THE walls on both sides of the corridor leading to the editor’s office have framed pages from some of Dawn’s iconic issues. One page catches every visitor’s attention. It is an editorial page of Dawn’s issue of Dec 25, 1953. It has no editorial. The only comment is a handwritten note by Altaf Husain, Dawn’s legendary editor appointed by Jinnah at Delhi. It says: “When the truth cannot be spoken, and patriotism is held almost a crime, the editorial space is left blank on the Quaid-i-Azam’s birthday to speak more eloquently than words.”
I have grown old walking up and down this corridor, but what makes me talk about it are two pieces which appeared recently in Dawn’s ‘Fifty years ago’ feature. Reading these half-a-century old words is mortifying, because little has changed in the totalitarian, fascistic mindset that dominates our governments, dictatorial and democratic, civilian and military.
The issue of Nov 22, 1972, carried an official statement which accused Dawn of making “slanderous statements” against Pakistan’s armed forces, a lie Dawn has learnt to live with — and with disappointment with those who regurgitate such venomous nonsense. Besides, the government discovered motives behind it and claimed Dawn wanted to “create mischief”. It also branded acting editor Mazhar Ali Khan and his family anti-Pakistan.
The next day, Dawn carried a hard-hitting leader, titled ‘Attack on DAWN’, outlining the journalistic ethic that guided the paper’s editorial policy. The paper made it clear it supported those government policies which merited support and criticised those “actions and policies which, in our opinion … can do harm to the country.”
Power wielders here exhibit a sorry lack of common sense.
A detailed narration of the sordid episodes where state power was unleashed tobrowbeat Dawn will take too much space. But we can dilate upon a couple of acts of bullying and harassment to realise the immensity of the appalling means used to whip up public sentiments against this newspaper on issues where subsequent developments proved the government wrong. One such act that demonstrated the rulers’ lack of scruples and their hubris was the crime Dawn was supposed to have committed by running a story that came to be known as the ‘Dawn leaks’.
The scoop was well-researched. The facts were checked and rechecked by our staffer Cyril Almeida to further confirm the proceedings of a meeting where the prime minister and representatives of the Foreign Office and the ‘establishment’ were present. Approved by the editor, the story accurately reported what transpired at the meeting, and there is no doubt the truth embarrassed ‘the establishment’. This led to a well-orchestrated and relentless campaign in the print, electronic and social media against the paper, with hirelings demonising the Dawn editor, CEO and Almeida. Dawn’s circulation, too, was curtailed. However, the truth has a way of revealing itself, for subsequent events proved the paper right — that the state had indeed nourished sections of religiously motivated militants and hurt the country’s long-term interests. Regretfully, no hired mouth had the conscience to eat his words.
Often, reacting to a perceived hurt, the power wielders exhibit a sorry lack of common sense. Let us, for instance, examine their reaction to a knife attack in London by a British national of Kashmiri origin. It was a crime by an individual and no one had accused the state of Pakistan of the murder. But ‘the establishment’ used all the power it had to suppress its publication in the Pakistani media. When the whole world had come to know of it, what purpose did it serve to black out the news in Pakistan? A few days later, the deceased attacker’s (he was killed by police) parents came to Pakistan with his body and took it to Azad Kashmir for burial. While the rest of the media was coerced into ignoring it, this paper published what was a harmless bit of information. Nevertheless, the establishment showed a loss of rectitude, as goons in front of the Karachi Press Club demanded the hanging of Dawn’s editor and CEO. They must have embarrassed whoever was bankrolling them by raising slogans of ‘zindabad’ in favour of an intelligence agency.
Even in today’s toxic atmosphere, people jump to conclusions over a certain editorial or news display or a picture published or not published and accuse Dawn of being on the wrong side. The perception is absurd.
It is true Dawn was a Muslim League paper in the first decade of our hard-won freedom, but it gradually moved towards an independent policy. Today, this paper observes consistency in policy despite pressures and threats, it upholds fundamental rights, stands for free speech, defends the rights of minorities, women and underprivileged sections and opposes religious and ethnic extremism. It has no sacred cows, though indeed it does have enemies among the temporary wielders of power.
The writer is Dawn’s External Ombudsman
Published in Dawn, November 27th, 2022