People & Society Tapestry

The fine print: What are local newspapers up to in Karachi?

Updated 28 Jun, 2016 05:33pm
Photos by Arif Mahmood, White Star
Photos by Arif Mahmood, White Star


This could well be a public pronouncement by an internationally renowned leader of the opposition, originally from Mianwali, who never tires of labelling his opponents as criminals. It is not. Carried in the daily Janbaz, a four-page newspaper published from Karachi’s Lyari area, this pertains to the politics of perpetual one-upmanship in the city’s mean streets: a neighbourhood leader of Mianwali-origin scornfully dismissing the hostile overtures of a political party, aimed towards the residents of Lyari belonging to his native area. The similarities are accidental yet they show how political vitriol is the staple of newspaper journalism, both at the national and neighbourhood levels.

The statement is also a toned down version of the sensational, flashy brand of journalism that Janbaz is known for. When Lyari’s infamous gang wars were raging in the middle of the 2000s, the pages of the newspaper would be full of headlines that faithfully reproduced invective-filled ultimatums and blood-dripping warnings issued by one gang against the other, with all their linguistic and visual moles and warts. The warring gangsters were not just the subjects of reports published by the newspaper — they, and their acolytes, were also its main readers.

Once the two-way communication between the gangsters and the newspaper was established, it became easy for the reporters working with Janbaz to develop close contacts within each gang. This helped them not just to provide first-hand accounts of pitched battles between gangs but also allowed them to report the plans and strategies that gang leaders would make to kick out their rivals from a particular street or neighbourhood.

For readers, the newspaper provides information important for them to survive in a tough neighbourhood like Lyari.

Maintaining equally stable relations with all the gangsters, however, was not easy. The rawness of its language, the sensationalism of its reporting and the unabashed display of gory and bloody images on its pages, were bound to rub someone the wrong way some day. Only when that finally happened, the aggrieved party was Rehman Dakait, the most powerful don in Lyari. Angered by reports which he perceived to favour his enemies, he banned the distribution of Janbaz in his neighbourhood and banished its reporters and editors from the area. Vans distributing Janbaz were torched and distributors beaten up publicly.

Also read: Lyari Live—Eight defining moments in the turbulent history of Lyari

This forced the publishers to shift their offices out of Lyari, to an ill-kempt building on the nearby I I Chundrigar Road; they set up distribution networks in places such as Keamari, Gadap and Malir where a sizeable population has close relatives living in Lyari and is, therefore, always highly interested, and concerned, about what goes on there. It was only after Rehman Dakait’s death in a police encounter in 2009, that Janbaz resumed its distribution in Lyari.

The 15-year old Janbaz carries the name of one Akhtar Ali Rizvi as its editor but those familiar with the working of the newspaper say he is never involved in running its day-to-day affairs. For sectarian reasons, he keeps a low social profile, especially after he received threats to his life from sectarian groups enraged by the coverage Shias were receiving on the back page of Janbaz.

Residenst of Lyarisit reading the daily Janbaz newspapers
Residenst of Lyarisit reading the daily Janbaz newspapers

The publisher of the newspaper, Syed Sajjad Hussain Shah, is also an elusive figure. Over the years, he has come to own three television news channels and a few print publications, but he is never seen much in public. Janbaz is mainly run by one Ghulam Haider, a graduate of the Karachi University and a native of Lyari.

Haider, too, remains a highly cautious man. He is very particular about who to meet and who to avoid. His office opens only late in the evening and outsiders are seldom, if at all, welcome.

The coverage of gangs continues to be the core of the newspaper’s contents, with the difference that most of the reporting is now done through remote communications. The reporters are no longer embedded with dons, as they were in olden times, and they do not have to roam the streets to find news stories.

After a gang has done something, or it wants to convey some warning to its opponents, its operatives send a statement and related photos through WhatsApp, a mobile phone application, to the reporters working for Janbaz. Since almost all the dons have been pushed out of Lyari by security forces, over the last three years, they also use WhatsApp if and when they require Janbaz to cover their activities.

