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Hacks, clubs and violence

April 17, 2012

LAHORE is the scene of all kinds of congratulatory banners at any given time. So what made a particular banner full of names and castes recently unfurled in Lahore’s Liberty Market appear, well, a wee bit odd?

This was a congratulatory sign put up by some businessmen’s alliance greeting the newly elected office-bearers of the Lahore Press Club. Now the press club is no trade union with which the powerful traders — a mighty force especially in the continued absence of real trade unionism — would cultivate a relationship.

It was not exactly bewildering why a traders’ body would want to wish one social club out of the many. But it offered an opportunity to ask and find out about the progress of a club that I have seen grow so tall.

The answers may have been known to all those more inclined to spend their late evenings with the same professionals whose company you cannot escape.

Given my disconnect, I was a bit surprised and didn’t know whether to envy the press club office-bearers or to sympathise with them because of all the groups they have to engage. They must socialise, but then fate has entrusted them with responsibilities requiring them to find time to address the serious concerns of the members of the club they are elected to run.

A journalist colleague told me the improbable task he and a few friends of his took upon themselves when they wanted to invite a newly elected Lahore Press Club batch to a reception.

The office-bearers were booked for the following many days. They had to attend a dinner here or a tea or lunch there hosted in their honour by a trader or some organisation and apologised to some young journalists who wanted to sit across the table from them to discuss a few of their problems over refreshments.

It could have been a case of deliberate avoidance. The officers of the club could have guessed the real purpose behind the dinner. The impression that the many young, even not so young, bona fide journalists in the city have is that the office-bearers have for many years been reluctant to come face to face with the demand for membership, seen as a ticket to a journalist housing colony in Lahore.

While ostensibly a ban is in place on new members for many years, there is talk that scores have surreptitiously managed to find their way to the club roll.

The discussion on these plots takes up about as much time of journalists in Lahore as efforts to unearth a scandal in some obscure government department. And the routing of the journalists’ colony through the Press Club has meant the Press Club body has come to be known as a much stronger, and more promising, alternative to a journalist trade union.

Recent conversations in Lahore suggest the impression holds even after a successful pursuance by the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists of the wage award case.

The journalists want the arrears they are entitled to because of a much-delayed imposition of the seventh wage award. They want a raise in salaries and more such awards.

However, go around asking in Lahore and many of those who have no plot of land to show for their years in the profession are even keener to not only have a plot, some of them do not quite mind if another benevolent act from a government leads to the release of some financial aid to build a house on that piece of land.

Actually what they are looking for is an individual in power who wants to win over journalists. Chances of that happening are brighter closer to a general election — just as all Lahore Press Club elections in recent years have been fought around the theme of the long-pending journalist colony in the city.

As the journalist trade unions — at least at local and regional levels — at best exist on the margins, the press clubs’ clout and their importance in Pakistan continue to increase. The battles for their control have become more intense with time and as it turns out, when it comes to these infightings, the quill is not quite as potent as a sword.

Benefiting from the Internet, which offers a constantly running stream of news concerning the media, it has to be said that, let alone chasing the impossible ideal of objectivity, journalists of our times are finding it hard to conduct a fair debate about their issues.

One thread running currently exposes the deep sectarian divide that runs through the proud professionals who took all these years to recognise that they were mere cogs in a profitable industry than unbiased angels following a mission on the people’s behalf. Meanwhile, stories about violent clashes for control of a press club come with such frequency and details that they could soon rival the bloodiest blockbusters starring Sultan Rahi and Mustafa Qureshi.

There was violence in Bahawalpur over the control of a press club promised with a facelift. Journalists associated with the institution since its inception in 1964 complain they cannot even enter the premises for fear of being attacked by armed ‘rivals’.

Similarly, on March 12, there was an incident of firing at the Faisalabad Press Club just before an election was scheduled to be held there. The occurrence led to a privilege motion moved by PML-Q’s Chaudhry Zaheeruddin against provincial law minister Rana Sanaullah. Chaudhry Zaheer said Rana Sana’s relatives were involved in the March 11 ‘torture’ of journalists in Faisalabad.

It’s not rare for journalists to find backing from legislators. As times change and the stakes get higher, the sense of today’s conflicts overwhelmingly defined by the ‘personal’ and the ‘financial’ becomes ominously clear. Journalists could sit down and sort this out quickly. Or, like do the divisive mullahs, they can build their own places for their own kind of followers. Alternate press clubs are cropping up. Their numbers are likely to grow.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.