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Long road to a dubious victory

October 18, 2017
A much respected Minhaj Barna addressing the delegates of Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) who had gathered in Lahore from all over the country for its biennial meeting in 1985. Seen sitting are the equally-respected Nisar Osmani (right) and Afzal Khan. | Photo: Azhar Jafri Archives
A much respected Minhaj Barna addressing the delegates of Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) who had gathered in Lahore from all over the country for its biennial meeting in 1985. Seen sitting are the equally-respected Nisar Osmani (right) and Afzal Khan. | Photo: Azhar Jafri Archives

IMAGINE: a community of unarmed, peaceful citizens, working as journalists and seeking reasonable wages and the right to free expression. They are confronted with the banning of publications, the loss of jobs. They suffer arrests, torture and being sentenced under charges of sedition and rebellion. They are fined and flogged, assassinated by identified, identifiable and unidentified killers for the ‘crime’ of asserting their rights. Their work places – and even residences – are vandalised; torched and razed, and attacked with bombs and rockets.

Faced with such challenges, the community justifiably felt the need to organise itself. The initiative for a national organisation of working journalists was taken by the Sindh Union of Journalists (SUJ), led by Messrs. M.A. Shakoor and Asrar Ahmad. They started with framing and adopting a constitution of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) at a convention held in Karachi from April 28-30, 1950, resulting in the PFUJ coming into existence on Aug 2, 1950.

The first confrontation occurred soon after partition when a top bureaucrat ordered that his excised (‘edited’/censored) version of the Quaid-i-Azam’s first address as the president of the Constituent Assembly be published. But the Dawn editor published it intact.

It was in Jinnah’s lifetime that Faiz Ahmed Faiz, as editor-in-chief of the dailies Pakistan Times and Imroze, was arrested. A week later, Sindh’s leading newspaper Al-Waheed’s publication was banned and its editor was arrested. This resulted in the boycott of any news about the Sindh government.

After Jinnah’s early demise, the bureaucracy ran riot. There is no evidence that prime minister Liaquat Ali Khan advised any restraint. Journalists and editors committed some reprehensible acts too: stalwarts, including Faiz, Altaf Husain, Hameed Nizami, Pir Ali Mohammad Rashdih, Z.A. Suleri, Mir Khalilur Rehman and some others, were party to punitive actions against newspapers and journalists, including the publication of a joint editorial seeking drastic action against the region’s oldest English daily.

Unfettered press freedom was not acceptable to the civil bureaucracy-dominated and military-inducted establishment. It could obliterate quite a few dailies and other publications, which, counting both wings, numbered around three dozen during Pakistan’s first decade. Editors and working journalists, including Faiz, Suleri, Nizami, Ahmad Ali Khan, Zaheer Babar, Ghayurul Islam and Nasrullah Khan were arrested and action taken against their publications.

Faiz was arrested having been identified as one of the ringleaders of a conspiracy to subvert the loyalties of Pakistan’s defence forces. By now, however, the PFUJ and its affiliates had established their credentials and could get some of the actions reversed.

The Ayub regime put the press under siege with the imposition of pre-censorship, and the arrest of leading journalists, including Syed Sibte Hasan, Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi and Faiz. Pakistan’s internationally acclaimed daily The Pakistan Times, and other publications of Progressive Papers Ltd. (PPL) were taken over by the National Press Trust (NPT).

The PFUJ Biennial at Dacca in 1960, in its resolutions, dealt with the military government’s excesses against the press. The Ayub regime responded by enforcing the notorious Press and Publications Ordinance (PPO), 1960.

The PFUJ’s struggle entered a new phase with the participation of regional and provincial unions. As the Ayub regime prepared for1965’s presidential elections, it started muzzling the media further. It took over the Associated Press of Pakistan (APP), and enacted amendments to the PPO that imposed further restrictions.

The East Pakistan Union of Journalists (EPUJ) and the Karachi Union of Journalists (KUJ) suggested a day’s strike, with the non-publication of newspapers. The PFUJ endorsed it and a countrywide strike took place on Sept 9, 1963. The All Pakistan Newspapers Society (APNS) and the Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors (CPNE) supported it, resulting in the suspension of the enforcement of the amended PPO. It was later further amended, but the PFUJ continued to demand its withdrawal.

After the 1965 war, the Dacca daily Ittefaq published the Six Points adopted by the Awami League. Its editor Taffazzul Husain was arrested, while agitating mobs destroyed the NPT building because its papers supported the government.

Gen Ayub handed over power to Gen Yahya in 1969. The latter’s refusal to hand over power to the Awami League resulted in rebellion in the eastern wing. Many citizens and journalists, including EPUJ leader Shaheedullah Qaiser, were killed in cold blood. Many others were arrested and tortured. A newspaper premises was razed to the ground by tank fire, while the editor of the Morning News, an NPT daily, S.G.M. Badruddin, rushed in his slippers to board the flight at Dacca airport to fly to the west wing. But his ordeal was not over: here, too, he was to face incarceration as editor of the daily Musawat during the Zia dictatorship.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto replaced Gen Yahya but his promises of abolishing the PPO and the NPT remained unfulfilled. Publications were banned, journalists, editors, publishers and printers were arrested, sentenced and fined. The daily The Sun, the Jamaat-i-Islami’s Jasarat, Mehran of Hyderabad, the Frontier Guardian of Peshawar and Hurriyet in Karachi faced action, as did Nawa-i-Waqt, Jang and even the NPT daily, Imroze. Once again, the PFUJ, the APNS, and the CPNE observed a day’s strike.

During Gen Zia’s military dictatorship, about a hundred dailies and other publications were banned. After Bhutto’s arrest, the printing press handling Musawat refused to print it, acquiescing only after the PFUJ decision to start a hunger strike.

The PFUJ offered rich dividends to the fraternity till its fragmentation. With M.A. Shakoor, Asrar Ahmad, Eric Rahim, Shaheedullah Qaiser, K.G. Mustafa, Safdar Qureshi, Minhaj Barna, and Nisar Osmani leading the community, journalists in both wings made sacrifices for press freedom.

A military court awarded the sentence of lashings for courting arrest in Lahore to four: Nasir Zaidi, Khawar Naeem Hashmi, Iqbal Jafri who had travelled from Karachi to court arrest, and Masudullah Khan. Lashings were executed on three at a Lahore prison; the jail doctor did not let the sentence on Masudullah to be executed on ground of his compromised health. That was May 13, 1978.

When PFUJ had to call journalists again the same year at Karachi, haris and labour also courted arrest. It ended with the restoration of Musawat and the release of arrested journalists and their supporters.

Journalists had to confront not just the military regimes of Zia and Musharraf, but also the elected governments of Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto. Attacks on newspaper offices and journalists by state and non-state actors continued. The journalist community, having been divided into parallel bodies at the federal and provincial levels, had to limit its reaction to condemnatory statements and token protests.

The emergence of the electronic media under private control was preceded by the hiring of staff through contractors. The induction of non-permanent and unprofessional staff became the norm. The sacrifices continued even at the cost of life as now it is a media free-for-all rather than a free press. Perhaps that had always been Gen Musharraf’s objective. Who knows?


The writer is a senior journalist.


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.