Photos by Tanveer Shahzad, White Star
Photos by Tanveer Shahzad, White Star

With the dubious distinction of having suffered several bouts of military rule, Pakistan is hardly a beacon for free expression. Even at the best of times in its 70-year history, the country has had to contend with institutionalised impulses to curb people’s political aspirations and censor their speech and thought.

Since the start of the new millennium all this has only gotten worse as Pakistan has emerged, according to many global indices, as one of the most dangerous places in the world to practice journalism and exercise free speech. At least 120 journalists have been killed in the line of duty since 2000, and there is a discernible rise in censorship of not only mainstream media but also of the Internet, where people have shifted their thoughts after feeling stifled in other avenues. But a new law has recently criminalised online dissent too. Surveillance and intimidation related to free speech on the Internet are growing.

Over the past two years, several citizens and even political activists have been kidnapped, tortured and prosecuted on charges such as treason and blasphemy, even when many of them were only expressing their opinions and speaking up about issues that are no longer covered in the mainstream media. How did all this come about? How did even the return of democracy fail to shed our long-held national baggage of overt and covert censorship and the law of silence?

What better way to highlight all this than through the words of someone who has seen it all! With five decades of public service and work experience behind him, Ayaz Amir has played many roles: a soldier, diplomat, politician and journalist. He has had a love-hate relationship with politics in general and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) in particular — a party he joined and twice quit. After leaving the PMLN for the second time in 2013, he never joined another party despite the fact that in 2008 he polled the highest number of votes garnered by any member of the National Assembly from a constituency in Punjab (over 125,000 votes in NA-60, Chakwal).

But Amir is best known for his journalism. He has analysed the soul and psyche of Pakistan and its denizens, and has often presented both the insider’s account of the country’s chequered political evolution as well as the outsider’s perspective of exasperation at how things have gone wrong. Known for speaking his mind, and eloquently so, he is considered a columnist’s columnist, a writer’s writer and the king of the Queen’s English.

Here, Amir talks about the connection between his personal self and his politics, and the polarities and perspectives therein. And by telling his own story, he also explains Pakistan’s unhealthy obsession with opinion repression and thought control. 

Adnan Rehmat. Considering your generally progressive world view, why didn’t any party, especially a progressive one, hold any appeal for you after you quit the PMLN? Have you given up active politics for good?

Ayaz Amir. I was actually first associated with Mairaj Muhammad Khan’s Qaumi Mahaz-e-Azadi. I thought it [had taken] the path to revolution. I was naïve — not innocent in everything, but innocent in politics. My father was a member of the National Assembly [from the platform] of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). When he died he was buried in the PPP flag. I travelled with the PPP for some time, when someone brought me a message from Benazir Bhutto asking me to make up my mind whether I wanted to be in journalism or in politics. So, I was with the PPP before I was with the PMLN.

Because my father was a politician, I wanted to play that role too and so I did. I left the PPP while it was in power [in 1988-90] and joined the PMLN [for the second time] when it was in the opposition after General Pervez Musharraf’s coup. That was the best period in my life because I was a journalist with daily Dawn and in Chakwal I was a local opposition politician. Soon television came along and I also started making some money [by hosting a talk show] — nothing could be better than this.

I have fought three elections — won two, lost one narrowly in Musharraf’s time in 2002. But I have had my fill of politics. That thing is gone now. As for journalism, I continue. I may have stopped writing my English column — if Dawn would not have me and I have differences with The News, there aren’t many other avenues here [in English]. So I became an Urdu columnist. How many English columnists have become Urdu columnists? Almost none.

Rehmat. As a journalist – both as a popular columnist and as a television host and analyst – you were for a long time recognised as a vocal critic of the military’s role in politics. Somewhere down the line you softened your stance. Was this due to bitterness with your old party, or because of your old association with the army, or partly a result of the establishment’s pressure on the media?

