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The resistance of Pakistani journalism is dying — and it frightens me

Long a safe haven, journalism no longer provides shelter to fight back from.
Updated May 16, 2019 04:10pm

Fears have haunted me since childhood. Fear of the dark, fear of shadows and of evil characters in fairy tales.

In Lakhpat Bhawan, my ancestral home, twilight brought out charpai and my grandmother’s stories. But if horrors ever came towards our Larkana city, she said, spirits from the ancient Mohenjodaro would rise up to protect us.

I started reading stories with my Persian-descent grandfather. Babuji brought me into the mesmerising worlds of ‘Alif Laila’, ‘Hazaar Dastaan’, ‘Tilism-i-Hoshruba’, so even today, I consider myself to be a storyteller.

But fears kept chasing me. The fear of crossing the boundaries of our neighbourhood and of facing street thug Marchoo Badmash and his friends. The fear of visiting my father’s grave with my mother and the fear of the rustle of leaves at the graveyard.

When I was a young boy, I saw the darkness and shadows lengthening in real life: Bhutto's execution, armoured vehicles, stomping boots, curfews, midnight raids, the disappearances.

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Then, instead of scary fairy tales, stories of terrifying realities were narrated in our courtyard.

In my childhood, I witnessed Pakistan’s stained political theatre as a spectator — and then in my youth I played the role of a playwright in that street theatre.

A storyteller fearful of the dark and shadows, I stepped into journalism and found it a shelter, believing it to be a safe haven — a shelter for the past 28 years.

From the blood-soaked streets of Karachi to the tribal areas and mountains of Afghanistan, from London to Jerusalem — the wars and conflicts, life and death, dark shadows and fears were rendered real, but journalism was a protection.

The author presenting the news in BBC's London studios.—All photos by author
The author presenting the news in BBC's London studios.—All photos by author

I started my journalistic journey just two years after the restoration of democracy in the country, with the launch of the English newspaper The News.

I spent days and nights in the offices of The News or Newsline Magazine. During those days, the newsroom and reporter's room were a laboratory for us.

Our seniors and mentors had experienced the censorship of the Zia era, so they prescribed indirect resistance and writing between the lines. But we, the then-new generation, believed in shouting from the rooftops.

At that time in Karachi, there was the terror of the militants of Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) — then known as Muhajir Qaumi Movement — and in rural Sindh, it was the terror of powerful feudal lords.

When I wrote stories about the split in the MQM and internal fighting, the MQM chairperson at the time, Azeem Tariq (who was later killed) warned me, “I don't have any soft spot in my heart.”

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On June 12, 1992, when the military launched an operation against the MQM, the terror was such that there was a debate in our newsroom and reporter’s room whether we should rely on the despatches of BBC and VOA for the next day’s issue.

I was a junior reporter at the time and, with my editor’s permission, I went across the city; armoured vehicles patrolled the streets, party leaders and workers went into hiding and Altaf Hussain had gone into self-exile.

I returned to the office; the next day’s newspaper was filled with my stories, but without my byline. Was my safety a priority for my editors or was it a fear of the past?

When the MQM workers accused of terrorism were being killed in fake encounters and scores of bullet-ridden bodies were found, journalists like us did exposes of these encounters.

Again we faced threats. First from the MQM, then from the police and then from na-maloom afraad — but our offices and our press club remained safe spaces.

In those days, I was extremely influenced by two editors. Imran Aslam, who improved my creative writing, encouraged a literary style and gave it a prominent space in the newspaper — the writing style which I believe has become my identity.

In Afghanistan during the war.
In Afghanistan during the war.

And I learnt boldness and courage from the late Razia Bhatti, editor of Newsline. From a small office without any guards, she took on the most powerful individuals and state institutions.

We thought we had lived through the darkness. But then came the Taliban.

After joining AFP, I reported from Afghanistan during the Taliban era. I saw the clouds of religious extremism gather, Hindus and Sikhs in Kandahar being made to wear yellow pieces of cloth on their dress. It reminded me of Hitler, Jews and yellow stars.

When I did a story on Taliban’s inhumanity and discrimination against religious minorities, it created a storm, and after threats, I had to flee from Afghanistan in the darkness of the night.

The seeds of extremism sown then have grown into poisonous plants.

Before 9/11, I joined the BBC. I travelled from London to Jerusalem, covered the Palestinian conflict and saw the oppression. The unforgettable scene in Ramallah of a Palestinian youth aiming his slingshot at an Israeli soldier and Israeli soldiers firing back brought to life images I used to see on PTV in my childhood.

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I witnessed the censorship in Israel and also experienced it while covering the civil war in Sri Lanka.

Dangers and resistance travel together in a journalistic journey.

