Living with the media — II
The civil service is a profession that throws up unpredictable events and one can find one’s career taking unexpected turns. In the early nineties, as secretary information, Punjab, I was quite unexpectedly given an assignment to which a normal run-of-the-mill civil servant is always averse. It is not the huge wish-list of the political bosses which deters him in this regard, but there is an inherent belief of an adversarial relationship between the media and the government, with civil servants being in the range of fire. The top leadership has an innate desire to be seen as indispensable and that too through the lens of the media, a tall order indeed for the media managers.
I had a fairly good idea about the media, both as a keen observer and as a small time practitioner. Before joining the civil service, I worked for PTV in Lahore, as a news producer and got exposure to the composite culture of the newsroom. As a student, I could recall my frequent visits to the Pakistan Observer in Dhaka, where I developed a life-long friendship with Nasim Ahmed, the OpEd in-charge , who had just moved in from the rarefied environs of Calcutta. After the fall of Dhaka he had shifted to Lahore and had joined the Pakistan Times.
In 1970, as an onlooker, I saw the most free-and-fair general elections held in the country.
These elections also turned out to be the most divisive as well. In the eastern wing, the media moved in concert for the rights of the province, with consensus to limit the writ of the federation to defence, foreign affairs and communications. In West Pakistan, the discourse turned into a fight between the forces of Islam and the demon of socialism. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s election platform of ‘roti, kapra, makan’, under the umbrella of Islamic socialism, was considered heresy. The divide was so pronounced that it split apart the media as well. It permeated at the street level; labour and trade union processions were retorted with rallies of ‘youm-i-Shaukat-i-islam’ led by none other than the renowned scholar Maulana Abul Ala Maududi. These were backed by the right-wing press. Tempers went so high that two leading political journalists — Agha Shorish Kashmiri and Maulana Kausar Niazi got into a physical scuffle in a market on the Mall in Lahore, hurling tin canisters at each other. A book store named Classic, an outlet for left-leaning publications, was ransacked by right-wing goons. These were the times of racy journalism, with Musawaat, Azad, the weekly Shahaab and the English daily Sun making distinct appearances. Catchy headlines were used, with poetic one-liners such as “ab taj ucchalay jaengay” (now the crowns will be tossed around).
During the East Pakistan crisis, the media in West Pakistan smugly bought the official version. The Indian interference, although a reality, was not the only reality. People in West Pakistan were immersed in a complete blackout of information. On a wintry night in December, 1971, I heard newscaster Azher lodhi breaking the news on the television that Indian forces, under an agreement, had entered Dhaka. I nervously tuned in to BBC radio. I could hear thundering chants from the streets of Dhaka: “joy Bangla”. It was as much a failing of the media in Pakistan as of the state and society in particular, to keep the nation so ill-informed about events which were so imminent.
What we saw in later years, during the so-called civilian and then the military rule of General Ziaul Haq, was a struggling and a muzzled media. The PPP’s tenure was remembered for the roughing up of Muzaffar Qadir and Husain Naqi of Punjab Punch, for the weekly’s hard-hitting broadsides. Periodicals like Viewpoint, Outlook and veterans like Mazhar Ali Khan, I H Burney and M B Naqvi continued to blaze the trail against all odds. Zia’s era cast long shadows of gloom. Never before in history were journalists thrown out of jobs, jailed or flogged. Newspapers presenting a counter view had to leave editorial spaces blank in view of the strict censorship.
In early 1982, General Zia got a taste of his own medicine before a gathering of media men in Lahore. A frail yet indomitable veteran sprang up from his seat. It was none other than the late Nisar Osmani. He was courageous enough to call Zia, to his face, a dictator who was wearing so many hats! He was the president, chief of army staff and above all, chief martial law administrator. As if that was not enough, Osmani sahib added salts to the wounds by saying “Aap nay iss qaum ko ghulam ibne ghulam banaa rakhaa hae” (you have turned this nation into sons of slaves). The mighty man was speechless and taken aback. From then onward, Mr Nisar Osmani was a persona non grata for such gatherings. The audio tape, however, went viral.
In the nineties, things had improved in many ways after a heady standoff from 1988-90, between the PPP-led federal government and the PML-N-led Punjab government. The divide, during this tortuous phase, found its manifestation in the media as well.
Media cells were set up on the quiet, though known to all, over and above the normal channels of the information department. Favours were curried with leading columnists and services of like-minded experienced hands were acquired for the task. The task of such cells was to plant, tamper or kill a story and show the opponent in a poor light while projecting oneself as the saviour. These cells had ingress to newsrooms of different newspapers. Favours sought were not without a quid pro quo. It was during this period the term ‘lifafa journalism’ gained notoriety. Lucrative jobs at the street-level were doled out to dear ones, while the eligibility bar and rules were thoroughly relaxed.
With the dismissal of the PPP government in 1990, media cells lost steam. The press and publication laws stood liberalised and there was proliferation in the number of newspapers and periodicals. In this newly-earned freedom, the media was the clear winner. The government required far more finesse to manage its affairs. Investigative stories were on the rise, with whistle blowers in the bureaucracy being at the beck and call of inquisitive reporters. This made the job of media managers in the government quite dicey — either in denying, or clarifying such stories. It was their task to ensure proper coverage of the official version. On a lighter note, then chief minister Ghulam Haider Wyne, known as ‘dervaish’, at times used to measure his coverage in terms of centimetres and number of columns in the newspaper.
Doling out advertisements had been a handy tool for governments in the recent past. A five to ten per cent squeeze or additional flow of advertisements could be the right signal for the newspaper to read between the lines.
During my two long stints in the information department, I had the occasion to interface with some of the leading lights in journalism. They all had different chemistry, but they were men of stature. I however, found Mr Mazhar Ali Khan most self-effacing and imbued with a sense of humility.
As of today, there is a push for a more open government, for sharing of information with the public with the media being the main conveyor for this. This seems the only way to ensure more transparency and accountability and improve governance.
With the implosion of information, the role of the electronic media has become as important today — more so when so many independent channels are beaming around. The subject, however, requires a separate treatment.