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We do not deserve this freedom

Updated June 16, 2012

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-Illustration by Vai Ell.

We were sitting in a half-lit room in a Washington suburb. All five of us had worked as journalists in Pakistan. And what brought us today was the airing of an off camera discussion between two talk show hosts of a prominent Pakistani channel and a property tycoon.

The footage has instigated a war of sorts between news channels as they accuse each other of being corrupt, dishonest and sleazy. We came here to discuss the so-called media-gate scandal, but shame, embarrassment and guilt overwhelmed us. So we started reminiscing about our past, perhaps to avoid thinking about our inglorious present.

Those were the days when people joined journalism out of political conviction, not to make easy money or become famous. There was little money or fame in the media then.

We recalled that in the Zia era, when the press was in chains, we also met in half-lit rooms but out of fear, not shame. Such meetings were illegal and those caught almost always lost their jobs. Some were even jailed and flogged. So we met late at night in secluded places.

We remembered one such meeting that we all attended. The lights were off all over the dark city, so the full moon shone in all its glory.

Free from the dwarfing influence of the neon lights and electric bulbs, it looked beautiful. But we shut the window, lit a candle and one of us tried to read an old newspaper, which carried the story we were looking for.

The jasmine and the Queen of the Night wafted through the closed doors. But even their aroma could not make us open the window.

I could not wipe the picture off my mind. There he was, Nasir Zaidi, chained to a hospital bed with two rifle-toting police constables flanking him.

We were not friends yet, but I knew him as a gentle and soft-spoken man, respected by everybody for his honesty and an almost religious fervour for a free press. But when his time came, his honesty and softness could not protect him. He had to receive all 15 lashes on his back and was now lying on a hospital bed, chained and handcuffed like a common criminal.

His crime? He defied a dictator’s order to close down some newspapers that dared criticise the army’s interference in politics.

On May 13, 1978 the then military government in Pakistan ordered four journalists flogged for refusing to toe the official line. The government issued a brief press note to announce the verdict.

Three of them were flogged within 70 minutes after the judgment and sent to prison to complete their terms. The fourth escaped because the prison doctor declared him unfit for the lashes.

The whipping was in reprisal for a countrywide agitation by the journalists against the government’s media policy. Within a year after taking over, the martial law government had closed down 11 newspapers and fined 13 others.

Two of the journalists flogged during Gen Ziaul Haq’s martial law — Zaidi and Jafri —are my friends now. Jafri is emotional, robust and quarrelsome. Zaidi is quiet and shy. He also suffers from asthma.

We never saw him arguing with anyone. Although we were convinced that all four were innocent, we never understood how anyone could flog Zaidi. He was so friendly and polite that everybody loved him.

Even his editors never called him by his first name. He was always addressed as Zaidi Sahib. His flogging was a shock for the entire media community. I saw several of his friends crying.

Zaidi is so humble that he never discusses his sacrifices. He says that as a journalist he had a personal reason to protest the dictator’s decision to close down newspapers. Like other, he says, journalists also have the right to work and if there are no newspapers, there will be no work for journalists.

Besides, he says, journalists also have professional reasons for disliking dictators. The press, according to him, does not prosper in a controlled society. There is not much a journalist can do in a dictatorship.

A free press and a dictatorship are like oil and water; they don’t mix. And he has a point. In a controlled press, most of the words are handed down by the dictator’s ministry of information and journalists simply reprint or broadcast them.

Nobody knows it better than journalists from Muslim nations. Before the Arab spring, which started only last year, almost all of them had totalitarian regimes. From Central and South Asia to the Middle East, the media was run by the rulers. Journalism, as it is known in democracies like India or the United States, does not exist.

The government already ran the electronic media and newspapers, too, were brought under direct government control through coercive laws that closed all options for freedom.

Every evening we had to take our newspapers to the information department where a bureaucrat — and sometimes a military officer, usually a major — would read the entire paper, front to back. They would take out anything they did not like.

The government issued broad guidelines to newspaper editors: They could not publish anything against the government — federal, provincial, or local. Any news that a government officer thought could incite people against the rulers was censored. Criticism of the army, the judiciary or the religious establishment was not allowed. Even stories that could arouse sexual feelings were censored.