Such access gives the newspaper a clear edge over the other publications. In early August this year, national media – both newspapers and television news channels – reported that Noor Mohammad alias Baba Ladla, one of the most important gang leaders in Lyari, was killed in an encounter with the security forces on the Pak-Iran border. The report was soon proved wrong as his minions rushed to send WhatsApp messages to reporters working for Janbaz with evidence that he was still alive.

Apart from its scandalous coverage of crime, what explains its appeal to readers is its ability to portray life as ordinary people see it around themselves.

The newspaper’s proximity to Lyari-based criminals is so well-established that even police officials and personnel of the paramilitary Sindh Rangers, consult and mine its contents to update themselves about the operatives and leaders of the gangs. And journalists working for national-level media outlets pick up Janbaz for insights when told to cover crime in Lyari.

Familiarity with criminals has a flip side: it forces the newspaper to glorify crime in order to remain on the right side of the criminals. A fact-finding mission deployed by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) last year to investigate the law and order situation in Lyari noted that Janbaz played a negative role as it was “spreading panic and exaggerated lies.”

The mission also alleged the newspaper and its reporters were working as agents of security and intelligence agencies and were “spreading targeted information to the people.” The HRCP has not published these findings, says its vice chairperson for Sindh, Asad Iqbal Butt, because the situation in Lyari is fluid and these observations could be taken “out of context” in an ever-changing situation.

The management of the newspaper also seems to realise the problem though it has done little to address it. “Exaggeration makes martyrs out of gangsters,” discloses a source close to Haider. “It has cost Janbaz a lot in the past.” Allegations of cash for coverage also swirl around the newspaper. The source, who happens to be a friend of Haider, says some gangsters pay the Janbaz staff 5,000 rupees to 10,000 rupees to ensure that their statements are printed prominently. The same source also talks about Haider’s access to some leading political figures active in Lyari.

A hawker sells the Memon Awaz on his roadside stall
A hawker sells the Memon Awaz on his roadside stall

“Whether it is Khurram Sher Zaman [a provincial legislator of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf] or Nabeel Gabol [a former federal minister], they invite Haider to private dinners hosted exclusively for him. They also pay him money in return for coverage,” the source discloses. No one from the Janbaz management confirms or denies these allegations.

It is, perhaps, because of these reasons that some security officials have started taking note of how Janbaz operates. A few months ago, discloses the source, a lieutenant colonel working with the Sindh Rangers called Haider to his office, and asked him to explain why he gave so much headline space to gangsters. “[The officer] asked Haider why his newspaper covered gangsters as if they were politicians,” the source says. He was told to abstain from providing coverage to criminals in the future.

Haider readily obliged. Soon after the meeting, Janbaz carried a public opinion survey that spoke about the popularity of the Rangers-led security operation in areas such as Lyari, Malir, Gadap and Keamari. It was not surprising that the survey report carried a large picture of the Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif with a laudatory headline.

There are very few advertisements in the newspaper which, according to different estimates, sells anywhere between 15,000 and 25,000 copies a day. Apart from its scandalous coverage of crime, what explains its appeal to readers is its ability to portray life as ordinary people see it around themselves. “The newspaper has brought the street culture into print,” says the source, and it covers that culture in an idiom that the man on the street can easily identify with. Some readers, indeed, are all praise for what Janbaz does for them.

“What matters is that here we have a newspaper that is for people like us,” says a housewife in Lyari. For readers like her, the newspaper provides information important for them to survive in a tough neighbourhood like Lyari. That information is not available through any other source, she says.

Janbaz, for these readers, is an unedited update on who is doing what in the neighbourhood: who is peddling alcohol, who is selling drugs, which piece of empty land is the latest bone of contention between the gangs and which gangster is switching sides to which don.

Sometimes, the newspaper serves an even more important social function. When the security forces carry out an operation in Lyari and someone gets killed, in what the law enforcement agencies call an encounter, Janbaz finds all the antecedents of the deceased person, often showing him to be an ordinary individual having nothing to do with crime and criminals. This, then, helps his family to move a court against his death, the source says.