For several years after 9/11, the tribal areas and Afghanistan became regular journalistic stations. I saw Wana Bazaar patrolled by local Taliban with their long hair and armed with Kalashnikovs and rockets; I saw leaders of Al-Qaeda taking refuge in the guest rooms of tribesmen.

When I wrote about the nexus of local Taliban, Afghan Taliban and Al-Qaeda, I received threats from Al-Qaeda and threats from unknown sources. During those days, I met Commander Nek Mohammed, who became the first target of a drone strike.

“This son of a b***h follows me around everywhere,” he said while pointing to a star-like object in the sky. Before we knew what a drone was, tribesmen called it “The Eye of Bush”.

With Taliban militants in South Waziristan after a peace agreement between the Taliban and security forces.
With Taliban militants in South Waziristan after a peace agreement between the Taliban and security forces.

Journalists like me could return back to the cities after their adventurous assignments, but back there for tribal journalists, it was extremely dangerous. They were ill equipped as journalists, less skilled and ill-trained. They were trying to find stories in the murky world of war against terrorism. How much to spit out and how much to hold back in the belly?

After 9/11, the earthquake happened in Afghanistan but the lava erupted in Pakistan’s tribal belt.

I remember tribal journalist Hayatullah's tortured body, and I also vividly remember the funeral prayers for Saleem Shehzad at Mubarak Masjid near my Seaview flat: painful moments — sobbing of siblings and the comments I overheard, that they may have tried to chase stories too big for them, and lost their lives.

The dangers facing journalists were on the rise, with the Taliban's extremism and intolerance on one side and General Musharraf's steps towards martial law on the other.

November 3, 2007. It was my daughter Risa's birthday party and she and her friends were playing in an amusement park when my phone rang. General Musharraf had imposed emergency and TV channels had been banned.

Related: My dearest Risa, I can hardly breathe

In those days, I was head of Geo English. While racing to the office, I was thinking of rollercoaster ride my daughter was on and the thought threw me into past. General Zia’s martial law and dictatorship in my youth and now an emergency in my daughter’s childhood.

The past, present and future collided.

In the struggle for the restoration of the judiciary, there were country-wide protests by journalists, lathi-charge and violence. Along with other senior journalists, I presented myself for arrest. After release, I headed back for a rally. It was a time of emotional speeches and vows for freedom in the street lined with the newspapers’ headquarters — which we called Azadi Gali during those days.

The movement for the freedom of the press, the movement for freedom of expression. The dangers, the clouds of religious extremism, increasing tolerance were hovering over journalists and journalism.

Side by side, the Taliban’s terrorism was spreading dangerously. So were their threats.

In Jerusalem at the Dome of the Rock.
In Jerusalem at the Dome of the Rock.

When Hakeemullah Mehsud was killed in a drone attack, the Taliban spokesperson and commander Ehsanullah Ehsan called me on the phone directly. “Why didn't you call our respected leader a martyr?” Harsh words were exchanged and then a threat: “I can put four bullets in your forehead and kill you.”

Since the murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl, reporters, desk journalists and their relatives once again started receiving threats. Journalists in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan found themselves gravely trapped between banned organisations and the security forces.

Painful memories kept piling up, like the horrendous murder of the young Wali Babar, who I introduced into the world of journalism. I shook hands with him at his hiring and with the same hands, lifted his coffin. Then there was the assassination attempt on Hamid Mir, Raza Rumi's exile from the country, a treason case against Cyril Almeida, all while wanted terrorists roamed free.

The walking wounded of Waziristan: The lost tribes’ search for spring

Even more painful is when my own colleagues thrust at each other with daggers of words and taunts.

The media war divided and weakened journalists’ organisations, safe press clubs became unsafe for journalists and then there’s the increasing intolerance in our society.

There has been censorship from state and non-state actors in the past — but there is also a history of defiance and resistance.

Some of our journalists and editors unfortunately have defined red zones and created comfort zones; if they don’t cross the red lines, then there will be no collision with the ones imposing censorship. But when there is no clash or collision, how will there be resistance?

Unfortunately, this resistance is diminishing. Self-censorship is creeping into the body and weakening the soul of our journalism: increasing intolerance and extremism, from politics to journalism, the dangerous trend of labelling someone a traitor or a patriot…

From a safe haven, journalism is turning unsafe for journalists. It no longer provides shelter to fight back from.

It’s suffocating, it’s hard to breathe.

Once again, deadly shadows, cruel fears and clouds of darkness haunt me.

I am afraid.


This piece was originally delivered as a speech at the Sahafi Summit. Translated by Fahd Deshmukh, it has been edited in the form of an article.


Owais Tohid is a senior journalist/writer. He can be reached at owaistohid@gmail.com and he tweets @OwaisTohid