LAST week, a young rookie journalist called to say he wanted to quit the profession. There was no point in staying put when it wasn’t possible to call a spade a spade, he said.
When did journalism become a profession about calling a spade a spade? I thought that no one had really been able to do that since Manto put his pen down. But in recent times, there have been moments where the cacophony around has convinced the best of us that there was a golden period of freedom of expression, which we have lost suddenly and abruptly. No wonder, the disillusioned young one believes that journalism is over.
But before television — after the dark, nasty days of Zia — journalism was about constant negotiation within. It wasn’t called self-censorship but caution so we didn’t lose the hard-won freedom we enjoyed. And even the space for freedom varied — the English papers appeared to have more of it than the Urdu ones. We angrezi mediums had far more freedom to discuss social issues as well as political ones. But still, there were constant reminders of the curbs on us.
There was a report on the defence budget (which basically argued that we needed more information about the allocation) that nearly got held back.
In our collective mourning for the loss of freedom of expression, few seem to recall that we’ve been here before.
Once, we nearly missed the deadline as we debated if the comment on the Hamoodur Rehman Commission report should be displayed on the front page or inside. When the first anniversary of the nuclear explosions took place, we were told that every article critical of the decision to go nuclear had to be balanced by one making the counter argument.
While at The News, we twiddled our thumbs for a couple of weeks as Jang battled it out with second-time prime minister Nawaz Sharif and the organisation ran out of newsprint. Articles, stories and columns were dropped then too but without much public outrage.
I remember shared amusement with an editor about the stories of politicians’ statements condemning the bombing in Dera Bugti — because hardly any paper had carried any story about the bombings. The condemnation of an act we didn’t report on was displayed prominently.
But nowhere in these rush of memories is one in which anyone expressed disillusionment with the profession. Those who had taken it upon themselves to guide us, seemed to believe that it was a war worth fighting, no matter what.
Guerilla journalism was how I remember it being described, If you got in something hard hitting, it was best to retreat and lay low till the next opportune moment. We were told that we were there for a marathon run and not a sprint.
Then came the Musharraf period. Television channels took over and the distinction between the English and Urdu press blurred while journalism transformed into media. I remember stumbling upon a talk show in which incest and rape were discussed — sensitively. Was it the very next day or within a week that the news channel’s offices were attacked — for the show I viewed or the interview of Shimon Peres run by the newspaper within the group? It was never made clear.
And then came the press freedom, as we now seem to remember it. Unbridled, as Musharraf became the target. In the fight to remove him, everyone was united — the political forces, civil society, the media and even, it seemed, the military. It appeared as if the freedom had been readily given so that he could be destroyed. This is why the crackdown on us didn’t last long. Eventually, Musharraf was sent packing.
But in the process, we got used to ‘press freedom’ which is hard for us print wallahs to fathom. For instance, live transmissions, which allow little room for editorial control are now seen as synonymous with freedom. No newspaper article goes into print without being edited; why shouldn’t news channels transmissions also be vetted? And how come we now call this censorship? The newsroom filters in newspapers are not called censorship?
When the empire, which had stood with the media in 2007, struck back, it was so subtle that some of us missed the initial signs. We were forced to notice it first with Geo. By then, the industry was now too big and unwieldy an enterprise to enjoy the solidarity of APNS.
Soon, suspension of a channel became routine. There was little outrage when a relatively unknown channel was suspended along with its offending anchor. He was of the parachuting variety, apparently and not ‘synonymous’ with press freedom so no one complained. Asma Jahangir took up the cudgels on behalf of the channel because she realised the precedent being set. But we simply let it pass.
For decades now, the suspension of a newspaper had been deemed unacceptable but channels somehow were children of a lesser god. We were too busy enjoying the freedoms we individually had. (The flow of information from the conflict zones had long been controlled — and we didn’t mind as long as we could opine on it. Now that the opinion is being questioned, we think freedom of press is threatened.) And the empire simply pushed more as it faced no resistance.
Now that the pressure has increased to a point where defiance is immediately punished there is outrage — but outrage is not resistance. But what is more worrying is that this time around the outrage is leading to disillusionment. In our collective mourning for the loss of freedom of expression, few seem to remember that we have been here before. And that it is important to keep fighting, however we can.
Also, compromise is not a dirty word. Earlier, it was a fight always worth fighting — even when bureaucrats would decide the merit of stories or when a legend of journalism worked with the understanding that BB’s picture would not make it to the cover. We were taught that it was important not to quit. When did we lose the sense of purpose and conclude that journalism was purposeful only if we worked without pressure?
Perhaps we owe an apology to the young one who wants to quit.
The writer is a journalist.
Published in Dawn, May 8th, 2018