Flashback: Stop press
“Press and persecution in this part of the world were born together, with few intervals of freedom depending upon the circumstances. The very idea of newspapers was behind the bars.”
—The Press in chains by Zamir Niazi
Professor Sharif al Mujahid reminiscences about journalism in the newborn Pakistan of the 1950s and early 1960s
“In the early 1950s the newspapers were comparatively free. There was, of course, the Safety Ordinance, which was part of the Government of India Act, 1835. But there was no repression or victimisation of the Press, or of the journalists’ point of view.
The press was mostly Muslim, other than a few, like The Civil and Military Gazette (C & MG), an Anglo-Indian newspaper which had been there for several decades — around 60 to 70 years. It was generally pro-Pakistan and the atmosphere was euphoric with the success of the Pakistan Movement. In that kind of environment, the Press couldn’t tolerate anything against Pakistan at all.
“For instance, in 1949, the C & MG had published a report about the proposal for the partition of Kashmir as a possible solution. The whole Pakistani Press got worked up against it and 11 editors joined together — including Faiz Ahmed Faiz of The Pakistan Times and Altaf Hussain of Dawn — and wrote a joint front page editorial in their respective newspapers against the Gazette. And for the time being the Gazette was banned or suspended; of course, it was later restored.
“But then, there were the Safety Laws. In 1954, the government banned the communist party and some of the journalists were debarred and victimised. People with leftist leanings were hounded out and some even had to leave the country; M.A. Shakoor, the senior editorial writer of Dawn being the foremost.
“At that time, The Pakistan Times, owned by Mian Iftikharuddin, the foremost spokesperson of the Left in Pakistan’s formative years, proved to be a safe haven for such progressive thinking journalists, and had them accommodated. Its editor since February 1947, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, was in gaol, having been accused of involvement in the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case of 1951.
In the 1950s The Pakistan Times had the best library among all of Pakistani newspapers, and its editorials used to be more solid and less emotional.
“Towards the coup of October 7, 1958, the Press abstained from a confrontationist stance — for the simple reason that it was stunned. For one thing, they largely regretted the conditions and politicians’ behaviour that had led the country to Martial Law, rather than describing its imposition as the demise of democracy. Even the general public has gotten tired of corruption in the high places, and the politicians fought among themselves — to a point that the deputy speaker of East Bengal Assembly was killed in the Assembly itself. No wonder, the Martial Law was generally accepted by and large.
“With hindsight, one may say it was an extremely disastrous decision since it went to set a bad precedent for others from 1960s to 1990s. But in the given circumstances of the time, what could the Press have done? Of course, the leading papers didn’t welcome the coup, but they considered it was meant to be a corrective action to clean the mess and usher in a democratic order, which the coup architect did promise. Besides, generally speaking, people were not politically conscious enough to look beyond their immediate surroundings and beyond those of The Pakistan Times and Dawn, the editors were not so knowledgeable either. Even so, the former was bolder, striking out a mildly discordant note from the beginning.
“We must also remember that most senior journalists in the 1950s had begun their careers during the freedom struggle period. At that time they were concerned more with slogans and the one-point agenda of achieving Pakistan. Immensely involved in the truly life-and-death struggle, they obviously couldn’t give much thought to the constructive side of nation building. Post-partition, they couldn’t readily transform themselves into a new avatar of trying to assess and discover solutions to the problems that confronted the infant state. They couldn’t see their leadership’s problems; they were used to a unity of command. As you know, the nation was born in chaotic conditions, with a host of serious problems. To assess and dissect them and to find solutions for them, the journalists of the time were ill-equipped, both psychologically and in terms of their skills.”
In 1959, within a year of the promulgation of Martial Law, the Progressive Papers were taken over by the government. The editors of The Pakistan Times, Imroze (Urdu) and Lail-wo-Nahar (weekly) were sent home. Subsequently, the National Press Trust (NPT) was set up and these publications were brought under its flag. Soon enough, The Morning News (Karachi and Dhaka), and Dianik Pakistan, a Bengali daily from Dhaka came under the Trust; so did Mashriq (Lahore and Karachi) a little later. Thus, the government-sponsored NPT had a large chunk of papers within its loop. The takeover of several newspapers proved, as it were, to be a prelude to the promulgation of the Pakistan Press Act of 1963.
“The year 1963 is a watershed with respect to Press freedom. Journalists galvanised together and I feel, Altaf Hussain, played the role of a trouble shooter. He brought about a sort of rapprochement and modus operendi between the journalists and the authorities that mattered. Eventually, the Press Act was amended.
“At the same time, it’s important to note that Ayub had followed a policy of carrot and stick. I used to have long discussions with a veteran journalist at the time, A. T. Chaudhry, of The Morning News, who later became the editor of The Pakistan Times, and The Muslim; he died rather young, in October 1984. In the 1960s Ayub had periodically extended perks and privileges to both newspapers and journalists, and Chaudhry used to say, ‘We don’t want these perks as a substitute for our freedom’. Zamir Niazi gives a one-sided version of the story and fails to mention the privileges offered during the Ayub era. Remember, no system or institution can work without collaboration, even for a while, and the Ayub system stayed for some 10-and-half-years. This couldn’t have survived without active and willing collaboration in the mass media sector as well.
“By the early 1960s, the Press had become increasingly partisan. For instance, The Pakistan Times and The Morning News published only the speeches made by the pro-government leaders and ministers in the National Assembly debates while The Pakistan Observer (Dhaka), only those of the opposition leader. Dawn, however, reported the whole proceedings with a non-provocative headline.”
“A major landmark of the early 1950s was the founding of the Karachi Press Club. The Club has played a leading and constructive role in Press freedom. It provided a platform for the journalists. They organised themselves into a solid phalanx along the trade union lines because of KPC. The KPC, on its part, provided incentive to found press clubs throughout the country, and this has helped them in their campaigns for Press freedom upgrading. As a trade union entity, the journalists are extremely powerful and rank among the most powerful trade union association in the country.”