THE reaction to the so-called ‘Dawn leak’, which rocked the country last winter, amused Dawn staff members. Stung by Cyril Almeida’s scoop of Oct 6, 2016, the establishment thought it could fix the paper by bullying its owners. Little did they realise – in spite of having the services of a plethora of oafish intelligence agencies – that at Dawn things are not decided by the owners, and that news and views published in the paper are the sole prerogative of its editor.
From this point of view, Dawn is perhaps the only paper in Pakistan which has always had a professional editor, and the owners had not grabbed the editor’s slot – except once by force of circumstances – to make a mockery of editorial independence. Despite being a political family, the Haroons, owners of the Dawn media group, leave it to the editor to run the paper once the broad contours of policy are in place.
In my own little cosmos, and as a Dawn person who has cumulatively passed nearly half a century in the paper’s service, I do not recall a single time when the management bypassed the editor and called me directly to give me an assignment.
One reason for this clarity in the owner-editor relationship was the very personality of the man who founded Dawn. As Altaf Husain, the paper’s legendary editor, wrote, M.A. Jinnah “never issued any directive, never said ‘Do this’ or ‘Don’t do that’. In fact, he told me to study a given situation and form my honest and independent opinion on it, and then to write fearlessly what I thought – ‘no matter even if the Quaid-i-Azam is offended thereby’.” This tradition – of the editor and not the owner being the kingpin – has continued till this day, and the galaxy of editors we have had proved themselves worthy of the institution called Dawn.
Husain was a legend in his lifetime. His editorials jolted the government of the day, the ad denial making little difference to Dawn’s policy or to the panache of his editorials. The paper’s support for the Muslim League was categorical, and he harshly criticised non-ML governments. But, like sections of the political leadership, including Fatima Jinnah, he welcomed the military coup and supported the Ayub regime on a broad range of issues.
‘Ideology’ had no place in his scheme of things; his religion was Pakistan. For this reason, in foreign policy matters, he believed a close military alliance with America was in Pakistan’s interest, and despised the Left. However, when the US started pouring military aid into India following the war in the Himalayas, the national anger found an expression in his editorials. He then became a fervent believer in a strategic relationship with China, it being of no consequence to him that Pakistan’s north-eastern neighbour was communist.
In the presidential election, Husain supported Ayub and welcomed his election. But he did on occasion criticise the Ayub regime even when martial law was on. He joined the Ayub cabinet on the field marshal’s persuasion, but resigned after the 1965 war because along with Z.A. Bhutto he was among the hawks who disagreed with Ayub’s policies.
Between Husain’s exit and the assumption of editorship by Ahmad Ali Khan in February 1973, the paper saw four editors come and go, with designations changing under stress. Jamil Ansari was, of course, an excellent journalist and editorial writer, but, unlike his predecessor, his commitment to Ayub’s policies was total. While, unlike other newspapers, the news regarding Ayub‘s memoirs – Friends, not Masters – wasn’t a lead story, it was a page-one three-column affair, with extracts carried inside; the editorial was headlined, ‘The hero’s story of a heroic struggle’.
An indication of his policy was his instructions for us to be ‘cautious’ in writing headlines that could annoy the president even if it concerned Vietnam and reflected adversely on the American military. Ansari was sidelined when for the first – and let’s hope the last – time a Haroon became editor. The motive behind Yusuf Haroon’s assuming the office of Chief Editor was to thwart any government attempt to foist its own editor on the paper.
As a sub, I remember receiving instructions that appeared odd. The page layout was as dull as it could be, headlines became ridiculously small and we were told to avoid verb in headlines. So instead of ‘three killed in accident’ it was ‘death of three in accident’ or ‘passage of bill by NA’ rather than ‘NA passes bill’. In relaxed conversation with the newsroom staff Yusuf used to speak against Ayub, and ultimately had to flee the country. Ansari returned as editor and remained there till Altaf Gauhar became Editor-in-Chief.
As federal information secretary, Gauhar was the brains behind the draconian Press and Publications Ordinance, but suddenly he seemed to have discovered the virtues of free speech, as his criticism of ZAB’s policies show. Also adding to the Bhutto government’s discomfiture were two columns, more sarcastic than analytical, by S. R. Ghauri and Syed Najiulla. A versatile man, who later became an author also, Gauhar had to face prison, for the barbs in his editorials were too much for the government.
