Excerpt from `Aboard the Democracy Train’

Pak demo for press freedom (Credit: nation.com.pk)
Pak demo for press freedom
(Credit: nation.com.pk)

1991 will go down as the year in Pakistan when the press united and stopped the attacks on journalists. Several journalists had been attacked before us, but the attack on Kamran and me started a fire.

There was a reason for it. Kamran worked for the Jang group of newspapers, while I was reporter for the Dawn group of newspapers – the two biggest publishing houses which own about half the effective print publications in the country. Their tycoon owner-publishers, the Mir Shakilur Rehman and Haroon families were represented in the highest newspaper bodies, All Pakistan Newspaper Society (APNS) and the Council of Newspaper Editors and Publishers (CPNE) which wield a huge influence on Pakistan’s governments.

The week after I was threatened with knives, the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) and the All Pakistan Newspaper Employees Confederation (APNEC) energized journalist protests in rallies and demonstrations held across Pakistan. PFUJ and APNEC serve as the backbone of the journalist industry and their activism under the harsh dictatorship of Gen. Zia ul Haq has yielded dividents in keeping the media free.

The military backed Nawaz Sharif’s government refused to accept responsibility for the attacks on journalists. Between April 26, 1991 and October 24, 1991, the U.S. based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) sent four letters to Sharif, protesting against the mounting attacks on the press. It was met with stony silence.

It was left to my journalist colleagues to fight for press freedom. Following the attacks on Kamran and me, journalists walked out of the assembly in the four provinces of Pakistan – Sindh, Punjab, Balochistan and Northwest Frontier Province – and forced the assemblies to condemn the attacks on the press. Each day the newspapers appeared chock full of statements by politicians, human rights groups, labor leaders, women and civil society to condemn the Sindh government and demand the arrest of our attackers.

From my sanctuary in Islamabad, my mother told me the phone at our Karachi home rang off the hook. Government officials, politicians, journalists and of course friends…called to ask about my welfare. Embarrassed by the negative publicity they received, officials in Jam Sadiq Ali’s cabinet offered to appoint police officials at a security post they proposed from across my house. It was like asking the fox to guard the chicken coop. I rejected their offer.

Knives Were Used to Send a Message

As I lay low in Islamabad, Benazir Bhutto issued a statement from overseas which squarely blamed the federal and Sindh government for the attacks on Kamran and me. It read:

“Both journalists have a distinguished record of investigative journalism, which includes an expose of the MQM and the criminal activities being conducted at the CIA headquarters. There is no doubt that these attacks have been coordinated by the Jam Government on the instructions of Nawaz Sharif and Ghulam Ishaq Khan.”

It was a fair indictment of the perpetrators, except that it cast doubt on the MQM’s role in the attacks.  Although the ethnic party used to dictate news coverage, threaten hawkers and burn newspapers considered to be unfriendly, by the fall of 1991, they were themselves victims of the army’s “Operation Clean up.” As such, they were not in a position to conduct the attacks.

The MQM chief Altaf Hussein’s tried to dispel his party’s image. In a statement carried by the press on September 27, 1991 he said:

“We too differ with some of the media contents, but we go to people and ask them to stop reading a particular paper. The MQM has never attacked any newspaper office or resorted to such things.”

I took the MQM statement with a handful of salt. However in the present instance I recognized that I had grown entangled in the war between the intelligence agencies. This was more apparent because Kamran and I had used the same military intelligence (MI) source in exposing the Jam-Marwat combine.

Apparently, the MI, which is the political wing of the military, was then at odds with the techniques used by the ISI and the intelligence bureau (IB) in arm twisting the PPP’s political opponents.  The IB, which snooped around locally to guess which journalists appeared to support the PPP, put us on its “hit list.” The office of Chief Minister Jam Sadiq Ali then flanked by a dime a dozen operators who supported his nefarious tactics, apparently directed the CIA to send knife-wielding assailants to warn us not to interfere in their mafia operations.

  A Historic Protest

Five days had passed and I watched the national outcry against the knife attacks from my brother Pervez’s place in Islamabad. That weekend my brother’s colleague at the Quaid-i-Azam University, Dr A.H. Nayyar arrived, carrying heavy editions of the newspapers. Dr Nayyar, a physicist like my brother was hugely invested in the political situation inside Pakistan, and had a wry sense of humor.

Apparently tired from the weight of the weekend editions of the English and Urdu newspapers he had been carrying; Nayyar plunked them down on the table in front of us and flopped down himself.

“What’s the news?” my brother Pervez asked.

“Nothing,” Nayyar replied wearily. “They’re full of statements on Nafisa.”

I went through the newspapers. Statements were splashed across every newspaper by political parties, journalist unions, women’s organizations, minority groups, and human rights groups. In several instances they named the influential culprits and demanded punishment for the attacks on myself and my colleague.

Even while the federal government assured the employers and journalist unions that our attackers would be caught and punished, we knew that nothing of that sort would happen. The matter of a free press was inextricably linked with the polarized politics in Sindh and could not be resolved short of dismissing the Sindh government. The newspaper bodies correctly surmised that the media would suffer unless we demonstrated a collective show of strength.

And so, newspapers, magazines, and periodicals announced they planned to suspend publication on September 29, 1991.  It was an unprecedented event, designed to shut down 25 million copies for one day to protest the attacks against journalists. The journalist community declared that as a mark of protest no reporter would attend or cover the government functions on that date – which fell on a Sunday.

On the day of the press shut-down, my journalist colleagues from The News took me to the home of their editor Maleeha Lodhi. Lodhi would later serve as Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S. – under Benazir Bhutto and then Pervaiz Musharraf. Maleeha looked at me searchingly and said,

“You know, Kamran is associated with the intelligence agencies. But with you we know there is no such association.”

I was glad to hear it.

A journalist friend of mine, Ayoub Shaikh had once asked me, eyes twinkling,

“I sometimes wonder, who does Nafisa work for?”

“No one,” I had said, “I work for myself”.

“I know,” he had said, smiling.

On strike day, the Rawalpindi Union of Journalists organized a national event in Rawalpindi, Islamabad’s twin city, which was addressed by media stalwarts – All Pakistan Newspaper Society President, Farhad Zaidi, veteran journalist turned politician Mushahid Hussain, The News editor Maleeha Lodhi, senior editors, and representatives of journalist unions.

I spoke from a highly charged frame of mind, fired up by my close encounter. Mostly, I told journalists in Islamabad about the incredibly polarized political situation in my southern home province of Sindh.

“If we do not stand together, I am afraid that a journalist may be killed any day now,” I said.

It was a speech I made from the heart, and it appeared in the press on October 1, when the newspapers went back into circulation.

A Pakistan Television team arrived at the press club after I had finished speaking. They had come to film the protests against the attacks on the press nationwide, and needed footage of my speech. I was surprised to see them because the government controlled national television. Their decision to cover the event indicated that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was not entirely in charge.

Later, I watched the video footage of the nationwide protests in the districts, towns and cities of the four provinces – with the most impressive march in Karachi from where the attacks had emanated.

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