The press: Thirty tortured years

 By Zuhair Siddiqui

geust-contTHE history of the first generation of Pakistan is strewn with mutilations of the rights and liberties that give meaning to political independence. Political activity and organisation, trade unionism, public speech, the people’s franchise, the gathering and publication of news, and press comment — all have been subjected during these thirty years to various kinds and degrees of restriction and control. The constraints have at times amounted to total suppression.

The denial of freedom to the Press, in a way, lies at the heart of the wider, perennial problem of authoritarianism and regimentation. The Press is the watchdog of the people’s freedom and, as an Englishman observed two centuries ago, its liberty is the “palladium of the civil, political and religious rights” of the individual.

Nearly a hundred and fifty years later, the truth of this pithy observation was elucidated by the great socialist political thinker, Harold Laski. He regarded an assertive critical spirit among the citizens as vital to the preservation of their rights, and the freedom of the Press as vital to the whole concept of responsible democratic government:

“In any state where there is an absence of the critical spirit in the attitude of the citizens to their rulers, the preservation of rights is a difficult matter — men who prefer, in the internal life of a state, the path of perpetual peace to that of organised protest will, sooner or later, lose the habit of freedom. For, in the end, governments are made responsible less by the laws they must obey than by the character they will encounter….

“The avenue to responsibility lies along the road of critical publicity. The freedom of a people depends, to a degree we are only beginning to realise, upon the quality of the news with which it is supplied. Its Press must be free to attack authority in whatever manner it thinks fit, to publish what it please, to defend what programme it desires, the only limitation being the law of libel….

(One of the conditions of political liberty) “is the provision of an honest and straightforward supply of news. Those who are to decide must have truthful material upon which to decide. Their judgment must not be thwarted by the presentation of a biased case…. A people without reliable news is, sooner or later, a people without the basis of freedom. For, to exercise one’s judgment in a miasma of distortion is, ultimately, to go disastrously astray.”

Laski wrote this during the early 1920s, in free England. About the same time, in enslaved India, the man who was later to found the state of Pakistan, reaffirmed these theoretical formulations in the language of practical polities. Speaking against the Draconian Press laws then in force in India, he sought protection for journalists against arbitrary action by the Executive.

“I say, protect the innocent, protect those journalists who are doing their duty and who are serving both the public and the Government by criticising the Government freely, independently, honestly — which is an education for any government….

“have no hesitation in saying that the (Press) Act has been administered in a most arbitrary manner — and you cannot avoid it, because you must remember that we are all human, and when such arbitrary powers are given to the heads of departments….it must be remembered that they are human, and they have their prejudices.”

 *Outlook’ banned for 2 months

A few years later, on the same forum, Mr. Jinnah took up the cudgels for a noted British journalist, B.G. Horniman, who had identified himself with the cause of India’s freedom. After the end of World War II, when he was Editor of the Bombay Chronicle, he was deported to U.K. on the charge of having written objectionable articles, and was later refused permission to return to India. The matter came up in the Indian Legislature and Mr. Jinnah contributed to the debate a short but sharp speech:

“I am not one of those men who encourage any crime or any offence, but I do maintain, and I have drunk deep at the fountain of constitutional law, that the liberty of a man is the dearest thing in the law of any constitution and it should not be taken away in this fashion. If you have any case, if Mr. Horniman has committed an offence, place him before a tribunal; let him be tried… (The Government’s action) stands as the biggest blot both on their administration and on their sense of justice and fairplay.”

During the following two decades, Mr. Jinnah’s politics changed a great deal — from an ardent Indian nationalist he changed into a zealous champion of the demand for Pakistan: but he remained constant in his devotion to the ideal of the rule of law, and he continued to cherish the liberty of the individual and the freedom of the Press. His advice to an editor or other journalist would invariably be to report truly and comment freely and fearlessly.

When, during the last year of the struggle for Pakistan, the late Mian Iftikhar-ud-Din and some of his associates in the Punjab Muslim League decided to launch The Pakistan Times, the Quaid-e-Azam gave them his blessings and encouragement and agreed to the publication of his name on the masthead as the founder of the newspaper. This he did in spite of the fact that Mian Iftikhar-ud-Din was known as an ardent socialist close to the Communist Party of India, and had left the Congress for the Muslim League only a year before. The Quaid-e:Azam could not have been in agreement with much of Mian Sahib’s politics, but he supported the venture. During the months immediately following the establishment of Pakistan, The Pakistan Times began to emerge clearly as an independent paper with leftist leanings, but on its first anniversary, in February 1948, it received a message of goodwill and commendation from the founder of the State.