Photos by Tanveer Shahzad, White Star
Photos by Tanveer Shahzad, White Star

Amir. I think ‘disillusionment’ would be the wrong word but there was definitely an animus against my own party. When I was growing up in my father’s household, our foremost article of belief was that what was wrong with Pakistan was that elections had never been held. And I would hear my father say (this was during Fatima Jinnah’s presidential campaign in 1964-65) that “when general elections happen in Pakistan, everything will become alright”. I grew up believing this. When Zulfikar Ali Bhutto delivered his extempore speech after he became president, he said: “The long, dark night is over.” As a 20-year-old in the army, I listened to this speech in my barracks in Lahore on television. I said to myself, “How fortunate is my generation that I am on the threshold of my youth and the long, dark night is now going to be over and the golden future beckons.” But then it went sour.

Because of my father, I was able to transit from the army and join the foreign service. I was posted to Moscow. During the 1977 movement against Bhutto, I resigned from foreign service. On April 15, 1977, I wrote a two-paragraph note to my ambassador in which I said, “Mr Bhutto has mocked both socialism and democracy and because of him I can hear the stomp of marching boots.” Three weeks later, Bhutto was ousted. After his execution in 1979, I led a procession in Chakwal and was imprisoned after facing a military court. In 1981, I was imprisoned again for five months.

When Benazir Bhutto came back [from exile] while we were living under General Ziaul Haq’s dictatorship, our article of faith then was that what Pakistan needed was democracy. And just as we used to believe in the 1960s that elections could take care of everything, our article of belief in the 1980s was that when democracy returned everything would be alright. Then Zia went and Benazir became prime minister. But this was a different democracy [from what we had wished for]. There was ‘Mr Ten Per Cent’, and the ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence] was intriguing against that government. The government also made its own share of mistakes. Nawaz Sharif too was not all that different. We have seen what democracy could do.

It was after General Musharraf’s coup that my journalism really took off. I used to write a weekly column for Dawn blasting his military government. He had a great opportunity before him but he did not have the imagination to visualise all the possibilities that lay before him. Pakistan could really have got rid of General Zia’s religious laws.

This could have become a liberal society anchored firmly in the law. So much could have happened but he did not have the imagination. He could have been the anti-Zia but wasn’t. He could have reversed the tide of Pakistani history but did not. Although in some ways he did — small things like being able to have your beer or whiskey with your meal in many restaurants in Islamabad. But that was about it. I think his was amongst the better governments that Pakistan has had.

But why did I lose faith in politics? Besides an element of personal animus against my party, it was also because of a better appreciation of how the system works. Honestly, there is only so much of a shelf life that politicians can have. Nowhere else do you have politicians clinging to top positions for decades like they do here. Politicians and political leaders in Europe are becoming younger — look at the new Austrian chancellor [Sebastian Kurz who is only 31].

Even David Cameron [was quite young] when he became prime minister. But here no one seems to retire to allow people to start young [in politics]. There are no longer ideas in our politics. It is just the same old personalities. If you just analyse their statements and speeches, there is nothing new or substantial. Same old, same old. Read Pakistani newspapers — they have nothing. I used to spend two hours [a day] reading newspapers. Now I just glance through them. There is nothing in there.

Rehmat. In your allied roles as a journalist, analyst, commentator and opinion-maker over the years, what has been your experience exercising your right to freedom of expression? Where did the pressure come from the most? Your own party, the establishment, parliament, religious groups or the media itself? Were you ever censured or censored for your views?

Amir. I have received anonymous letters and threatening phone calls but not too many. I received a letter from someone claiming to be [then Lashkar-e-Jhanvi chief] Riaz Basra. Thrice I received threatening telephone calls on the issue of Mumtaz Qadri [who murdered Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer over allegations of blasphemy] and I was abused in choice Punjabi. Twice I took it, but the third time I was abusive in return and the calls stopped. But I have been fortunate.

In General Zia’s time, intelligence agencies would designate people as ‘anti-state’. For a long time, my articles in the Herald would not be carried under my name. Back then there was serious pre-publication censorship. Those conditions are not present today. The forces encroaching upon the media now are different. You cannot write against [real estate tycoon] Malik Riaz. Once The News did not publish my column that carried criticism of him even though its sister publication, Jang, published an Urdu translation.

Rehmat. What themes have you found the hardest to talk about, both as a politician and as a journalist/professional commentator? Have these issues changed since the 1970s?

