The sun of Dawn

By Zubeida Mustafa and Maheen A. Rashdi

THE year was 1973 and it was the month of February — a time of crisis in national politics. President Bhutto had summarily dismissed the NAP governors of Balochistan and the NWFP. This paper reported the incident in banner headlines. Lost in those tumultuous events of the time was a change of another kind which took place the same day. Ahmad Ali Khan took over as acting editor of Dawn.

 A change in a newspaper’s editorial stewardship does not attract public notice. In any case it was no sensational development for a paper which had witnessed several changes at the top in the eight years after the legendary Altaf Husain had bowed out. But now that Khan Sahib has chosen to lay down the reins, no one can deny the impact of the man on the paper he edited for over two-and-a-half decades. In the words of F.E. Chaudhry, another veteran from the world of journalism, it was a good, challenging innings he played.

The growth of Dawn from an eight pager to a 24-page daily with five weekly magazines is in no small measure attributed to Khan Sahib’s initiative and leadership. With his vision, guidelines (very strict ones), integrity, ethical values, and creative ideas he became the moving force behind the paper, which became richer and more multidimensional in contents. The newspaper emerged from its financial troubles to become a thriving daily with a modern, progressive, middle-of-the- road and cautious outlook.

Twenty-seven years down the road, Ahmad Ali Khan can sit back and look with satisfaction at his achievements. But he does not. He is too modest and self-effacing to take credit for anything. That is his greatest quality, which has enabled him to distance himself professionally from the hub of national activity and assess it with detachment and no personal gain in mind.

For many of us, who were introduced to journalism by Khan Sahib and who have learnt the ropes from him over the years, his exhortations, backed up by his personal example, are all too familiar to be forgotten. Work hard. Scrupulously separate your personal biases and prejudices from the professional compulsion of objectivity. Revise your copy several times meticulously. Check the authenticity of your story. If a mistake has been made, carry a correction. Of course, his discourses on politics, the national economy and foreign policy were a learning experience, even though we didn’t agree with all his views.

 Hence, we decided to make this interview, a journey into the past to talk about important issues which affected him as a journalist in his 55 years of professional life. As is inevitable in any conversation with a person who has been in the media for the best part of his life, the issue of press freedom figured prominently. Khan Sahib feels that the only satisfying factor in a journalist’s life can be the freedom to express himself. Regrettably, this is what we have lacked most and this Khan Sahib finds the most frustrating aspect of his life in journalism.

“Pakistan has come under military rule not once but on several occasions,” he says. “The authoritarians, both military and civil, have resorted to terror, violence, censorship and pre- censorship to intimidate the press.” He recalls with strong feelings the martial law of October 1958. “Yes, today the press operates in a free atmosphere. But this freedom is on sufferance. It is not institutionally guaranteed. Neither does the strong public opinion exist which is needed as an underpinning for press freedom. It is the international need of the present military government to project an image of a tolerant regime. Hence it puts up with a free press, the embarrassment it causes notwithstanding. That way the government can allay the fears in foreign quarters and reassure them that Pakistan is not relapsing into total military rule,” he emphasizes.

Has the country ever had press freedom? No, he says. Only there has been a difference of shades between the curbs exercized in different periods. Under the pre-1958 so-called democratic governments the press was strictly required to observe numerous don’ts: don’t challenge the government’s position on Kashmir; don’t argue in favour of Bengal’s autonomy; don’t advocate the cause of the Bengali language; don’t criticize any aspect of foreign policy. After Ayub Khan seized office, a long list of do’s was added to the press portfolio. On the top of the agenda was the order to support the government and its policies.

This never ceased. When a constitutional, civilian government took office under Z.A. Bhutto, the curbs were further institutionalized. Ziaul Haq clamped down on the press even harder. The repeal of the Press and Publications Ordinance by the Junejo government and the introduction of the RPPO did not ease the situation entirely because the politicians who came into office after the restoration of democracy in 1988 did not believe in press freedom. This was a period of selective curbs.

His greatest regret has been the failure of the national press to play its role in the crisis of 1971. “Yahya Khan’s government did not impose any new curbs on the press as such. Yet nobody tried to test the genuineness of the seeming lack of restraint,” he laments. “The People’s Party had whipped up a strong anti- Bengali, anti-Mujib sentiment in West Pakistan. Mr Bhutto violently opposed those West Pakistani politicians (Daultana and others) who wanted to negotiate with the Awami League leader to find a compromise. ‘We shall break the legs of anyone who dared attend the National Assembly (which was to meet in Dhaka),’ he had said. Unfortunately, the press also failed to support the forces seeking a dialogue. It also failed to investigate the events in East Pakistan in 1971 and report them truthfully to its readers,” Mr Khan says with remorse.

