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No morning English daily carried the news

April 04, 2009

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This is a file photo of Ahmed Raza Kasuri. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was charged and hanged for the murder of Kasuri's father Nawab Mohammad Ahmad Khan.-Dawn arch
This is a file photo of Ahmed Raza Kasuri. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was charged and hanged for the murder of Kasuris father Nawab Mohammad Ahmad Khan.-Dawn archive photo.
'We were sleeping in our homes when the news of Bhutto's hanging broke out late in the night,' says Abdul Ahad, who was the edition in charge of Dawn in 1979. At that time, the Interior Ministry stated that Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was hanged early morning at two o'clock on April 4, 1979. Dawn carried the news the next day on April 5 with the banner headline 'Bhutto hanged in Pindi jail'.

 

'Apart from some Urdu language newspapers, no morning English daily carried the news on April 4,' informs Ahad. Previously, the deadline for the paper used to midnight and so the offices of Dawn would close by 1 a.m. Therefore, on the night of April 3, the five-member team in the newsroom led by Ahad made the last changes to the paper as usual and went home. Although Bhutto's hanging was the biggest news on April 4, no special edition of Dawn was published that day.

 

Even though there were strict censorship laws under General Ziaul Haq and an official of the Press Information Department would verify contents of the paper before it went into print, Ahad recalls that there was no government official stationed at Dawn in the spring of 1979 and they were able to publish the news item of Bhutto's hanging without any problems.

 

The front page of Dawn on April 5, 1979, therefore informed readers that despite his protests, jail authorities had forced Bhutto to lie on a stretcher instead of according his wish to walk the last mile to the gallows.

 

However, as one goes through the paper of that day, it becomes evident that some self censorship by journalists did take place. For example, in Dawn's editorial 'Bhutto the end of a promise' published on April 7, 1979, the merits of the case on the basis of which Bhutto was hanged were not questioned. Nor does the editorial ask whether General Zia was behind the judicial murder. Instead, it simply states 'one hopes that those arguments will prove right and the final decision to let Mr Bhutto pay the forfeit of his life will come to accepted as well-judged.'

 

Even the Dawn group's Urdu-language newspaper Hurriyat published the news on April 5, 1979. Surprisingly, it had three photos of the man whose murder Bhutto was charged with, Nawab Mohammad Ahmad Khan, including one with his family members surrounding his dead body. But only one portrait of Bhutto was published on the front page.

 

The eveninger Star carried the news on April 4 with a screaming headline, 'Bhutto hanged'. The one-page edition quoted jail authorities as saying that the hanging had taken place between 4 and 5 a.m. Later, however, a four-page edition on the same day used the Information Ministry's statement which said that Bhutto was put to death at 2 a.m.

 

The monthly magazine Herald, meanwhile, put Bhutto's picture on its cover under the title 'Bhutto Hero or villian'. It is interesting to note that nowhere does the magazine's cover story mention General Zia.

 

News clippings of the past provide an insight into the state of press freedom in Pakistan under military dictators. Reporting news of Bhutto's hanging was a tight-rope walk for journalists of that day. But some articles succeeded in leaving the argument open-ended for the benefit of readers. As Dawn's editorial in 1979 stated 'How history will judge [Bhutto] is difficult to visualize. But when it does, it will be possible to have a complete picture of the man, who dominated Pakistan's political scene for long years and who, with all his drawbacks and failures, remained a towering figure till the end of his life'.