Photos by Tanveer Shahzad, White Star
Photos by Tanveer Shahzad, White Star

Amir. The 1970s were a different world. A lot has changed since then, and for the better. You are now able to talk a lot about things you were not able to back then. The most nefarious pressure on the media today comes in the area of religious discussion. There are many religious things you cannot discuss. A similar pressure comes from commercial interests, which is perhaps the most subversive censorship of all. We are very open about the political classes. We have become open even about generals over the years and now also about judges sometimes. But because of the power of advertising, the media has to steer clear of commercial interests.

Rehmat. How do you compare the freedom of expression in the eras of Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan, Bhutto, Zia and Musharraf? What was the ebb and flow of hope and disillusionment like?

Amir. The young men and women of today would not be able to appreciate how restricted the parameters of expression were before this millennium. Not just Ayub’s era and Yahya’s reign, but also the Bhutto years. Ayub’s years were suffocating with a restrictive political environment. Bhutto could not tolerate a dissenting or a free press. Zia cracked down on everything associated with the PPP, Begum Nusrat Bhutto and Benazir, but the parameters of expression paradoxically began to open in his years.

It was during his days that the number of newspapers began to increase. The Muslim came out in Islamabad and the Frontier Post in Peshawar and Lahore. Urdu papers were also given permission to come out from different cities. So, under this harshest, blackest of dictators, the physical space of the press expanded. And there were people like [editor and journalist] Irshad Ahmed Haqqani and Hamid Mir’s father, Waris Mir, who could write openly and did so, and their writing was tolerated.

When Mohammad Khan Junejo became prime minister [in 1985] that was when the press really began to open up. When I started writing for Dawn in [the] Zia years, for two years I could only write under a pseudonym — I was simply the ‘Watchman’. It was only after Junejo came that I could finally write under my own name. Martial law was lifted in December 1985. From January 1986 till the arrival of Benazir Bhutto [from exile in April that year] — that is when things began to open up. The space for expression sprouted and flowered.

The most tolerant of persons was General Musharraf. No journalist suffered any kind of punitive action during his nine years. The present media is his gift. Television channels supporting him came later but he was one person whose military coup was welcomed by the English press. He was also comfortable with the media. He was a man who could hold his own before the television cameras. He once held a meeting with columnists [soon after taking over power] and I told him, “Sir, this is a country of entertainment-seekers. There is nothing here more entertaining than politics. So, please allow open discussion on television and allow live coverage of politics on Pakistan Television (PTV).” He mooted this in his cabinet which decided on one live television programme [on politics]. Musharraf said, “Ayaz should do it.”

And this despite my weekly column in Dawn regularly blasting General Musharraf. So, the first live political discussion on PTV in Musharraf’s tenure was begun by me. No democrat would take this decision. Such decisions should have come from the Bhuttos, the Benazirs and the Sharifs, but it was taken by a dictator.

Rehmat. What do you think makes our media one of the easiest punching bags of the power elite?

Amir. Historically, the repression of the media in Pakistan has come from the state. Now it is coming from everywhere. [But] is media repression today harsher than it was in Karachi until recently? No one could name MQM [Muttahida Qaumi Movement] in [television] discussions.

News arrived from Nine Zero [the MQM headquarters] through fax every evening and newspapers were under an obligation to carry it on a certain page. Even the most respected newspapers abided by this unwritten rule. We started naming the MQM only after the military operation in 2016 in Karachi. It may be open season on the MQM now, but not too long ago the entire nation was made hostage to Altaf Hussain on every television channel whenever he made a speech, with no one daring to show anything else.

I am sure the share of the state and its agencies will be small in the high number of fatalities among journalists. No Press and Publication Ordinance or any similar black law is being implemented by the [provincial] governments or the federal government. There can be the odd incident of some unnamed or invisible agency picking up a journalist and teaching them a lesson.

There is a general disorder in Pakistan [that is to be blamed for the rest]. All the tribal journalists had to leave their homes [a few years ago]. Some had no choice but to become spokesmen for the Taliban. [One of them conducted] a famous interview of [Taliban spokesman] Muslim Khan and he is so ingratiating with the interviewee. I would draw a distinction between state repression and the acts against media persons because of the general state of law and order.

