I ALWAYS thought that I had entered journalism at the worst possible time. Till recently, that is. I joined The Star (a publication of the Dawn Group, now defunct) in June 1981 when the press was kept on a tight leash through harsh censorship by Gen Zia-ul Haq’s martial law regime. Transgressions could lead to imprisonment, fines, bans — or all of these. But no off-the-record threats. No enforced disappearances.
Then and now. Disturbing developments related to the media over the past few years or so have made me consider the consequences of my editorial lapses in the 1980s and imagine what it would be now. Perhaps the most serious dilemma I was faced with concerned a tussle between conscience and prudence. Conscience won and though I and the newspaper suffered the consequences, I did not regret my decision.
The issue involved the long imprisonment of Rasul Baksh Palijo, the founder and head of Awami Tehreek, a leftist and progressive leader from Sindh who is generally credited with organising the 1983 MRD movement against Gen Zia in parts of the province.
Palijo had been in Kot Lakhpat jail in Lahore for a lengthy period when The Star columnist, Ahmed Bashir, visited him and wrote about the meeting as well as the state of the prisoner’s health. I refrained from publishing the column for some time but when Ahmed Bashir pleaded with me, referring to Mr Palijo’s deteriorating health, I could not appease my conscience.
The difference between then and now is the clarity of risks being taken.
While in most instances, the repercussions from the Zia regime were felt after the weekend (in those days, Friday was the weekly holiday), the weekend that the Palijo piece appeared happened to be the day the general was in Karachi. The dictator, who never shied away from expressing his contempt for politicians had a particular aversion to Palijo. This was due to the fact that Mr Palijo was seen as a figure of resistance in Sindh.
The immediate consequence of the general’s ire was the suspension of Ahmed Bashir’s column. However, this was familiar territory, a situation I had handled before. Ahmed Bashir’s byline was given a pseudonym for some weeks and the firebrand writer agreed to stick to ‘safer’ subjects, bouncing back when the tension passed.
Although not much love could be expected out of Islamabad during the Zia period, Ahmed Hassan’s weekly column, titled ‘From Islamabad with Love’, was highly popular. With his wit and innuendos between the lines, he often succeeded in reducing the Zia regime to a laughing stock. Then — as now — satire, more than serious criticism, irked our rulers. Ahmed Hassan and Irfan Husain (who went through the highest number of byline changes) were known for riling the powerful in Islamabad. So there is a sense of déjà-vu in reading about the ban on political satire from television channels by Pemra.
Our spirits were often down and we knew when, for the sake of the newspaper’s survival (not our own), we had to step back. However, going by the current level of intolerance and high-handedness, today I could certainly have — along with Ahmed Bashir — become one of the forcibly ‘disappeared’. In the 1980s, we were censored and we resisted. Inventing and reinventing strategies to hoodwink the censors but inform the reader.
Those in the Press Information Department blue-pencilling articles daily were also strangely naïve. They would, for example, delete any reference to Indian actor Dilip Kumar but would allow an entire satirical play Maqbool (based on Macbeth), dramatising a plot to execute Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, to be published. Written by Najma Sadeque, this was a piece that gave me (unnecessarily it turned out) some sleepless nights. Luckily, the censors could not recognise Zia in the character of Maqbool and we laughed in relief!
Often censorship directives caused a great deal of amusement. When the American balloonist and publisher, Malcolm Forbes, visited Pakistan and unsuccessfully attempted to float a giant balloon in the shape of Minar-i-Pakistan, his failure inspired many satire writers and cartoonists. However, since the balloonist had come at the invitation of Gen Zia, this opportunity for humour was quickly killed by directives from the PID. Humour has never been appreciated by dictators of whichever period of our history they belong to. A wide pillar in my office displayed many of the brilliant cartoons that Vai Ell drew but could not be published.
The idea behind writing this piece is not to romanticise censorship of an earlier period. Censorship, in any form or age, is ultimately soul-shattering. The difference between then and now is the clarity of risks being taken. We knew which law or Martial Law Regulation we were violating and the consequences they entailed. For example, when newspapers started leaving blank spaces to indicate censored material, it soon became punishable under an MLR. But resistance always found a way to express itself.
However, censorship is getting grimmer by the day. The killing of Saleem Shahzad in May 2011 exemplified the new levels of danger for journalists and encapsulated what George Bernard Shaw wrote many years ago, ie “the ultimate form of censorship is assassination”.Perhaps it was a turning point of sorts, indicating that the real powers-that-be are getting into the business of threatening and killing journalists.
In five years alone (2013 – 2018), 26 journalists had been killed in Pakistan with impunity. Some years ago, there was an assassination attempt on Hamid Mir, believed to be because of giving a voice to Balochistan. The recent censorship of his interview with former president Asif Zardari is reminiscent of the consequences faced by Dawn for publishing an interview of former prime minister Mian Nawaz Sharif.
Journalists who have been threatened and attacked have been on the run lately and some forced to flee the country. This group also includes bloggers some of who were picked up, ‘disappeared’, tortured and released with threats.
Censorship, whether under a military dictatorship or its civilian reincarnation, is reprehensible. The stakes and the dangers are higher today. Resistance must also be stronger.
The writer is a human rights activist.
Published in Dawn, July 7th, 2019