Giving up is not an option

Jul 16 2019


The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

YEARS ago, I heard Beena Sarwar (journalist and editor) narrate a story involving veteran journalist Aziz Siddiqui, who was part of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan at the time. Angry and frustrated at the turn of events (of which there are many in Pakistan), Beena asked him what the point was of all the effort people such as her put in for journalism, democracy and human rights — to name a few. He looked up and said, “Tau kiya karain, hathyar daal dain?” (What else can we do? Give up?”)

Twenty years on, the story never leaves me for it is a reminder to simply plod on. There is no other choice for most of us who have only one home — Pakistan — and no second passport for an exit strategy.

It is also a story that is never far from my mind these days as we cope with the various challenges — financial and others — that confront journalism.

But the fact that one is not alone in this effort to plod on was brought home recently at a conference on the state of the media. Held in London, the first of its kind, the event featured journalists from everywhere including those who are worried about the pressures on the fourth estate. Speaker after speaker spoke of Jamal Khashoggi and his brutal death, which seems to have been forgotten by most of us rather quickly.

There is no other choice for most people, who have only one home and no second passport.

Indeed, the press is under fire everywhere, from the United States (where the leader of the Free World tweets against it) to the Middle East and Myanmar and beyond. In comparison, perhaps, what is happening in our neck of the woods may not even be all that alarming. If being muted is our major problem, let us consider those who are being detained in Egypt, or kidnapped in Gaza, or trying to report on Syria and Yemen, or surviving assassination attempts in Lebanon. (A speaker at the conference was a Lebanese journalist who lost her arm and leg in as assassination attempt.)

It is time we all tried to understand the shifts taking place globally. Even if we may differ on where exactly Pakistan fits in — the polarisation among us has even split opinions on the enormity of what confronts us — it would do well to remember that our experience is not an isolated one. The challenges being faced here are not unique, but are part of the larger trend being witnessed worldwide. And it is important to realise this especially as we operate in a country that has always been vulnerable to outside intervention.

In fact, at an informal roundtable of South Asian journalists, it was interesting that we found common ground in describing covert pressures, which makes work difficult, but are hard to document and protest against. Those ruling us have discovered better, quieter ways of silencing voices while we have fallen behind times and are yet to find ways to resist this.

Indeed, in our part of the world and in others, more dangerous ones, the threats are legal and economic as well as physical.

At the conference, governments pledged money to set up a fund to support journalism, especially by providing legal assistance to journalists being tried. This perhaps can prove to be a much-needed step. Because as the world has become a harsher place for journalists, charges, trials and imprisonments have become more frequent.

There are chances of Pakistan following this worldwide trend — not so much for reporting, but because of the haphazard world of social media. Unfiltered opinions on social media — unchecked and ungoverned — will be targeted with the help of new laws which cover cyberspace. It has already begun and will get worse (before, hopefully, it gets better).

But this is not the only aim behind creating the fund.

The idea behind the billion-dollar fund is to support media platforms, good journalism and individual journalists. As mentioned earlier, individuals are already in need of help and will welcome it, especially when embroiled in legal troubles.

But how easy will it be to support investigative journalism or institutions which can then strengthen reporting? If Pakistan provides any indication, support for national-level journalism from outside might not be too welcomed. After all, we live in times where isolationism has overshadowed internationalism. And a growing sense of nationalism and insularity has increased suspicion of outsiders and their agendas.

At home, for a number of reasons, the distrust of the outside world and its ‘interest’ — or rather ‘agenda’ — for Pakistan has grown in recent years. This has been especially true in the post-Musharraf period when the romance with the West slowly began to fade away after 9/11. This distrust and suspicion has extended to Western outlets that can and do report on Pakistan, relatively free of the encumbrances faced by their local counterparts. Their reportage and intentions behind it are now suspect — in perception — as are many capitals once seen as close friends. This is different from the old days when the BBC and others were seen as credible institutions which had the strength to report what perhaps the rest of us were not able to do so.

Within this context, if there is reporting in Pakistan, for instance, which is made possible by donations coming from elsewhere, will it enjoy the credibility it requires to make a difference? Do similar sentiments exist in other countries also, where the press is under fire? It is hard to say for sure, but it may be a question that will be raised more than once before the answers are discovered.

Indeed, there are no easy answers to the changing times we muddle our way through. But we cannot give up, can we? Perhaps that is what the people who had gathered in London also wanted to say.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, July 16th, 2019