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Masood Ashar -- Photo by Anis Hamdani/ White Star

THE discussion meant to focus on the connection between literature and media and how much the latter has contributed to a decline of the Urdu language became about media ethics.

Moderated by Wusatullah Khan, the group discussion included one of the earliest BBC Urdu broadcasters Asaf Jilani, Masood Ashar, historian and author Dr Mubarak Ali, Ghazi Salahuddin, scholar Fatima Hasan, and poet and playwright Sarmad Sehbai.

“It is very difficult to draw a line between literature and media,” said Hasan. “In fact, the members of the literary community laid the foundations of Pakistani media, be it newspapers, film, radio or television.” The problem, she said, occurred when the two streams — literature and media — began to diverge. And she held “the three dictators” responsible for that: “Generals Ayub Khan and Ziaul Haq replaced these men of intellect with their chosen ones. Musharraf was different, so he made different mistakes [with regards to the media].”

The debate then moved to Salahuddin. “With the advent of mass media, the standards have changed,” he said. “Media now has to reach the public, which in itself is not a bad thing, but what is bad is that this has left no space for quality press”. Citing Britain’s example, he said that the country has dozens of tabloids as well as papers through which journalists can influence policy. “In Pakistan, we have the tabloid readers but there is a paucity of readers of the other type. Also there is the electronic media, and now social media like Twitter, which has totally different standards. But since it has come to dominate the industry, it has influenced the standards of all other media.”

From here on, the debate lost track and became more about media bad practices than its role in Urdu’s decline. There was criticism of everything from media owners’ alleged lust for money to sensationalism in journalism. This derailing of the conversation was symptomatic of the bad organisation of the event itself.

Jilani, for instance, had been asked to read a paper on Urdu journalism in Britain before the session was converted into a discussion. Fortunately for all of us in the audience, Khan asked him to continue with the reading of the paper and we learnt many interesting things from his detailed work; in fact, it was the highlight of the event.

The first Urdu-language British newspaper was printed in 1886-87 and a copy of it is available at the BritishMuseum, Jilani told the enthralled audience. This newspaper was solely focused on trade between Britain and India. A second Urdu-language newspaper was launched after World War 2 and in the 1950s and 1960s, Pakistani newspapers Nawa-i-Waqt and Mashriq forayed into the UK, with only Mashriq becoming successful because of its focus on Azad Jammu and Kashmir which helped it cater to the large population of Kashmiris in Britain. Eventually, in 1971, Jang launched a London edition which was flown to the UK from Karachi. However, he concluded, Urdu newspapers failed to maintain their quality and thus hold reader interest, leading to the downfall of Urdu journalism in Britain.

The session then reverted back to the discussion but regrettably couldn’t focus on its actual topic. In concluding remarks, Ashar said that Pakistan’s being an ideological state had also contributed towards “destroying” journalism in the country.

His remarks were best explained by Salahuddin: “Mission is not the problem [of Pakistani media], professionalism is.”

- Zainab Imam