Mohamad Hanif Memon Dhedhi, the editor of *Memon Awaz* at his office
Mohamad Hanif Memon Dhedhi, the editor of *Memon Awaz* at his office


This headline jumps out of an otherwise clean and uncluttered front page of Memon Awaz, a black-and-white fortnightly broadsheet, that mostly covers the social life of Karachi’s Memon community. The headline is an editorial call for maintaining unity within the community and to let its elected association complete its two-year term.

At a microcosmic level, the activities of the Memon community and the lack of discipline and harmony among its members mirrors the national life where conspiracies and conspiracy theories are rampant and calls for cohesion loud and frequent. In this, Memon Awaz does something similar to what national newspapers claim to be doing: portraying the fractured social life to lament, and to mend its fractures.

Memon Awaz also does some other things that national-level dailies do: covering crime involving a whole community and celebrating achievements by ordinary folks. In one of its October 2015 issues, the newspaper reports about a Memon girl who has secured second position in an all-Karachi examination. The same issue carries front page news about some Memon men arrested weeks ago while they were collecting hides of animals sacrificed on Eidul Azha.

It is easy to miss Memon Awaz’s small editorial offices on the third floor of a building on I I Chundrigar Road. The editor sits in his small room; the rest of the office functions as a newsroom — with a tiny corner marked by a table, reserved as a kitchen and a store. Mohamad Hanif Memon Dhedhi, the editor of Memon Awaz, is a petite and hyperactive person of 67 years of age. It takes him a while to overcome the anxiety of having to provide the details of his life and work as a newspaper editor.

Illustration by Samia Arif
Illustration by Samia Arif

Dhedhi started publishing the newspaper 22 years ago because he always wanted to be a journalist. After doing matriculation from Kutiyana Memon School in Kharadar, he initially joined a bank but soon realised that his “heart was not in it.”

When finally he started his newspaper, he focussed its coverage on his own community as he felt Memons in Karachi were divided along the lines of caste, clan and their place of origin and, therefore, needed a platform where everyone could read about each other’s accomplishments and efforts. Thus increasing the possibility of engagement within the community.

Owning an oil business and stakes in real estate, Dhedhi is not much concerned about the commercial success of the newspaper which, he says, he is running “as a hobby.” Still, he wants the newspaper to sell more copies than it does. “Our people spend 100 rupees a day on buying paan but they will not spend 10 rupees on buying a newspaper.” Low sales, he says, make it difficult for him to keep the cash flowing for the newspaper’s operations.

To cut on production expenses, Dhedhi shares his office with the staff of another fortnightly newspaper, Rufaqa, an Urdu word for ‘companions’. This newspaper focusses on the Burmese and Rohingya Muslim communities. The first three pages of the newspaper are devoted to the coverage of the problems the two communities are facing while living in Karachi and the fourth is dedicated to highlighting their plight in their homeland, Myanmar. The pattern remains the same in every issue.

Also read: Brotherhood thrives in Karachi's religiously diverse quarters

Rufaqa is entirely financed by one Jamal Hussain who lives in Saudia Arabia and regularly sends money to the newspaper’s small staff in Karachi so that they continue to bring it out. In June 2015, the publication of Rufaqa had to stop because money from Saudi Arabia could not arrive on time but, soon afterwards, Jamal Hussain sent enough funds to keep the newspaper running for another six months.

Ayyaz Hussain, who works as the lone composer, page-maker and photographer for Rufaqa, says the basic objective of the newspaper is to highlight the difficult living conditions the Burmese and Rohingya Muslims are facing in Karachi. “Sometimes, they are treated as illegal Bangladeshi migrants and are asked to leave Pakistan,” he says. “When our reporters investigate such stories, we find out that these communities are being exploited by extortion rackets which extract money from them in exchange for letting them live and work in Karachi.”

Hussain says some Burmese and Rohingya Muslims have been living in Karachi for the last three decades and must be treated as refugees or as legal migrants, but they still live in legal limbo. Rufaqa writes about these problems because the national-level newspapers don’t, he says. The audiences of the mainstream press may not be interested in knowing about the sufferings of these small communities living on the fringe in Karachi, Hussain adds. “Getting space for them in big newspapers is, therefore, tough. Thus we help in highlighting their issues.”