Newspapers also needed permission to re-print what had already been published, such as excerpts from a book or a poem. Many times the censor officers showed their personal likes and dislikes in selecting news items. For example, if a newspaper wanted to carry a feature on open sewers in an area where a censor officer lived, he could take it out if he thought it would make his neighbourhood look bad.

Sometimes even film reviews were censored if the officer happened to like the film that the writer was criticising. All decisions were arbitrary. There was no appeal.

Journalists hated these restrictions. The rules denied them some of their basic rights and spawned various professional problems. It was already difficult to find stories that would not cross the guidelines.

But even when they did, they were not sure if the censor board would approve the stories, so they had to write two or three covering stories for every story they feared could be censored.

The officials insisted on seeing the pages after they were designed, complete with headlines and photos. This meant that a story removed by the officials disturbed the entire layout and the whole page had to be redesigned. Sometimes it also disturbed other pages where the censored story was carried over.

Those were not the days of computers; everything had to be done with scissors and glue, such changes often delayed the newspaper. To overcome this problem, editors tried to complete the pages as early as possible. Thus they often missed important late events. But sometimes missing a story also annoyed the government. Authorities believed newspapers missed stories on purpose to let people know how strict the censorship was.

The intention behind all these restrictions was to teach self-censorship to the journalists. The government wanted them to learn how to write “positive” stories. It wanted to create a docile and subservient press. But this did not work. Most journalists resisted these restrictions at every stage.

In the beginning most newspapers refused to fill the space left behind by a censored story. Instead they just printed a sketch of a pair of scissors in that space to show that the news item or article had been censored.

Sometimes one newspaper would have several scissor-filled spaces. This made the government look bad and so the censor officers prevented newspapers from doing it.

The newspapers then found another device. They would print a neutral, non-offensive headline and the writer’s byline but leave the rest of the space empty. Thus sometimes a newspaper would have eight stories, which only had headlines and bylines. The government also banned this practice.

Now newspapers started printing irrelevant or unimportant stories on the front or back pages to fill a censored space, stories that would not have been published at all in a more normal world. When the government banned this too, Pakistani journalists learned to write between the lines.

In the beginning, they were not sure whether the readers would understand what they were trying to say. But the readers proved more intelligent than the writers thought. Readers understood everything and would often do their own investigations, based on the clues they found in a newspaper.

If they read about a sudden shortage of tomatoes and eggs in a particular market, and another story somewhere else in the newspaper reported that a federal minister had visited the market the same day, they guessed that the minister had had to face a barrage of rotten vegetables when he visited the mall.

Sometimes newspapers just published the sketch of a story, allowing the readers to fill in the gaps. In the early 1980s a worker of Murtaza Bhutto’s Al Zulfikar group fired a rocket at Zia’s helicopter near Islamabad, the next day’s newspapers had a story about a rocket fired at an unknown helicopter and urged the police and intelligence agencies to be more vigilant against terrorists. The censor officers were not aware of the attack, so they allowed it to be published. And the next day everybody knew that someone had tried to kill Zia.

Scores of political jokes started making rounds: some new, others adapted from the outside world to suit the local situation. The journalists struggled and the people supported them. But this enthusiasm did not lead to a popular uprising. It was more a passive resistance.

In Pakistan people seem to have a lot of patience. No matter how bad the situation, they can sit and wait. They wait for years until their patience runs out. Then they wake up, hold rallies and processions.

The rallies lead to countrywide strikes. Buses and shops are burnt, people are killed, and the government changes with the help of both violent and peaceful methods.

But before it can lead to a real change, people go back to their passive mood. So the change is always cosmetic.

Only a few faces change; the system remains as oppressive as ever. We get another set of corrupt rulers. We curse them, but we learn to live with them until the next uprising.

However, we always believed that the media was an agent of change. It rejected the status quo. It was with the underdog. How wrong we were!

Sacrifices offered by people like Zaidi did bring freedom to the media but the free media in Pakistan is no longer an agent of change.

It is part of the establishment now.

Journalists play the same game that others in the establishment do, of becoming rich and powerful overnight. And the so-called media-gate scandal shows that they are no better than eggs and tomatoes. Anyone can buy them if he is willing to pay the right price.

I never thought I would want the censorship back. I still do not.

But I must admit that we were better human beings when we were in chains. We do not deserve this freedom.


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The author is a correspondent for Dawn, based in Washington, DC.


The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.