For those interested in Pakistani politics and journalism, Pakistan Mein Sahafat Ki Mutabadil Tareekh [An Alternative History of Pakistani Journalism] is not an ordinary book. It has been produced by the Society for Alternative Media and Research (SAMAR) led by Mazhar Arif, a renowned advocate for public interest media; and authored by Dr Tauseef Ahmed Khan, an equally prominent academic and journalism educationist.

The book is not a reproduction of facts alone, but goes beyond the remit of the usual chronological compilations, by juxtaposing Pakistan’s political and socio-economic contexts against the evolutionary trajectory of journalism.

This adds a three-dimensional depth for anyone seeking to understand Pakistan’s chequered history of journalism and its impact on shaping the national political psyche. In this sense, the book fills a key gap in the available literature on public interest journalism’s attempt to impact national politics in the country’s formative decades.

After reading the book, one comes away with a distinct sense of the opportunities Pakistan has wasted in charting the course for a more progressive and inclusive polity that would have underwritten a politically stable and socially developed state, based on public interest narratives of the media. It can simultaneously evoke strong melancholia for times when journalistic idealism still thrived, even as a sense of foreboding gradually swelled and intolerance — by dictators and democrats alike — grew for a free media holding them to account for straying from their promises.

Even during the bouts of martial law in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, Pakistani media could — as the book demonstrates through brief histories of the country’s most influential publications — still sneak in creative policy criticism amid overt censorship. In contrast, today’s formal media landscape — print and electronic alike — has been rendered passive and muted in its basic function of guardianship of public interest. This evolutionary trajectory of the national media — full of hope and an infectious energy in its early decades — has today arrived at the exact opposite of how it started: devoid of an inherent public interest mission and combative energy. This excellent book, by offering a nuanced contrast, makes this stark.

A book fills a key gap in the available literature on public interest journalism’s attempt to impact national politics

The book reflects on how the journalism landscape of Pakistan in its early decades was in sync with the people’s aspirations for a plural, inclusive and progressive polity, and the future still sparkled in the popular imagination. There was no independent television back then and radio media was state-owned. Print was king and did the heavy lifting in resisting the three bouts of martial law that eventually soured the Pakistan Dream. Liberalism, socialism and pluralism were the defining ideologies peppering news coverage and the broad range of opinion and analysis that this journalism represented.

Over this period, a string of popular print titles was launched, edited and produced by professionals who still rank among Pakistan’s best journalists after all these decades. From the 1940s to the late ’70s, this broadchurch — or pluralistic — journalism led the demand for democracy even as the overlords of the state contemptuously lurched toward dictatorship. Nothing illustrates, as this book ably does, how alternative Pakistan’s journalism world was compared to now, as by the identities of the editors, reporters and analysts populating print media.

These included dailies such as Imroz, launched in 1948 (editors, key reporters and writers were Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Charagh Hasan Hasrat, Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi, Hameed Akhtar, Masood Ashar, Munoo Bhai, Akmal Aleemi, Aslam Kashmiri); Pakistan Times, 1947 (Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Charagh Hasan Hasrat, I.A. Rehman, Alys Faiz, Aziz Siddiqui, Tahir Mirza, Z.A. Sulehri); Musawat, 1970 (Hanif Ramay, Shafqat Tanvir Mirza, Abbas Athar, Munoo Bhai, Safdar Mir, Nazir Naji, Ahmed Shabbir); Azad, 1970 (I.A. Rehman, Abbas Athar, Abdullah Malik, Hamid Akhtar); Dawn, launched in 1941 as a weekly and later converted into a daily (Pothan Joseph, Altaf Hussain, Ahmed Ali Khan, Saleem Asmi, Tahir Mirza, Abbas Nasir, Zaffar Abbas, Asha’ar Rehman); Awami Awaz, 1989 (Dr Jabbar Khattak, Sohail Sangi, Anwar Pirzada, Muhammad Solangi, Badar Abro); and The Muslim, 1979 (A.T. Chaudhri, M. Ziauddin, Mushahid Hussain, Altaf Gauhar, A.B.S. Jafri, Dr Maleeha Lodhi, Farhad Zaidi, I.A. Rehman, Eric Cyprian, Minhaj Barna, Mustansar Javed, Nusrat Javed, Saleem Asmi, Nasir Zaidi, Nasir Malik, Salim Bukhari).