Watan Gujrati being read at the new composers' office
Watan Gujrati being read at the new composers' office


The headline, published in the wake of an ongoing gang war in Lyari, clearly underscores where the focus of the daily Watan Gujarati is: on the native speakers of Gujarati-language in Karachi. As one of the few Gujarati-language newspapers in the city, its editorial staff and readers all come from the communities that can read and write the language. Most of the advertisements it carries also publicise businesses owned and run by Gujarati-speaking businessmen such as the Tapals and Siraj Kassam Teli, a former president of the Karachi Chambers of Commerce and Industry.

Usman Saathi, the editor of Watan Gujarati, was born in the Kutch Mandvi area in the Indian state of Gujarat. Though his family migrated to Pakistan in 1947, he stayed back in India to complete his education. “My father insisted I finish my studies in Pune and Ahmedabad before coming to Karachi.”

After landing in Karachi in the early 1960s, he joined the Dawn Group of Newspapers, which then owned and published the Watan Gujarati. He remembers having started his career as a member of the editorial staff of the newspaper on September 16, 1965. Saathi spent the next 20 years working for Watan Gujarati.

In October 1997, the Dawn Group of Newspapers shut down Watan Gujarati due to financial constraints. Saathi resumed its publication a month later, on November 9, 1997 to be exact, after having its declaration transferred under his name.

At its peak in the 1960s and the 1970s, the daily circulation of Watan Gujarati was 35,000 copies. It has gone down a lot since then. As fresh copies of the newspaper are handed to him for inspection, Saathi looks at them at his office in Boulton Market and nostalgically remembers the days when Gujarati was one of the main languages in Karachi. “There were 21 Gujarati schools” in the city, he says, before Zulfikar Ali Bhutto initiated the nationalisation of private educational institutions in the 1970s. In the first decade and a half after the independence, 80 per cent businessmen in Karachi were Gujarati-speaking; most of them eventually left for other countries, says Saathi.

Gujarati speakers in Karachi belong to a variety of communities – Ismailis and Bohri Shias, Hindus, Parsis, Kutchis, Memons and Ghanchi beside others – and, according to some estimates, they formed about 10 per cent of the city’s population till the 1990s. But the number of those who can read Gujarati has dwindled overtime. Some have passed away, others have shifted to different parts of the world and many more from Gujarati-speaking families simply do not know the language enough to be able to read a newspaper in it. “If the city loses one Gujarati speaker, Watan Gujarati loses one subscriber,” Saathi says mournfully.

“The newspaper has such a small readership that I feel personally bereaved when someone from the Gujarati-speaking community passes away.”

In order to retain his fast decreasing readership, Saathi has introduced Urdu and English sections in the newspaper. The coverage, however, is still strongly focussed on the activities of Gujarati-speaking inhabitants of Karachi: who went where and who said what and when.

Although Saathi could be the last editor of possibly the last Gujarati-language newspaper in Karachi, he is still optimistic about the future of his mother tongue.

Saathi, however, says Watan Gujarati’s editorial policy has changed over time in some other important ways. The newspaper once had an obvious political tilt towards one political party. “Now we cover every political party in the city,” he says. “We focus on what the people want to read. We celebrate everyone’s victory but we don’t follow anyone’s politics blindly.” Saathi knows quite well that his newspaper will only be published as long as he lives. Of his three sons and two daughters, no one has any interest or experience in running the newspaper.

“When I meet my old friends at the Karachi Press Club, they tell me quite bluntly that my children do not have what it takes to run the newspaper, like I have done. I know they are right. This generation does not have the patience required for publishing a newspaper,” he says.

Although Saathi could be the last editor of possibly the last Gujarati-language newspaper in Karachi, he is still optimistic about the future of his mother tongue. It will make a comeback, he says. “This is the usual course of life. Things come back full circle. My friends laugh when I say this but I sincerely believe the Gujarati community will realise one day that it has lost much by not following its mother language and that will help Gujarati make a comeback.”

