THE closure of Herald marks the end of one of the brightest chapters in independent journalism in Pakistan. Over four decades of its publication, the magazine upheld the finest traditions of professionalism, objectivity and resistance, a fast vanishing legacy.
It is a particularly sad day at a time when the space for free media is shrinking. It’s not only the coercive force of the state in play but social media is also being used as a weapon to intimidate journalists. Systematic smear campaigns are launched to silence those who dare to raise their voice.
A hashtag calling for the arrest of journalists recently became the top Twitter trend, indicating the growing intolerance in society. Professional ethics and objectivity are major victims of the deepening polarisation that is also permeating journalism.
There is a greater need than ever to revive the proud legacy of resistance that ‘Herald’ embodied.
Hence there is a greater need to revive the proud legacy of resistance that Herald and other publications embodied. True, the media scene has changed tremendously over the period with the rise of electronic and web-based journalism but professional values must be preserved.
Herald came about when Illustrated Weekly, a largely social magazine, was converted into a monthly political publication in 1977. The indomitable Razia Bhatti was its first editor. It was a period of great political turmoil when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s government was in confrontation with the opposition following the controversial 1977 elections. Herald took on both the government and the conservative Pakistan National Alliance.
The magazine’s candid and objective commentary on the political situation established its independent credentials. Herald provoked the wrath of General Zia’s military government by challenging its harsh rule and oppressive laws. During the days of the toughest press censorship the magazine continued to voice its protest and maintained its independence with an unusual weapon — the blank space.
With some pages of Herald remaining blank, the readers got the message. So did the military regime. And soon the blank pages were banned from publication. The ten years of military rule and its oppressive methods saw the noose around the press tightening. But the clampdown could not deter Herald and its team from telling the truth. General Zia once got so infuriated with the magazine that, waving a copy at a press conference, he said that he could not tolerate that kind of journalism.
Herald went through another transformation under Razia Bhatti with the launching of its new format in January 1984. Like many other young journalists, I also learnt the ropes at Herald. I joined the magazine in 1983. I was the lone male on the all-female editorial staff at the time, though others joined the crew later. It was the best of times and the worst of times for journalism. The draconian laws had stifled freedom of expression but that also gave rise to a vibrant resistance media.
The new look Herald with its formidable team of talented journalists gave a new dimension to investigative reporting and analysis. Introducing the new Herald Razia Bhatti aptly conveyed the fresh approach to journalism: “We will be hanging on to our punch but hope to add some clout. We’ll be playing by ear, but with an eye to the news and a nose for the trend.” That became the guiding line for the magazine throughout its publication.
From 1984 to 1988, Herald published many explosive investigative stories despite restrictions under the military rule on issues ranging from political persecution in Sindh to the involvement of security agencies in drug trafficking. Razia would persistently push reporters like us to dig out more facts and clarify the minutest details. She would spend night after night editing stories to perfection.
I remember her spending an entire night working on the intro of Herald’s 1986 cover story ‘The poppy war’, an investigative story I did on the firing on poppy cultivators in Gadoon district of what is now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Interestingly, the point that took the longest to clarify was the exact time of dawn in the area when the firing took place. The story went on to win the prestigious Asia-Pacific Award for best editorial writing.
While fiercely guarding their editorial independence, there were some instances where editors were compelled to make some compromises with the management in order for them not to burn their boats. I remember one occasion when Benazir Bhutto returned home upon ending her two-year-long forced exile in 1986. The massive reception she received made headlines in the international media.
It was indeed the biggest story in the world but the management insisted that she should not be put on the cover, though there was no pressure to change the editorial content. A compromise was finally reached whereby a collage of several political leaders with Benazir was put on the cover. The cover story remained unchanged with Benazir’s hard-hitting interview.
In August 1988, Razia Bhatti along with several other members of the staff left Herald and founded a new magazine, Newsline, with the same approach. Herald continued to publish under different editors — including Sherry Rehman, Arifa Noor and most recently Badar Alam — over the next two decades, carrying on its legacy and maintaining the highest standards of journalism. There was a healthy competition with Newline of which I was also a founding member.
The two magazines made a huge mark not only at home but also internationally. They became the face of the fiercely independent and vibrant Pakistani media. The two magazines produced a whole crop of brilliant investigative journalists and writers over the last four decades. Many of them have made their name in the international media.
The closure of Herald also illustrates the fast changing face of media at home and globally. The importance of a monthly newsmagazine has diminished in the age of 24/7 TV news channels and news websites covering not only breaking stories but also carrying in-depth analyses.
But the rich legacy of independent media left by Herald must be carried on. It has become more imperative than ever for journalists to seek the truth, spotlight injustice and fight for its redressal. It is indeed a tough time for independent media but freedom can only be preserved through resistance.
Published in Dawn, July 10th, 2019