Unlike Yusuf and Gauhar, Mazhar Ali Khan was a dyed-in-the-wool progressive who knew journalism inside out and brought with him the valuable experience of being a former editor of the Pakistan Times. He abandoned Gauhar’s recklessness, and in his brief tenure ran the paper as a professional, and even though he differed with government policy on several issues, like his insistence on Bangladesh’s immediate recognition much to Bhutto’s annoyance, he did so by logic and reason. However, it was Ahmad Ali Khan’s quarter-century tenure that restored editorial stability to Dawn and gave a traditionally rightist paper a progressive thrust often branded ‘leftist’ by his critics.
Yet there was no seismic shift in policy, because Gen Ziaul Haq was a ruthless dictator, flogged journalists and used religion as a power tool. As Ahmad Ali Khan often told us, the challenge was to make use of such opportunities as were available and crawl rather than race. Thus, without frontally attacking the regime and challenging Zia’s usurpation of power, Dawn supported him on peripheral issues like Zakat and Salat, while opposing the pillars of his ‘ideological’ structure like Qazi courts; reminded the regime of Jinnah’s commitment to equality in law of all citizens and uncompromisingly stood for parliamentary democracy. The fact that Mahmoud A. Haroon, the paper’s owner, was Zia’s interior minister, made no difference to his policy.
A monumental decision on his part was to launch the weekly Economic & Business Review, which served as a forum for critically examining the regime’s policies, even if confined to business and finance. Gradually, as martial law gave way to ‘controlled’ democracy, Dawn opened its pages to a stunning variety of commentators ranging from Edward Said and Henry Kissinger from abroad to Dr Eqbal Ahmad, M. H. Askari, M. B. Naqvi, Omar Kureishi, Ayaz Amir, Ardeshir Cowasjee and Mazdak (Irfan Husain) at home.
His tenure also saw a technological revolution – from hot metal through photo offset to computerisation. By the time he bowed out, Dawn had emerged as an independent paper recognised for its critical yet sober journalism committed to a pluralistic society and statecraft. When he took over, Dawn was a six-pager; when he retired in 2000, it had four weekly magazines, with Dawn also having its Lahore edition. He also replaced the paper’s decades-old layout with a modified horizontal one.
Between Khan’s departure and Zaffar Abbas, the incumbent, we had three editors: Saleem Asmi, Tahir Mirza and Abbas Nasir. By no means should their contribution to Dawn be underestimated because of space constraints.
Saleem Asmi was the first Dawn editor from the news side, having served as news editor in Dawn and Khaleej Times, though like Mirza he too had a brief stint as a reporter. His grasp of the news was perceptive. One of his decisions was to publish Osama bin Laden’s interview by Hamid Mir, even though he was a non-staffer, because the interview contained hard news about nuclear technology. Gen Pervez Musharraf felt piqued because he was in America at the time. Asmi also paid attention to art coverage. Of the two magazines he left behind, The Gallery, as the name suggests, concerned art; the other was Books and Authors. Asmi also launched Dawn’s Islamabad edition.
Mirza had already made clear he wouldn’t be there for more than three years, because he was a writer and felt his talents circumscribed as editor. He was on his toes when the earthquake struck Pakistan and Azad Kashmir, and I think the quality of Dawn’s coverage and comments was better than that of any other daily. A man of principle he resigned his petrodollar job with Khaleej Times as executive editor because the owner wanted him to write a ghost column for him.
Abbas Nasir had to operate in a totally different Pakistan where a multi-media world of cyber journalism with 24-hour TV news, FM radio and websites were forcing newspapers to think afresh. He made dawn.com what it today is by overhauling what critics used to call ‘yesterday´s newspaper on today’s web’. He also made the Dawn team realise that it would be absurd to merely report what TV had told our readers 24 hours earlier. So the print version had to have a dug-out bit of cerebral background to give the breakfast reader something different from the electronic channels’ ocular coverage. Nasir also came out most categorically in favour of civilian supremacy, included new writers for op-ed pages and mobilised the reporting side to come up with investigative stories which TV channels later followed.
While I have in my humble way given a brief assessment of our editors, I cannot but remember those countless unknown soldiers whose names the readers never knew but who helped the editors make Dawn what it is today. They are too numerous to be mentioned. In natural calamities or man-made disasters, street battles or war zones, the Dawn person has been aware of the fact that he/she is serving a paper founded by the man who founded Pakistan.
There is charisma in the word Dawn. In April 1950, the paper’s name was changed to Herald, inviting public wrath. The moniker Dawn returned, and Altaf Husain wrote in a page-one double-column box in colour, headlined Dawn zindabad: “I give them back their Dawn. No one is happier today than I. [...] Dawn was never dead. It was not intended to die. It shall never die.”
The writer is Dawn’s Readers’ Editor
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.