NON-FICTION: THE STRUGGLE FOR THE TRUTH

Published August 29, 2021
Ahfazur Rehman as police confront media workers in early 1990s | Dawn file photo
Ahfazur Rehman as police confront media workers in early 1990s | Dawn file photo

The tussle between the authorities and the public over the issue of freedom of expression is as old as human civilisation. The issue of freedom of access to information and its public distribution has usually been in tandem.

Every society — and later, states — displays this clash in various forms and through different methods; legal or illegal, coercive or corrupting, and overt or covert. In Pakistan, the dynamics of the struggle for freedom of expression began with the creation of the country in 1947, with an inherent background from the publishing environment during colonial rule.

As stated in the book From Layoffs to Lashes: PFUJ’s 70-Year Fight for Media Freedom: “It was January of 1948, five months after the creation of Pakistan. A small group of journalists, led by Kerala-born M.A. Shakoor of daily Dawn, Ahmad Ali Khan (later chief editor of Dawn) and Asrar Ahmad, arranged a meeting at the S.M. Law College, Karachi. They were to deliberate on the role of their community in the new country.

However, the event was disallowed because the authorities thought this group had left-wing leanings. A month later, they regrouped in Sindh Madressatul Islam, Karachi, and laid the foundation of the Sindh Union of Journalists (SUJ). The SUJ received a positive response from all over the country. Consequently, on August 2, 1950, the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists was established.”

On Aug 2, 2020, the PFUJ completed 70 years of its existence and published this impressive document to commemorate the occasion. Written in both English and Urdu, From Layoffs to Lashes pays tribute to hundreds of journalists from all over Pakistan who struggled, fought and suffered in this traumatic journey over seven decades. Subsequently, other associations of lawyers, farmers and students also joined the journalist community in agitations for their rights and against official repression.

The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists presents a comprehensive historical record and political history as well as a highly readable account of the current state of freedom of expression in the country

The book is divided into six sections. The first section has been written by well-known veteran journalists and each contributor summarises PFUJ’s eventful journey as well as their own personal experiences and observations. The second section recalls the leadership and other characteristics of the personalities who led the union from time to time, such as Minhaj Burna.

The third section covers various phases in the union’s eventful history and the fourth, ‘The Building Blocks’, highlights the network of 13 constituent regional associations of PFUJ in the country. Section five, ‘Tools of Coercion’, deals with laws that are used to curb media freedom and the ever-changing challenges faced by the media. The sixth, and last, section deals with the problems confronting the community of journalists today and the outlook in the face of modern challenges, including the paradigm shift of its influence from print media to electronic and social media.

The 208 pages of the English section comprise contributions from 30 well-known journalists, including I.A. Rehman, M. Ziauddin, Muhammad Ali Siddiqi, Rahimullah Yusufzai and Mazhar Abbas — who is also the convener of Team PFUJ-70, the committee that undertook this project.

Salman Akram Raja and Yasmeen Aftab Ali, both lawyers, have highlighted the laws that are used to curb media freedom, and the ever-changing challenges faced by media, respectively.

The Urdu section is spread over 298 pages and 36 articles. The contributors include, among others, Ali Ahmed Khan, Nasir Zaidi, Iqbal Jafri, Masood Ashar, Fareeda Hafeez, Fauzia Shahid and Hamid Mir. These frontline journalists, who fought for the freedom of the press and safeguarding the rights of the community, have narrated their personal ordeals, including arrests, beatings at the hands of the authorities, termination of employment, sentencing, incarceration and even flogging. The two sections are divided by rare historical photographs of the movement.

In ‘Aakhri Nau Din’ [The Last Nine Days], Mahnaz Rehman, a journalist and wife of Ahfazur Rehman — who authored the most vivid account of the epic struggle of journalists in his book Sub Se Barri Jang: 1977-78 [The Greatest War: 1977-78] — expresses a moving description of the author’s last nine days before his death in 2020. According to Mazhar Abbas, “Sub Se Barri Jang is the most comprehensive account of the PFUJ’s campaign of 1978.”

Dr Tauseef Ahmed Khan, in his well-researched historical narrative of the evolution of the newspaper industry in the Subcontinent, states that there were no newspapers during the Mughal period. The first newspaper in the Subcontinent, Hicky’s Bengal Gazette or the Original Calcutta General Advertiser, was published in 1780. It became famous as the Hicky Gazette after its founder, the Irishman James Augustus Hicky.

Since his newspaper published material targeting the officers of the East India Company, as well as then governor-general Warren Hastings, for their corruption and scandals, Hicky was eventually fined and sent to prison, resulting in the closing down of the paper because of official measures. So, the war against freedom of expression started with the very first newspaper in our region. However, soon after, others began to publish newspapers in various cities of the Subcontinent.

PFUJ joined the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) in 2002. In his article, Aidan White, former general secretary of IFJ and founder of the Ethical Journalism Network Programme 2012, says that a door opened to cross-border cooperation that remains as strong as ever, and that this led to a long-running partnership between the IFJ and PFUJ to develop training programmes and workshops to strengthen union-building and to promote the safety of journalists. He also adds that, “Unsurprisingly, professionalism, ethics and media standards have become major issues in recent years.”

Some of the major concerns that are highlighted in this rich compilation stem from the fact that the scope of journalism as a profession has exploded. The print media is losing its readership and traditional impact on society to electronic media. But whereas the electronic and social media have swamped the masses, their editorial standards, content, credibility, professional competence, coverage and authenticity are questionable.

The condition of their workers is also no better than in the past, barring a few highly visible presenters/ anchorpersons. The divide between the commercial interests (including ‘ratings’) of the owners of media houses and professional journalists has widened. Governments — civil and military — are as intolerant as they have always been in the past. Disappearances, kidnappings and attacks on journalists by official or unofficial quarters continue.

The journalist community and the print/ broadcast industry also suffer from internal conflicts. There are divisions within media houses and the ranks of journalists, as well as between journalists and media owners. The gains from the commendable struggles and accomplishments for press freedom in the past have receded, necessitating the need for review and reorganising the struggle.

Nevertheless, it is generally perceived that the media in Pakistan still enjoys more freedom than the media in most Third World countries.

Undoubtedly, From Layoffs to Lashes is a highly readable account of the current state of freedom of expression and a comprehensive historical record of the struggles of the journalist community. It is a valuable source of understanding for contemporary and future entrants in this profession.

Moreover, it is a rich source of our political history, seen through the eyes of those who took to the streets for the cause of keeping the public informed about the truth. This document can provide background and direction to address the above concerns.

The reviewer is a freelance writer and translator of Freedom of the Press: The War on Words 1977-1978; and Mr. and Mrs. Jinnah: The Marriage that Shook India, in English and Urdu respectively

From Layoffs to Lashes: PFUJ’s 70-Year
Fight for Media Freedom
By The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists
Edited by Nizamuddin Siddiqui and Waris Raza
Karachi Union of Journalists, Karachi
506pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 29th, 2021

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