Six months later, he died, and the men who followed him in the seats and corridors of power were, by and large, small men with a narrow vision and without much tolerance. There was no organised opposition in the country yet, and therefore no opposition Press; but within a couple of years things began to change and the people in power began to show their anxiety to keep the Press muzzled.

Fortunately for them, and unfortunately for the Press, they found enough pliable editors ready to barter away freedom to promote their personal interests or the commercial interests of their newspapers. Some of them had already betrayed their inclinations during the first year of independence by supporting the Punjab Government’s suppression of three literary magazines — Nuqoosh, Adab-e-Latif and Sawera. Early in 1950, almost all the editors joined in a dastardly attack on The Civil and Military Gazette. The charge against the paper was that it had published a report suggesting that the Government of Pakistan might agree to a partition of Kashmir; but it had promptly contradicted the story, apologised and promised disciplinary action against the reporter responsible.

That, even by the strictest standards, should have been enough to end the matter; but the editors of nine leading newspapers, including Dawn and The Pakistan Times, simultaneously asked for the CMG’s head in a joint editorial captioned Treason. The paper was suspended for three months and though it reappeared on the expiry of that period, it could never recoup the damage inflicted by the suspension, which enabled its only rival, The Pakistan Times, to gain a clear lead over it in circulation.

The disgraceful role played by the editors in this first major assault on the Press was, however, redeemed somewhat by the principled stand of the working journalists. Those were difficult days, and Kashmir was a highly sensitive issue; but the journalists through their professional unions in the Punjab and Sind, denounced the Government’s action against The Civil and Military Gazette.

The next — and more deadly — attack on the freedom of the Press came the following year, after the first provincial elections in Punjab. During the first year of independence, the Chief Minister, Nawab Iftikhar Husain Khan of Mamdot, and the Finance Minister, Mian Mumtaz Daultana, had fallen out and Daultana, together with Sardar Shaukat Hayat Khan had resigned. The influential Urdu Nawa-e-Waqt was a staunch supporter of the Mamdot clique, and its editor, Mr. Hameed Nizami, had become a great political force in the Province. It continued to back Mamdot after the dismissal of his ministry and the dissolution of the Legislature in 1949. When Daultana returned to power in the spring of 1951, at the head of a new Muslim League ministry, one of his first acts was a vindictive assault on the Nawa-e-Waqt. Taking advantage of a minor technical lapse on the part of the newspaper the Government revoked its declaration and had its press sealed. Attempts by the management to continue the paper under other names were frustrated. Ultimately. after a great deal of effort by the editor, and some agitation in the Press, the newspaper was allowed to resume publication.

Authority in the eastern wing of the country was hardly less intolerant of Press criticism. In 1952, its premier English daily, The Pakistan Observer, came under fire for its strong criticism of the Prime Minister. Its editor, one of its proprietors, and its printer, were arrested under the Safety Act. When they were bailed out, the administration had them arrested on a charge of incendiarism. The case dragged on for a whole year, during which the newspaper remained suspended. The accused were ultimately acquitted.

In Karachi, the same year, the editor of the Evening Times and some of his colleagues were arrested and tried on the charge of exciting disaffection towards the Government. They were acquitted by the Sind Chief Court.

Apart from these notable instances of interference with the freedom of the Press, as many as fifty newspapers and periodicals were ‘warned’ during the year 1952-53 on charges of publishing ‘objectionable’ material. It was also during those years that one of the most disgraceful chapters in the history of the Press in Pakistan was written: it is a story, not of the suppression, but of the corruption of newspapers through the misuse of public funds. It is best told in the words of the Munir report on the anti-Ahmadiya disturbances in the Punjab:

“The Press generally receives vast patronage from the Directorate of Public Relations in the form of advertisements, but it will presently appear that four of the vernacular newspapers were more or less in the pay of the (Punjab) Government for large sums received in advance as the price of newspaper copies to be supplied to certain institutions — schools, hospitals and jails — in execution of an anti-illiteracy drive’.

The newspapers that were patronised were all loud mouthpieces of the anti-Ahmedi agitation, and their fulminations did much to create the situation that ultimately gave Pakistan its first experience of martial law in the spring of 1953.

The use of government advertisements and newsprint quotas as instruments of Press control is almost as old as Pakistan itself. Towards the end of the year 1953, the first of these was used against Dawn, which had annoyed the rulers of the day through a campaign for a proper inquiry into the murder of Mr. Liaquat Ali Khan.

