The press has gradually succumbed to the pressures applied by political parties even to the point of surrendering their editorial powers.
In the past, most parties had been 'requesting' more prominent displays for their stories. Since no resistance was offered by the press, especially by the owners, the pressure continued to increase.The 'requests' soon turned into 'demands ' and then into veiled threats. Finally, a time came when even headlines were being 'suggested ' by the parties concerned.
Party press releases began to be accommodated in toto, and even the basic principles of journalism — the avoidance of repetition,reverse pyramid writing (the most important point at the top and less important issues at the bottom of the report) — were disregarded. A situation has now been reached where political events are reported through the press releases of the concerned parties.
Given the attitude of the press barons and their organisations in the past, one could hardly expect a better deal than the one struck in Azizabad on the morning of March 23. The press in Pakistan has always been targeted by hostile political activists. However, most of the earlier events seem to pale in comparison with what happened last month.
Hardly any political party worth its name can claim to have kept its fingers clean in this sordid tale. At one time or another, on one pretext or another, every major party has been responsible for attacking newspaper Pakistan People's Party, the Jaamat-e-lslami, the Jamiatul-Ulema-e-lslam, the Jiye Sindh, the MQM and a host of smaller parties have all used strong-arm tactics to gag the press.
With the gradual emergence of smaller parties, particularly following the emergence of ethnic-based groups in the political field, the situation began to worsen. With the induction of sophisticated weapons, the old practice of attacking and damaging newspaper offices soon turned into organised armed attacks of a far more alarming nature.
Proverbially, it has often been argued that the pen is mightier than the sword. In reality, however, it proved too weak to withstand the barrel of the gun. Soon, it was repeatedly made to buckle and kneel before anyone who could force it do so. Worse, there are many examples in the recent past of press barons capitulating to the forces of intimidation without even attempting to put up a fight.
Armed militants had begun policing the streets in the small hours of the morning, and they did not allow the paper to leave the printing press.
The current phase of forcing an armed 'boycott' of newspapers began with the boycott of daily Jang in 1987. It was announced by the MQM. Initially, a voluntary boycott was called for. But after about a week, it appeared that the boycott had not delivered the desired results.
In the next phase, hawkers were attacked and their motorcycles damaged. Copies of the paper were snatched from hawkers at distribution points all over the city and systematically set on fire. Within ten days, a dialogue was arranged and the boycott ended. Immediately, the attack on hawkers stopped. What transpired at the meeting was never made public.
But that was only the beginning. The same party once again became angry with Jang a couple of years later. This time, it called for a one day boycott of the paper on Friday, March 10, 1989. The boycott was announced to "protest" against the "improper coverage" of Mayor Farooq Sattar's wedding.
The next morning, the paper was not distributed anywhere in the city. Armed militants had begun policing the streets in the small hours of the morning, and they did not allow the paper to leave the printing press. Snatching the bundles from the hands of the staff, they paralysed the paper's entire distribution system. Determined to destroy every single copy, armed persons even searched the vehicles and motorcycles of people returning home late at night.
The vans of newsagents were searched to make sure that they were not carrying copies of the paper. The boycott was obviously 'successful' and was called off the same day. But the message that was meant to be conveyed to the proprietors had been clearly delivered.
"What is disgusting and despicable is not just the compromising attitude of the owners. They are, after all, karobari people. They prefer their business interests over all other considerations," says one senior journalist.
But the behaviour of the owners of certain other papers, in his view, was even more disgusting and worthy of condemnation. "They acted like vultures," he adds. "When Jang was about to 'die' in the desert of terrorism and violence, they started hovering over its 'body', ready to gorge themselves on the rich pickings."
Almost all the Urdu papers that come out from Karachi had increased their print orders on the day of the Jang boycott. They wanted to cash in on the absence of Jang, without realising that extra sales for one day would not really benefit their paper in the long run. On the contrary, by trying to take advantage of the forcibly created vacuum. they were indirectly encouraging the militants. Their business interests blinded them to the stark reality that the pattern of violence and terrorism that they were encouraging would one day threaten their own existence.
