wish to believe in. And yet, in Pakistan’s 70-year history the contrary has been the case. Those responsible for stifling the press represent the entire spectrum of power in Pakistan: military dictators, intelligence agencies, the bureaucracy, political party activists, religious, nationalist and ethnic militants – and sometimes the judiciary through contempt of court notices.

To many observers and media consumers today, the press would appear to be unbridled. Today, the media – electronic, in particular – appears almost reckless in demonstrating its freedom, practically unchecked in spite of several attempts at self-regulation and occasional raps on the knuckles by Pemra, the regulatory authority.

Contrary to common belief and claim, however, freedom of the media didn’t get to where it is courtesy the policy of ‘enlightened moderation’ of General Pervez Musharraf’s regime. Behind freedom of the press that slowly began to make its mark starting from the late 1980s are the decades of struggle of journalists and their unions. The first dictatorship of General Ayub Khan brought take-over of newspapers, the institutionalisation of control through the Press & Publications Ordinance, 1960, and the imprisonment of leading editors.

Nevertheless, repression was met with resistance. Some were acts of individual courage, some of collective defiance. In his pioneering work, The Press in Chains, Zamir Niazi has recorded a detailed account of both – repression and resistance. In fact, Niazi’s set of three books on the subject of freedom of the press and the challenges it faced in the first four decades or so are essential reading for anyone interested in the history of the press in Pakistan.

However, resistance didn’t necessarily mean that there was unity among newspapers or even the community of journalists. The press in Pakistan learned to gang up against itself and its freedom fairly early in the country’s history. The first recorded instance of the issue of ‘press advice’ concerned the Father of the Nation himself. Attempts were made to suppress the Quaid-i-Azam’s historic address to the Constituent Assembly on August 11, 1947, in which he assured the non-Muslims of equal rights as citizens of the new country. As Niazi noted, all the editors complied, except for Altaf Husain of Dawn who took the trouble of investigating the source of the ‘press advice’.

In spite of failing health, Niazi dedicated his life to recording the history of the press in Pakistan. Working without the support of researchers or the convenience of technology, he set about meticulously monitoring newspapers every day and clipping out reports about violence and injustices against the press. He clearly demarcated the themes of his three seminal works. While the first, The Press in Chains, comprehensively covers the efforts of successive governments to crush freedom of the press, the second, The Press Under Siege, focuses on new challengers to press freedom – primarily those with street power who use brute force to dictate their terms to the media.

Niazi’s last book, The Web of Censorship, was written when his ailment had significantly progressed. This made even sitting down very painful for him. However, by then he had gained tremendous respect due to the quality of content of his first two books and his request to journalists to contribute their own experiences of press censorship greatly enriched his last effort. Oxford University Press, too, readily published the book which was quite a contrast to his first book which could not find a publisher till the Karachi Press Club stepped in to publish it under its name.

While the military coup in July, 1977, brought unprecedented hardship for the press, it also inadvertently enriched Niazi’s manually maintained database. When direct censorship was finally lifted in January, 1982, it was replaced with ‘self-censorship’, a more demeaning experience for journalists, an aspect covered by several contributors in The Web of Censorship.

General Ziaul Haq’s government also set a record in terms of issuing press advices. Their subjects ranged from political parties challenging the dictatorship (for example, the prefix ‘so-called’ had to be added before the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy) to instructions about the projection of the general’s family (for example, only officially released pictures of Begum Ziaul Haq were to be published).

However, the democratic government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was just as intolerant of a free press as was that of any dictator. After a somewhat bold beginning with the airing of the footage of the surrender in Dhaka, the government soon went after its critics with a sort of vengeance perhaps not seen before.

Dawn became among its top targets and while its writers and Editor Altaf Gauhar were arrested, the newspaper was financially squeezed by the denial of government advertisements. It should be noted that with the sweeping nationalisation of the early 1970s, the government had suddenly become the single largest advertiser in the country.

Journalists in Pakistan, accustomed to battling those in power for freedom of the press, were not ready for the new threats soon to come their way. New centres of armed street power began to threaten the press in ways not witnessed earlier. While the newly emerged Mohajir Qaumi Movement (MQM) practically kept the Karachi press under siege (to borrow the title from Niazi’s book) with its strong-arm methods, it was not the first bully on the block. It was the Islami Jamiat-i-Tulaba (IJT), the student wing of the Jamaat-i-Islami, that introduced violence in dealing with the press.

However, it was the MQM, with its near monopoly over power in urban Sindh from the late 1980s till fairly recently, that perfected violence against the press into a horrific art form, even forcing newspapers such as Dawn to cease publication. The party has been held responsible for attacks on journalists, media houses, as well as allegedly for the killing of a journalist.

The rise of militancy and terrorism brought yet another threat to journalists in Pakistan. It has made the country one of the most dangerous for journalists. Today they are sitting ducks for Islamic militants as well as any interest group that sees the free press as an adversary. This includes the country’s myriad intelligence agencies, in particular the powerful Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) that frequently threaten the press and, at times, are accused of physical attacks and, again, of murder.

The latest victims are social media bloggers. While it was believed that the social media will give everyone unfettered freedom of expression, it was not to be. The Prevention of Cyber Crimes Act curtailed that freedom through vague and wide-ranging definitions. And, at the same time, the enforced disappearance of several bloggers and the registration of blasphemy cases against some have resulted in a new age of self-censorship.

The media, particularly the electronic media with all its potential, has not covered itself in glory either. It is largely responsible for the spread of rigidity in society and intolerance of the minorities and of voices questioning the state’s role in matters of faith. It has also remained primarily urban and patriarchal. Shrill coverage of politics continues to be its focus while the disadvantaged are rarely paid attention to.

Seventy years is a fairly long time for state institutions – including the judiciary and the armed forces – to accept the media’s intrinsic adversarial role. Having said that, it is also a long time for the media to demonstrate greater responsibility in reporting.


The writer is an analyst based in Karachi.


This story is part of a series of 16 special reports under the banner of ‘70 years of Pakistan and Dawn’. Read the report here.