He does not know how, but he is confident that this will happen soon. “Maybe [if] someone builds a Gujarati school, or perhaps the government includes the language in the curriculum of existing schools.”

Ashok Kumar, the editor of the monthly Minorities' Families
Ashok Kumar, the editor of the monthly Minorities' Families


This headline sums up a statement made by a Karachi-based political leader on the need for increasing the representation of non-Muslim Pakistanis in local government structures. The newspaper which carries this statement on its front page is the strangely named Minorities’ Families — the title hardly making sense in any language.

Ashok Kumar, the editor of Minorities’ Families claims to be driven by a passion to do something for his own Hindu community in Karachi. He remembers going to the Karachi office of Pakistan Television (PTV) in 1997 as a 12-year-old along with his father who spoke to the officials there about the possibility of broadcasting a programme on “someone’s rights.” It was only years later that Kumar understood what his father was speaking about. “I have the copy of the letter in which PTV’s managing director informed my father that PTV was not interested in doing a programme on the issues concerning minorities.” The letter promised that PTV would get back to his father at a later date, but no one called him back.

A few years later, a Hindu social activist was interviewed at PTV Karachi; there was a lot of excitement among his friends and family living in Mithadar and Kharadar areas of Karachi that he will appear on their television screens. That never happened. The interview was never aired.

Also read: Rubina Saigol on democracy and minorities in Pakistan

Mainstream national-level newspapers, especially those published in Urdu, have a similarly indifferent attitude towards non-Muslim Pakistanis. Unless they get tangled in some controversy, he says, they do not get media coverage in consonance with their presence in society. “Only a small fraction of their lives finds space in newspapers and even that coverage is not given proper context,” he says.

A copy of a Karachi-based monthly, Minorities Families newspaper
A copy of a Karachi-based monthly, Minorities Families newspaper

It was because of these reasons that Kumar decided that, one day, he will have a newspaper of his own, dedicated entirely to the coverage of Hindus living in Karachi. “Finally in 2007, I got an official declaration for publishing the Minorities’ Families.

Kumar does not have an office to publish his newspaper from. He takes all the contents to a composer on I I Chundrigar Road who then readies an issue for printing. Printed on crisp white paper, normally used in photo copiers, the newspaper usually covers a small community of middle- and lower-class Hindus living in and around Karachi’s Defence Housing Authority and Clifton areas. Sometimes, it also reproduces news reports and opinion pieces published in national-level dailies and magazines — always without permission.

The newspaper started small, with just 1,000 copies, to see how the business of publishing works. The seed money came from the rent Kumar’s family earns from the shops they lease out in the Gizri area within Defence Housing Authority. Published as a monthly, Minorities’ Families does not have a regular staff or clientele. Its sales depend entirely on the Hindu religious and festival calendar. Kumar can sell as many as 10,000 copies in months full of religious ceremonies and events organised around them. In other months, circulation goes down drastically.

“One of the major reasons for publishing this newspaper is to make people understand who we are as a community, so they can see that we are not different from them.”

“We don’t get advertisements to run the newspaper,” says Kumar, “but we do get money from the sponsors or organisers of events we cover.” Many Hindu businessmen have also enrolled themselves as members of the newspaper, he says without explaining if that membership means that they get a role in the editorial decision-making. Each member pays 300 rupees to 500 rupees a year, says Kumar, once again without revealing the total number of the members.

He talks about demands from money extortion rackets that Hindu businessmen in Karachi receive quite frequently and wants to write about it, but his biggest worry is to be accused of blasphemy. “In my newspaper, I strictly restrict coverage to the Hindu community. I do not want anyone to misinterpret anything that we have written and then give it a different meaning,” he says.

On the other hand, he has advised his staff to explain all the Hindu rituals and Hindu festivals in detail for the benefit of his readers. Most people who read Urdu newspapers do not understand the context of these rituals and festivals, says Kumar. “One of the major reasons for publishing this newspaper is to make people understand who we are as a community, so they can see that we are not different from them.”