The next target was an Urdu eveninger. It made history by becoming the first — and, to date, the sole — paper whose offices were occupied for five days by armed militants. The paper was not allowed to come out for this duration, as its press was under constant surveillance by the militants. The 'fault' of the paper was that it had published a supplement on the death of the People's Student Federation leader, Najib Ahmed.
Ironically, this was the paper which had increased its print order to 100,000 copies when Jang was boycotted for one day, as admitted by its publisher-editor, llyas Shakir. It was only after the editor apologised to Altaf Hussain and printed a photograph — for five consecutive days — of himself bowing before the MQM chief, that the boycott ended and the armed militants vacated the offices.
One particular party, for its part, has added a strange and completely new dimension to news reporting. All the other political parties and social groups have insisted on the coverage of their side of the story as their right. This party, however, has gone one step further. While demanding proper coverage for itself on the basis of its representative position, it makes a habit of expressing anger over the coverage given to other parties and, now, coverage of its dissidents.
"The party does not allow the mention of its name, even in the statements of its opponents, whenever any charge is levelled against it," alleges one news editor. ''Meanwhile, most newspapers dutifully mention the names of members of rival parties if the same party issues a press release, branding them as terrorists," he adds.
While no party openly admits that it is responsible for the attacks on the press, most of them continue to accuse the newspapers of conspiring against them.
The MQM leadership, for example, believes that some newspapers have been playing a significant role in the conspiracies that it claims are being plotted against the party. In a recent statement, MQM chief Altaf Hussain accused Dawn, Herald and Takbeer of hatching such conspiracies. "They publish baseless stories against the MQM," he said, adding that "we welcome all sorts of criticism, but it should not be based on false propaganda."
The MQM, which has 15 representatives from Sindh in the National Assembly, perhaps justifiably thinks that it deserves more coverage in newspapers than some parties that could not get a single seat, or others that have only a few. The MQM also accuses vested interests, capitalists, industrialists and big landlords of conspiring against it, since, in the words of Altaf Hussain, "we have sent people from the middle and lower-middle classes to the National Assembly and that is an unbearable blow to those who have been sitting there for generations."
Since Urdu newspapers appeal directly to the masses, they became the original target of any pressures from political parties and other groups. Jang, being the paper with the largest circulation, was the main victim — and sadly, also the main culprit. In view of its special place, it was singled out for public 'taming'. Without much ado, it capitulated.
The English language newspapers, for their lack of popular appeal, had traditionally been under less pressure. They maintained their relative independence and objectivity to a greater extent. But when it was felt that an appeal to the elite and to the military and civil bureaucracy had become a must for certain political ends, the same English papers were also subjected to pressure.
All these pressures and capitulations have rendered news reports devoid of authenticity. "The press has lost its credibility," says one senior journalist, commenting on the recent reporting trends in newspapers. "The readers no longer believe what the newspapers report these days," he adds, pointing out a number of examples where some of the proverbial four 'Ws' were missing. In most of the cases,one cannot make head or tail of the reports because vital background information has been held back. "We are at the lowest ebb of our credibility and a way has to be found to restore it — not to mention a way to protect the press from the terrorism and strong-arm tactics of the political parties."
Clearly, if there is any way out of this vicious circle, newspapers and newsmen will first have to be protected from the continuous threats of violence. They will also have to be freed from the 'advice' of the political parties. They have to be put back on the rails of objective journalism by being made to shed their fear when writing what they feel to be the truth. Some foolproof system has to be devised to ensure this. Only then will credibility be restored. Otherwise, it appears that a time will come when the press in Pakistan will find itself pushed to a point of no return.
Political parties will have to learn to use peaceful means to voice their grievances. This pledge will have to be extorted from them. To achieve this goal, concerted efforts will be 'necessary on the part of all the newspaper organisations, trade unions, the APNS, the CPNE and, most important of all, the owners of the newspaper empires themselves. They will all have to unite, in a joint effort to safeguard the freedom of the press.
Of course, all this will entail sacrifices in the short-term. Without these sacrifices, however, only worse days can lie in store. If they fail to step back from the abyss, only disaster can follow. Freedom, democracy, justice — just about everything one cherishes in a civilised society is now at stake.
This article was originally published in the Herald's April 1991 issue under the headline "Playing with fire". To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.
The writer was a staffer at the Herald.