 

In 1954-55, the reign of terror that accompanied the destruction of provincial autonomy in West Pakistan also involved an insidious but more or less complete ban on opposition to the One Unit plan in the columns of the Press.

In 1956, the country got its first constitution amid a profusion of promises about democratic rights and freedoms and the rule of law. But the performance was poor. The country’s first general elections were kept in abeyance, on one pretext or another, and all the oppressive Press laws remained on the statute book. These laws were used, during the years 1956-57, to demand security deposits from the sponsors of as many as 39 newspapers and periodicals.

The story of the take-over of the Progressive Papers by the Ayub regime is well remembered and need not be recounted in detail. There was no genuine case against the papers, and the grave charge of foreign financial assistance was never submitted to judicial scrutiny, despite repeated pleadings by Mian Iftikhar-ud-Din.

But far more painful than the action itself was the “welcome” that it received from some of the barons of the Press. “The occasion demands,” wrote Dawn “that the rest of the national Press should hail the ideological rebirth of The Pakistan Times and its allied publications. They will no longer be strangers in the house. We send them our greetings and felicitations on their liberation from distant orbits and alien horizons. The Revolutionary Regime has rendered a signal service to the cause of a free Press in Pakistan.”

PRESS ORINANCE AMENDED

 

Throughout the Ayub decade, a vast section of the Press remained in a state of utter servility and there grew up a whole tribe of scribes and pen-pushers who were keen to sing to any tune that promised a handsome reward in cash or kind.

Some sparks of free journalism did appear in that encircling gloom, but they all proved short-lived. Outlook, a bright new journal totally committed to democratic norms, was, almost startling and made its mark soon after its birth in mid-1962. It was snuffed out within two years. During the same period, the old Civil and Military Gazette appeared with a new policy — independent, democratic and critical of the regime. The proprietor, a prosperous industrialist heavily dependent upon government favours and subject to the many levers of pressure at Authority’s disposal, had counted without his hosts. He was soon made to realise his limitations. He developed cold feet and, within a year, closed down the paper — Pakistan’s oldest, and due to complete a century within a few years.

That was in the autumn of 1963. Almost the entire Press was under the thumb of the regime, and most of the editors and Journalists were vying with one another in fawning upon the dictator and his henchmen. But dictators, like all bullies, are also cowardly; underneath their toughness, they are obsessed by all kinds of fears and even a faint rustle is sometimes enough to upset them. The regime therefore reinforced the Press laws by consolidating them into a single statute which was more severe than all the old laws put together.

But apparently, even this was not enough so the Press and Publications Ordinance was followed, within a year, by the establishment of a so-called National Press Trust, which was in fact a tool forged by the Rasputins of the regime to destroy whatever remained of the freedom of the Press.

One of the lessons of the precipitous decline and fall of the Ayub regime was the utter futility of attempts to beautify ugly realities through clever public relations exercises. But those who should have learnt the lessons had no use for them. Mr. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, with all his boasts about his sense of history took no time in forgetting how and why Ayub had fallen, or what he had himself promised the nation by way of freedom in 1970.

He made an ominous start by sacking two newspaper editors, and followed it up with blow after blow at the freedom of the Press. Countless papers were struck down, gagged or subjected to the familiar advertisement squeeze. Several editors were arrested and detained, or jailed. The publication of The Sun was suspended for several weeks, and it was not allowed to reappear until its political emasculation had been ensured. Outlook, reborn in the spring of 1972, was shut down in the summer of 1974; so was Jasarat. The Dawn group was deprived of Government advertisements for many months in 1972 as a punishment for adopting an independent policy and criticising Mr. Bhutto’s high-handed methods of governance. The Press Trust was brought directly under government control through a Chairman nominated by the Prime Minister.

When he decided to go to the polls, in January this year, Mr. Bhutto was in almost complete control of a vast section of the Press, and had at his service a whole battalion of galley-slaves and “yes, sir” scribes who not only credited him with a super human stature but were ever ready, at his bidding, to make mud of any name or foul any reputation. The climax of this regimentation is recorded in our newspapers’ issues – of Jan. 20, when nearly all of them announced Mr. Bhutto’s “uncontested election” to the National Assembly with large identical photographs captioned: “The great leader, the supreme leader, the undisputed leader”. Most of the papers supplemented this with appropriate editorial tributes.