Photos by Tanveer Shahzad, White Star
Photos by Tanveer Shahzad, White Star

Rehmat. Article 19 of Pakistan’s Constitution guarantees freedom of expression as a fundamental right but places big restrictions on this freedom (banning ‘undue’ criticism of the military, judiciary, Islam and ‘friends of Pakistan’) so as to nullify the basic premise of the article. Why do you think Pakistan cannot trust its citizens with freedom of expression?

Amir. The army was a holy cow when I entered journalism. No journalist ever took the name of the ISI in their reports or columns. But since the Musharraf regime, no journalists would consider their article complete unless they had bashed the army, whether justifiably or not. The problem here is something else — can you speak up openly in defense of Asia Bibi [who was accused of blasphemy]?

Can you say: why is that the law applied to this woman? There is someone like [Nawaz Sharif’s son-in-law] Captain Safdar who sang praises of Mumtaz Qadri in parliament. This is the climate we live in. In which other country, including in the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Morocco and Kuwait, are there rallies, processions and seminars on the finality of the prophethood? But here it happens and is religiously reported without questioning. Can you say this is a ‘non-issue’? You cannot. So, we can criticise democracy, the army and the ISI, but we just cannot criticise these religious issues.

[The media’s focus is also skewed.] Why do we have to find out what happened in court in the Raymond Davis [The media’s focus is also skewed.] Why do we have to find out what happened in court in the Raymond Davis issue from his book only? Where is the media uproar on the shocking deportation of Turkish teachers despite a court order against it?

Rehmat. Neither military rulers nor elected democrats have ever been fond of unfettered freedom of expression — from Ayub Khan’s infamous Press and Publication Ordinance to Nawaz Sharif’s Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (that criminalises dissent online) to the laws being proposed in both Punjab and Sindh to regulate/strangulate print media. What do these power elites want censored?

Amir. There is no comparison between conditions as they once existed and the freedom of expression that we enjoy now. [Journalism] was a beggarly, poor profession, one for only dropouts, misfits and the unemployed. Now journalists even get Mercedes cars as incentives to stay on. We cannot [compare] the times in which we are living now [with the past] despite that element of corporate pressure and censorship.

In Ayub’s time the press was barely tolerated. The attitude of persons in authority towards members of the press was contemptuous. The media is now recognised as the most influential element in the power structure. The sad thing is that we are not making use of the opportunity provided to the media in terms of freedoms. There are things we should be writing about and discussing but we are not.

Rehmat. When the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) law came along in 2002, the expectation was that the ‘silent majority’ will finally find its voice and Pakistan’s incredibly diverse political, social, ethnic, linguistic and cultural pluralisms would manifest as public interest journalism. Instead, most of the media is talking about the same things through the same set of elitist groups and offering the same perspectives on a limited list of topics. How did this come about? Has the media been co-opted? By who? Who does the media really report to?

Amir. Firstly, most media is concentrated in three big cities: Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi. Secondly, media ownership is a part of the corporate ownership landscape in this country. Thirdly, media ownership by commercial interests is a shield to protect non-journalism interests [of media owners] and a means of access [for them] to the structures of power. If your real interest is manufacturing of blades, cigarettes, cooking oil, real estate or running colleges, the media is your force multiplier.

This means that public interest journalism gets compromised. Working journalists have to navigate within the tight, thin margins of ‘dos’ buffeted by major flanks of ‘don’ts’. If that’s not enough, throw in some holy cows to the mix. What remains are convenient whipping boys — the political class can be whipped at will and occasionally the odd general. No one dare touch big business.

Rehmat. With print media not read by even a quarter of the population, and electronic media spectacularly failing to serve as the guardian of public interest, social media seems like the people’s medium. But an ominous trend of enforcing traditional censorship policies and techniques is starting to manifest itself online too. Do you see this ‘people’s media’ also being subverted? By who? And what are the consequences?

Photos by Tanveer Shahzad, White Star
Photos by Tanveer Shahzad, White Star

Amir. It is not really subverted. We certainly have the odd things like cybercrime-related pressures, the FIA [Federal Investigation Agency] taking action against bloggers. But it appears limited in scope and is not a major issue, for now. While other interest groups may be closing in on social media for manipulation and control, the state has not apparently gotten into the act in a major way yet.