Back then, weeklies were also staples of progressive opinion and analysis. Illustrious titles included Lail-o-Nihar, 1957 (Sibte Hasan, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Hasan Abdi, Abdul Qadir Hasan); Al Fatah, 1970 (Minhaj Barna, Nasir Zaidi, Hussain Naqi, Dr Mubashar Hassan, Ahfazur Rehman, Mehmood Sham, Shaukat Siddiqui, Irshad Rao); Mayaar, 1976 (Ashraf Shad, Mujahid Barelvi, Farhad Zaidi, Mehmud Sham, Zameer Nafees, Rafih Qazafi); Viewpoint, 1975 (Mazhar Ali Khan, I.A. Rehman, Amin Mughal, Hussain Naqi, Zafar Iqbal Mirza, Alys Faiz, Shafqat Tanvir Mirza, Dr Akmal Hussain, Ayaz Amir, Professor Khawaja Masud); Outlook, 1962 (I.H. Burni, also founder of the Karachi Press Club and speech writer for Fatima Jinnah, Aslam Azhar, Kamal Azfar, Dr Kamal Hussain); Punjab Punch, 1970 (Hussain Naqi, Pervez Tahir, Eric Cyprian, Khalid Hussain, Najmul Hasan); and Punjab Times, 1970 (Khadija Mastoor, Safdar Mir, Hussain Naqi, Najam Hussain, Zafar Iqbal Mirza).

What a galaxy of luminaries — talk about the adage naam hi kaafi hai [the name is enough]!

A key service of this book is the unintended contrast it offers of the early decades of Pakistani journalism with its 21st century timelines. There are similarities and there are contrasts. The differences include the fact that back then, print was king (electronic and online media were a distant dream); most publications were begun in response to crackdowns, as journalists from shuttered publications, or those sacked, simply banded together to launch new titles; most journalists practised and preached leftist ideals in their outlook and were socialists in their leanings and sought pluralism and inclusivity in policymaking.

The public was the principal focus of journalistic content, not the state, as it is now, and there was greater diversity and pluralism in themes and voices in media. Journalism also tended to be educative in nature, not just info-dumping as it has now mainly coalesced into.

Also, back then, dictators (Gens Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan and Ziaul Haq) and democrats (Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, mainly) were equally scathing of and disruptive towards media and democrats. Journalists being arrested and jailed was not too uncommon, but because they were active trade unionists — unlike now — they injected this esprit de resistance into their journalism.

The public was the principal focus of journalistic content, not the state, as it is now, and there was greater diversity and pluralism in themes and voices in media. Journalism also tended to be educative in nature, not just info-dumping as it has now mainly coalesced into. It is also clear that the media back then wasn’t as bankrolled by public sector advertising as it is now. When people paid for journalism, it tended to be a mobiliser of public opinion rather than state policies.

Through detailed, illustrative case studies, the book also lets readers infer similarities between journalism of 20th century Pakistan and now — the overt intolerance of the state for public interest narratives and accountability, for one, and the persistent persecution of media for another.

The media is nearly totally corporate now, as opposed to the very large percentage run, managed and often cooperatively co-owned by working journalists back then. Now, by contrast, it is competitive in nature and majority stakes are owned by business groups whose main interests are non-media related. A big chunk of media earnings now come from the public sector — allowing for a sustainable and unholy media-state nexus to thrive. And, of course, the people just don’t pay for the bulk of the media they consume now, unlike in the past.

One can’t help but notice how most of the luminaries who were journalists — and, in many ways, the pioneers of public interest and fiercely independent journalism in Pakistan — somewhere down the line became human rights defenders and joined the development advocacy world. Clearly, they were hounded out by state policies that, in the end, managed to manipulate the journalism world (just like they did the national polity) into either passive submission or outright co-option. In that sense, it is a sad story of a dream gone sour for the principals.

The book’s title announces itself — and rightly so, considering the relevant content — as “the alternative history of journalism is Pakistan.” But it also manages to convey the paradoxical distinction that what was “mainstream media” back then is no longer so now, and would constitute “alternative media” if it existed today!

Reading the book, one comes away with the sense that the country was so different in its first three decades, and yet some things have not changed — the main difference being public interest journalism, which is all but dead now. Where it still commanded a role for itself in nation-building back then, this role has been dispensed with in deference to a growing corporate-state benefit nexus against public interest. The people have no organised media that offers a critical mass in guarding their interests anymore.

This excellent book, that at times reads like a thriller, should be mandatory reading for every single journalist, journalism student and teacher in Pakistan, as well as human rights defenders and political rights champions. They wouldn’t completely understand how we all arrived here if they didn’t.

The reviewer is a writer and analyst and works on media professionalism issues. He has an interest in journalism, literature and science

Pakistan Mein Sahafat Ki Mutabadil Tareekh
Dr Tauseef Ahmed Khan
Badalti Dunya, Islamabad
ISBN: 978-96977531718
208pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 20th, 2020

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