Later, as the election campaign proceeded, the Government’s control of the National Press Trust was abused to employ the Trust papers as publicity vehicles for Mr. Bhutto and his party and as weapons of character assassination against the leaders of the opposition. This gross exploitation for partisan purposes, of an institution controlled by the Government, continued right upto the morning of July 5.

Of this tragic history of the Press in Pakistan, one might say, as the eminent British jurist, Dicey said of nineteenth century France: “One government after another has with curious uniformity, proclaimed the freedom and ensured the subjection of the newspaper Press ”

The most deplorable aspect of this tragedy is not the contempt that all governments in the past showed for the freedom of the Press but the alacrity with which large elements in the Press itself helped Authority in translating that contempt into policy and action. A few years after independence, one of our most powerful editors went all the way to Canada to tell the Empire Press Union that the Press in Pakistan had no use for freedom in her present stage of development. “We are skating on thin ice,” he said.

 

In the years that followed, the Government could, almost always, find support for its arbitrary action against a newspaper in one section of the Press or another. The support was generally extended in the name of “the national interest, the glory of Islam, the ideology of Pakistan” or some other catchword, although in fact it was usually motivated by commercial interests or other mundane considerations. The glee with which the take-over of the Progressive Papers was greeted by one of the major newspapers has already been mentioned. It may be added that the editors of two other papers went to Zurich to justify that outrageous assault on a section of the Press before the International Press Institute.

The London correspondent of The Pakistan Times — one of the ablest and most respected Pakistani journalists — was thrown out soon after the take-over, to accommodate a protege of the Ayub regime. And for the past many years, several senior journalists on the Press Trust papers have gone far beyond the call of professional duty to bring the very concept of a free Press into ridicule and contempt, and cast aspersions on the patriotism and integrity of dissident newspapers and journalists.

 

A few notable exceptions deserve mention. During the twelve years of its independent existence, The Pakistan Times championed the cause of a free Press with great consistency — the only exception being its support to the vicious campaign against The Civil and Military Gazette in 1949. In all other cases, it remained steadfast in the advocacy of the freedom of the Press, and opposed every action against a newspaper or periodical irrespective of its policy or political affiliations.

A more recent example is the strong, uncompromising commitment to a free Press of the now defunct journal, Outlook, whose chequered fortunes have been mentioned earlier. During the second phase of its career, t mercilessly exposed the Bhutto regime’s excesses and its outrages upon human rights and dignity, as it had earlier brought into focus the enormities of the Ayub administration. And in both phases, it defended, with equal sincerity and passion, all victims of the Government’s attempts to control and regiment the Press. It fought even for those papers with whose policy or ideology it strongly disagreed, saying, with Voltaire, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Apart from these individual papers, the most consistent collective defence of the freedom of the Press has come from the professional organisation of newsmen — the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists and its various affiliates and units. Some of its individual members have no doubt compromised themselves at times, but the organisation as such has never wavered in its devotion to the cause. It has not always been able to give a tough fight, and has often been constrained to confine its protests to resolutions and token action, but more than once it has led journalists in countrywide agitation and strikes. And not once has it compromised the principle of the freedom of the Press. Its leadership has often been in leftist hands, but it has fought with the same zeal and vigour against every attack on the freedom of the Press, irrespective of the politics of the victim. In 1959, it was perhaps the only institution in the country to criticise the take-over of the Progressive Papers by the Ayub Government. Those who have lived through those oppressive days will agree that the protest needed a good deal of courage.

What of the future? It is difficult to say into whose lap political power will fall in October next, but not very difficult to foresee the fate of the Press if the People’s Party should return to power, The savageness with which it wrung the neck of the poor chicken during the five years that it ruled the roost is a frightening memory. What is worse, during the last election campaign it refused, in the face of persistent criticism in democratic circles, to commit itself to a more civilised Press policy during its next term in office. The PNA stands committed to a free Press and the dissolution of the Press Trust. But so was the People’s Party, more or less, when it came to power in 1971. One cannot, therefore, be too sure of the future of the Press in either case.

 

Perhaps the best safeguard conceivable in the present circumstances is an immediate re-constitution of the Press Commission to make it properly representative of working journalists, and to include in it liberal intellectuals, lawyers and teachers known for their commitment to democratic values. The Commission’s terms of reference should also be revised to give pride of place to the objective of a free and independent Press. And the Commission should be required to complete its work during the present political interregnum, so that the future government may be pinned down to a positive scheme for a reformed Press worthy of a democratic society.

Source: Herald, August 1977