This so-called popular social media [is used by] a very narrow section of the people. How many people would be tweeting in my village? How many of them are on WhatsApp groups? They will be there mostly for the titillating pictures, etc. I think most of the people in Pakistan are not part of the public discourse or engagement on social media. [They are not taking part in] the kind of discussion in which the political class or the chattering classes excel.

We are not like America where social media is a powerful source [of news and public discussion]. Trump would not be America’s president without it. Things have not come to that pass in Pakistan yet, though the way people are looking at Twitter and Facebook, awareness is growing [about] this new genie in our midst with its potentially massive power to manipulate opinion and perspectives. Youngsters do not read newspapers in general; they do not watch what they consider complicated discussions on television.

Rehmat. Everyone wants to talk about everything in Pakistan but most of it is not allowed. What will give?

Amir. Public interest issues are not big in Pakistan. Subjects like religion, rights of the marginalised and the repressed are areas of discussion not invoked [due to] the dangers for the media in focusing on them. Some minorities can be discussed, others not. You cannot have a rational discussion about Ahmadis in Pakistan. You can still discuss some things about Hazaras — that they are a threatened community living in a constant state of fear. But a rational discussion about, say, the finality of prophethood, is out of the question.

Even simpler but important issues [also get sidelined in media debates], such as which trees to plant alongside our highways. Nawaz Sharif builds motorways but does not know which trees to plant along them. Where is the media on that? Look at the appalling plastic shopping bags strewn everywhere and the ravages they wreak. There is no discussion on them. You cannot have a discussion on why we have these anti-drinking laws in Pakistan that enforce prohibition. Indian magazines can carry surveys on the sex lives of Indians. You cannot do that in Pakistan. No sex please, we are Pakistanis. No talk of drinking please, we are Pakistanis. There are topics conspicuous by their absence.

Am I pessimistic or optimistic that these self-enforced or externally enforced restrictions on media discussions of public interest issues will disappear in the medium to long-term? I think we Pakistanis lack competence in many areas. We have not been able to manage certain things. Governance is one of them. There are massive shortcomings [in our society]. The media’s shortcomings are a part of those larger shortcomings.

Rehmat. When you were elected as a parliamentarian in 2008 you were asked to stop writing for Dawn to avoid a conflict of interest. Instead, you switched to another newspaper, The News, and continued writing. That implied you did not see these two distinct roles as conflicting. What was your reasoning?

Amir. Yes, I was asked to stop writing by Dawn. In the winter of 2007, I was out on my campaign trail when [then editor] Abbas Nasir called me and said, “We have discussed your position and there is a conflict of interest. You should write a farewell column.”

In my entire life, I have not pleaded with anyone so much as then. I said I had been writing for so long and had never written propaganda columns or party columns and still would not do that. I also cited some examples such as that of socialist politician Eric Samuel Heffer, a leader and parliamentarian of the Labour Party in the United Kingdom in the 1960s who was simultaneously a regular column writer with The Times.

But my arguments cut no ice and I was asked to stop writing. I was distraught. I then called Shaheen Sehbai of The News who promptly agreed and I started writing for The News. The funny thing is that while I was writing for The News, Dawn came back to me and said I can start again. And this while I was a member of the National Assembly. It did not work out.

Rehmat. You have had vigorous stints as a soldier, politician, journalist and parliamentarian. Which one of these is the ‘premium’ Ayaz Amir?

Amir. The only thing that I ever liked doing was journalism. The rest were paths of necessity. I started off by joining the army because my personal circumstances at the time were such. After a short while, I had a brief stint in the foreign service but resigned from there too soon enough. And then I had nothing to do and remained unemployed. Then I started writing for Mazhar Ali Khan’s leftist weekly Viewpoint. From there I was picked up by Razia Bhatti of the Herald. I wrote regularly for the Herald before joining Dawn as a columnist. Somewhere in between I got hooked up in politics. But, really, everything was a distraction — it is only journalism that I have always been comfortable with.

This article was published in the Herald's November 2017 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.