In its first eight years, the Minorities’ Families appeared as an Urdu-language newspaper, but then six months ago, Kumar decided to switch to English. “Due to the language barrier, he says, we have lost a large number of readership we had managed to build,” he says, as he reveals that the newspaper’s language has changed to Urdu again. “Urdu is understood by everyone here. So, I thought sticking to Urdu would be best.”

Newspapers being sold by the roadside  on M A Jinnah Road
Newspapers being sold by the roadside on M A Jinnah Road


As a parting shot, this headline for an editorial essay published in May this year in the weekly Sada-e-Pakhtun sums up the newspaper’s philosophy: highlighting the demands of the marginalised Pakhtuns. Its chief editor, Noorullah Achakzai, is a veteran of Pakhtun politics and community-based journalism in Karachi.

As a young man, he saw the events that followed the death of a student, Bushra Zaidi, in an April 1985 bus accident. The riots that subsequently engulfed the entire city of Karachi were deadly and pitched battles between the local Pakhtun and Muhajir communities during the time were frequent and bloody. “I was scared about the repercussions of that accident,” he tells the Herald. “It snowballed into a fight that we are still witnessing,” he says.

Sitting in a local government election office in Mohammad Khan Goth on the northern outskirts of Karachi, Noorullah recounts how he worked with three different newspapers before starting Sada-e-Pakhtun. In 1983, he worked with three of his close friends for a newspaper named Awami Awaz as honourary reporters. Ubaidullah Achakzai, the editor of Awami Awaz, lived in Azam Basti – in the Mehmoodabad area of south Karachi – and sold around 1,000 copies of the newspaper, mainly through word-of-mouth advertising in northern areas of the city such as Al-Asif Square in Sohrab Goth. The way the newspaper covered the 1985 violence earned it loyal readers in the hundreds.

Apart from covering political activities, the newspaper also carried reports which suggested that officials of the law enforcement agencies were conniving with drug peddlers in Sohrab Goth and Azam Basti

But then violence reached the office of Awami Awaz. “The editor was threatened by some people. They told him to shut down the newspaper or face dire consequences,” says Noorullah. “Some of us thought the threats were coming from those who were unhappy with the coverage of violence, but the threats actually came from robbers and drug peddlers operating in our own areas (in and around Sohrab Goth). They wanted the newspaper warned because they were unhappy over our coverage of their activities,” he says. To avoid getting into trouble, Ubaidullah decided to shut shop.

Noorullah then switched to another newspaper along with one of his friends, Tahir Bangash. The two eventually brought out a newspaper of their own in 2000. Called Qaumi Maslay, or the problems of the community, this was prepared and printed at I I Chundrigar Road and then distributed from Al-Asif Square. “We changed our focus a little bit with this newspaper. Though we were still covering violence, we also ensured that the problems of the people were included in our coverage,” he said. “These problems included sewerage disposal, health care, education and public transport.”

To arrange the money required for publishing the newspaper, the two came up with a novel idea: space was reserved on the front page to carry paid profiles of senior government officials. Each profile would earn the newspaper the princely sum of 1,000 rupees to 1,500 rupees. “It used to be more than sufficient for us at the time,” says Noorullah.

![Readers going through Millat, a Gujarati-language newspaper10

They also used the newspaper for political mobilisation against the military regime of General (retd) Pervez Musharraf, especially in and after May 2007. It was also on the second day of the same month that the Pakhtun Action Committee, a Pakhtun-only political forum, was launched in Karachi. The committee was at the forefront of road blockades and other political activities organised as protests against Musharraf’s “tyrannical” government. Qaumi Maslay would cover those protests very prominently, including the blood-soaked incidents of May 12, 2007, when scores of people were killed in Karachi in demonstrations over the arrival of the then deposed chief justice of Pakistan, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, in the city.

Apart from covering political activities, the newspaper also carried reports which suggested that officials of the law enforcement agencies were conniving with drug peddlers in Sohrab Goth and Azam Basti. It was because of these latter reports that the editor, Ismail Sheerani, started receiving anonymous threats and was physically harassed too. “I was also called in [at a government office] and asked to explain what was happening at the newspaper,” says Noorullah. The newspaper was closed down in 2008 after the editorial staff could not agree on how to respond to the situation.