Did he simply drift into journalism or was it a conscious choice to join the profession? Khan Sahib recalls his early days. His schooling took place in Bhopal and in 1939, when he was in the last year of school, he was appointed editor of the English section of the school magazine Gahwara-i-Adab.

 “When-the headmaster told me that I had been appointed the editor, my immediate response was to refuse the assignment. ‘I don’t know English very well and I am not competent to write editorials,’ I had pleaded. But despite my reluctance, I was given the responsibility. My job was to organize the printing, proof-reading, and the layout (a word I hadn’t even heard of before) of the magazine. I soon realized that I was enjoying my work. Though I was no more than a glorified proof-reader, my passion for the printed word had been kindled. It was my headmaster who really chose my profession for me.”

He continues, “Another contributing factor was my strong and abiding interest in politics. Even before I left school I was a keen newspaper reader. This interest was further reinforced at the universities I attended at Aligarh and Lucknow, where I was a student activist.”

 With this background, he could never think of entering government service, as was the fashion in those days. “One of my elder brothers advised me to compete for the ICS. He even got his friend, Dr Itrat Husain Zuberi, then principal of Islamia College, Calcutta, to agree to enrol me as an MA student so that I could acquire a domicile from Bengal and become eligible for the Bengal Muslim quota in the ICS. I turned down that suggestion and was left with two choices — legal practice or journalism and I chose the latter,” Khan Sahib says.

He launched his career by starting an Urdu political weekly Tarjuman from Bhopal in 1945 with the help of several young friends, foremost among them, the late S.M. Kamil.

 “My elder brothers and my cousins, all in government service, were seriously embarrassed,” Mr Khan says. “Realizing the delicacy of the situation for them, I moved to Bombay in early 1946 to take up the editorship of a pro-Muslim League daily called Iqbal. After the Muslim League session held in Bombay which called for direct action, Hindu-Muslim relations in the city got strained and incidents of communal violence began. On my mother’s orders I said goodbye to Iqbal.”

He continues, “After a few weeks’ rest I went off to Delhi in October 1946 and called on Mr Altaf Husain, editor of Dawn, asking for a job. The interview was over in ten minutes. ‘Come from tomorrow and attempt writing editorials. You have one month,’ said Altaf Sahib with finality. In the first week, five editorials were printed and I knew I had passed the test. Later, Mr Husain transferred me to Karachi Dawn and I reported for duty on August 30, 1947, as this paper’s senior assistant editor. It was always full-time involvement beginning with Tarjuman.”

How does he feel about the standard of journalism today?

In many cases, freedom has been abused. Neither has sufficient effort been made to raise the level of comprehension of issues. And the standards of composition have gone down in English as well as Urdu journalism. But there is a distinct gain. Gone are the days of exclusive prepossession with politics. Newspapers how focus on a much wider range of subjects in response to the community’s newer concerns and needs. The population explosion, the pace of urbanization, the deepening crisis of agriculture, the increasing pressure on utilities, the clamour for educational opportunity and medical aid, increasing awareness of gender inequality, rising class consciousness, and the problem of national security — these issues are attracting more and more public attention. Newspaper contents are, therefore, more variegated and opinion columns livelier and more vigorous.

 Will the institution of the press council help matters?

If it is not to become a tool for the government to manipulate the press and for the proprietors to settle issues on the quiet, it must include working journalists and members of the intelligentsia and other citizens who represent the readers.

What about the changes in the profession, how does he feel about them?

 The press has grown into a full-fledged industry, which requires big capital. The orientation of journalists has changed and journalism is now more of a career with financial prospects as the supreme criterion. In the forties one entered the profession because of political motivation. True, everyone was not a Maulana Mohammad Ali Jauhar or Maulana Abul Kalam Azad. But many journalists felt committed to their profession and felt they had a mission before them.

Today journalists with a social commitment are in a minority. Yet, given a higher degree of inspiration, this minority can play a decisive part in raising the moral tone of the profession.

 “At Dawn we became increasingly concerned with the issue of justice — justice between regions, and between economic classes, justice for women, the minorities and other disadvantaged groups such as the child labourers, landless peasants and the urban poor. We took a lead in focusing on these issues in our reports, features, pictures and editorials. Yes, you can put this down to some extent to my egalitarian beliefs. I strongly feel that democracy will mean little for the common people unless it brought social justice. In the team that I worked with there were men and women who responded eagerly to the claims of the disadvantaged for a fairer deal,” says Khan sahib.

It is more than an hour-and-a-half that we have been interviewing him. Since his retirement about six weeks ago, he has worked out a schedule for himself — in which he fits in a lot of reading which he always wanted to do, but could never find the time to do. He says he is planning to write something about his life experiences, but still has to get down to it. We do not want to disturb his routine and take leave, hoping to read in his book about his adventures in journalism.

Source: Dawn 14 May 2000