THE Dawn Karachi is 70 this year. Over the decades, scores of people have joined hands to help the paper sustain its standing and standards. But there is one man whose contribution was singular. Without the direction he provided, Dawn could not have risen to the heights to which it has, notwithstanding the numerous crises it has had to weather in its eventful life.
That one man was Ahmad Ali Khan, the longest serving professional editor of an English-language newspaper in Pakistan. Khan Sahib, as he was respectfully called, remained associated with the paper for 41 years; 28 of them as the editor. When he came to the helm in May, 1973, the newspaper was going through a severe financial crisis. To display its displeasure against the paper for its bold and independent stance, the government had been resorting to all kinds of measures to twist its arms. With his ingenuity, Khan Sahib not only pulled the paper out of troubled waters, but his enduring presence also provided Dawn the stability it needed to grow and expand. This was done gracefully without a hint of surrender.
Ahmad Ali Khan modestly described himself as a survivor, but he was more than that. A survivor thinks only of saving himself. Khan Sahib’s mission was to keep the paper afloat, albeit without surrendering the paper’s, his own and his colleagues’ dignity or soul, to use his own words. For those of us who worked with him, it was important that we could all hold our heads high because we were made to feel a part of a big team working with a sense of purpose.
The fact, however, remained that, as the leader, Khan Sahib’s was the brain that framed the purpose and set the tone. Under him, Dawn had to be a newspaper that upheld the highest principles of ethical journalism. It unswervingly stood for democracy, peace, tolerance, human rights and social justice. And while it adopted this stance, it was expected never to let go of truth at any cost.
This was by no means an easy undertaking, if one remembers that the press has never been free in Pakistan. For the editor it has involved the delicate act of testing waters and doing tightrope walking in order to come as close to first-rate journalism as possible. This was accomplished without letting the axe fall on the paper’s unwritten but strictly observed code of ethics. Ahmad Ali Khan had the integrity, selflessness and courage to do this and succeed. He often said, “I am not here to have the paper shut down, which is very easy for me to do. The real challenge is to keep the paper going without compromising its principles.”
And what were those principles AAK (as he signed his initials on the memos we used to receive) stood for? Of course, reporting the truth and widening the horizons of freedom with responsibility were the top priorities as should be the aim of every media outlet. But in the process, Dawn adopted its own characteristic approach in the Walter Lipmann style which stood for fairness and balance in reporting and restraint in commenting. Woe betide him who resorted to lampooning, ranting or mudslinging and still somehow managing to get the piece printed in the paper. Dignity was the hallmark of the paper and every issue had to be argued out logically and elucidated for the benefit of the reader and also the authorities. This gave the paper credibility that became the strength of Dawn.
What I found remarkable about Khan Sahib was his staunch sense of fair play which he did not allow to be swept aside by personal considerations. He was quick to admit any error of judgment if one had been committed and to even rectify it. A misreporting was always followed by a correction. A person who felt he had been wrongly accused of a wrongdoing was always given space to give his own version of the story.
Above all, for AAK the newspaper constituted sacred ‘public space’ that was for the readers, never to be used to promote his own personal/family interest. Even in running the paper Khan Sahib adopted a democratic and participatory style. On his own part he was self-effacing and never tried to steal the limelight. All attention had to be focused on the newspaper.
There was the occasion when some hooligans from an ethnic political party got provoked by an innocuous news item in the paper and came to his office to confront him. The ugly verbal fracas that developed edged very close to physical violence. Yet the next day’s paper breathed not a word about it.
That was how he saw the division between the personal and the professional. Khan Sahib insisted that as journalists we should have two compartments in our mind – one for our own private opinions and beliefs on various issues, with another one reserved for Dawn’s official position on them. This held true chiefly for politics.
True to his Leftist leanings, Khan Sahib showed unlimited concern for education of the masses, healthcare for all, fairness and employment for labour, rights of the child and empowerment of women. These issues had to be contained in one compartment that saw the world through the prism of social justice. Under him, Dawn, whose forte had been political analysis, came to excel in its reporting and analysis of social issues as well.
I could not really fathom his relationship with technology. Once when I presented him with a tiny pocket calculator, he was fascinated. For quite some time he sat exploring it with almost child-like curiosity and interest as I sat waiting to discuss whatever I had gone to talk to him about. But the big computer that sat on the side table beside his desk never interested him and he didn’t bother to even touch it. Yet his most brilliant achievement can be said to be his success in navigating Dawn through the shoals of technology when we entered the digital age and computerisation became indispensible.
The writer is a former Dawn staffer.