Soon afterwards, Noorullah and Bangash got together and applied for the declaration of Sada-e-Pakhtun. The former became its executive editor and the latter its editor. By that time Noorullah had also spent a substantial amount of time as the provincial information secretary of Awami National Party (ANP), a post he had been holding since 2003. Everyone, from transporters to drivers to gravediggers, knew him because of his participation in political activities.

They also used the newspaper for political mobilisation against the military regime of General (retd) Pervez Musharraf, especially in and after May 2007

This helped Sada-e-Pakhtun gain a readership in almost all Pakhtun-dominated areas in the city including, but not limited to, Sohrab Goth, Azam Basti and Manghopir. “People praised us for our active stance on social issues,” says Noorullah and claims that, “we spoke about people regardless of the consequences.”

For a few years, putting together financial resources for the newspaper was not a problem. Noorullah’s party was happy to contribute some money in anticipation of increasing its support base among Sada-e-Pakhtun’s readers and many Pakhtun businessmen and community elders provided hefty donations to the newspaper management.

Everything was going fine until an unexpected crisis hit the newspaper. Starting in 2012, the Taliban’s influence increased in many Pakhtun localities across Karachi. This had multiple negative effects on Sada-e-Pakhtun. Firstly, its main patron, ANP, lost its political clout among the Pakhtuns and also its ability to fund the newspaper.

Secondly, the Taliban successfully diverted donations from Pakhtun businessmen and community elders to fund their own terrorist activities. And finally, Sada-e-Pakhtun became a major target of harassment and threats by the Taliban and their supporters. Unable to cope with the combined effect of these factors, the newspaper finally ceased publication in May this year.

Newspaper offices in a building on I I chundrigar
Newspaper offices in a building on I I chundrigar

Officials at the Sindh information department say they have no control over the contents of the 220 big and small newspapers being published from Karachi. “We neither have the manpower nor the expertise to scrutinise whether each of these publications is sticking to the terms and conditions of its declaration,” says Mahnaz Siddiqui, the department’s director of publications. Even if her department gets the required staff and competence, she says, it has no legal authority to do so.

The Sindh information department, effectively, works as a post office under the Press, Newspaper, News, Agencies and Books Registration Ordinance, 2002. When someone applies for a newspaper declaration at the office of the commissioner, the department receives their particulars and sends them to the Press Information Department (PID) in Islamabad which scrutinises the professional, financial and social credentials of the applicants before accepting or declining their application. It is also PID’s responsibility, and mandate, to accept or reject the name suggested for a prospective publication.

If a newspaper decides to change its editorial board or its editorial language, the Sindh information department has no way of even knowing about it. In the same way, the department never gets to find out how a newspaper runs its finances and if the funds are being legally secured and spent. These lacunas have led to a mushroom growth of thousands of small neighbourhood-based and/or community-focussed newspapers across Pakistan — most of them with dubious financial and questionable journalistic practices.

Experts agree that many of these newspapers have low ethical, legal and professional standards. They also explain that illegal financial practices are a major reason why the standards are so dismal at many such publications. "Being dependent on opaque sources of funding, these newspapers become vulnerable to exploitation or blackmail,” explains Tauseef Ahmed Khan, a former chairman of the department of mass communication at the Federal Urdu University, Karachi. Or, in worse cases, the newspapers themselves start using extortion and blackmail as tools for making quick bucks.

But Khan also points out that these small newspapers are not always a source of unmitigated mischief. Sometimes they highlight local-level issues that national-level newspapers cannot, he says. “Highlighting the civic problems that a particular neighbourhood is facing or human rights issues that the inhabitants there are experiencing helps people in getting the support of the concerned government officials.”

In some exceptional cases, such small newspapers have served as nurseries for journalism, providing on-the-job training to newcomers in the profession. “Watan Gujarati has groomed a number of journalists who later joined major publications and continued working successfully as journalists,” says Khan.

This was originally published in Herald's November 2015 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.

The writer is a reporter at the daily Dawn in Karachi.