Zamir Niazi: “They want a Pravda”
Zamir in Urdu means conscience, and since his hook Press in Chains (Karachi Press Club, 1986) came out, Zamir Niazi has been the voice of conscience of the Pakistani press, its society and government. Press in Chains is a detailed history of government control and coercion of the press in Pakistan since 1947, and is distinguished by its thorough documentation—no incident was cited without attribution, a feature which is lacking in much of the history written in Pakistan. The book became an immediate bestseller and went into many reprints, both in Pakistan and India.
Niazi followed his pioneering work with two more: The Press Under Siege, a look at the violence against and intimidation of the press from non-government sources, and The Web of Censorship, which exposed the culture of self-censorship in the press.
Now 67 and stricken with cancer, Niazi remains very much a fighter for press freedom, and is preparing his fourth book. Himal caught up with the author in his Karachi home, against the backdrop of the very public row between the Sharif government and the Jang Group of Newspapers. (See Commentary page 8)
Interviewed by Hasan Zaidi
- How do you view this ongoing tussle between the government and the Jang Group?
Jang has always been a loyal follower of each and every government. It has been a very docile institution. Us circulation in various cities is more than the combined circulation of all the other papers. From the beginning, its founder and father, Mir Khalilur Rehman, who single-handedly made the paper into an institution and became an institution himself in his own life, knew how to run a business. Some 15 years back, in an interview, the Far Eastern Economic Review had asked him what his paper’s policy was. He replied, our policy is to have no policy. He meant: We are with everybody, we don’t believe in criticism or an adversarial role, we just do what the government and the people want. After his death, his very able sons have faithfully carried out this policy.
The present battle between Jang and the government has been going on for the last seven months. At first we thought it was a superficial fight. But then I read about the Jang Group Editor-in-Chief Mir Shakils press conference [in which he released tapes of his conversations with government officials including Senator Saifur Rehman] and I was shaken. The senator asks Mir Sahib to dismiss journalists, not to write anything against the prime minister, to support the Shariah Bill. On BBC, the senator admitted this in so many words and criticised Mir Shakil for taping the conversations. I think he [Shakil] did the best thing. This was the only proof. He was pushed to the wall. What else could he have done?
• So you think that whatever Mir Shakil did was justified?
Yes! He did great service not only to Jang but to the entire profession. Today the government is pressurizing Jang and if Jang surrenders, tomorrow they will pressurise Dawn. Then Nawai Waqt. We have to fight this thing. This is not a fight between Shakil and Saifur Rehman. This is a fight between the press and the government.
• There have always been government attempts to influence or control the press. How do you compare past attempts with this one?
This time the attempts have become ruthless. They’ve forgotten all norms of decency. The government wants to turn Jang into a Pravda.
• The South Asian press has frequently been accused of adventurism. Governments have blamed the press for going beyond the call of constructive criticism. There are such allegations against Jang now.
Where will you draw the line? Who is going to draw the line? I’ve been in the profession since 1954. Each government says the same, “We welcome constructive criticism.” Who decides what is constructive criticism?
I’ll give you examples of limits in different periods. After the imposition of the first martial law, during Ayub Khan’s period, criticism of the defence forces was out. In the same period, after [Zulfikar Ali] Bhutto became the foreign minister, you couldn’t write anything on foreign affairs. In Bhutto’s era, the limits changed—if somebody was Bhutto’s friend, you couldn’t criticise him. In Zia-ul Haq’s period it was something more. Because of the long period of dictatorship, every small guy in his institution became a dictator. Then you couldn’t even write about the railways or the PIA or the civic bodies such as the Karachi Municipal Corporation or the Karachi Development Authority. So who is going to define the limits?
• How do you compare press freedoms in Pakistan with that in other countries of the region?
In the entire SAARC region, the press is free in India only. Sri Lanka and Bangladesh are the same as Pakistan. In India, except for the 17 months’ Emergency during Indira Gandhi’s rule, the press remained free. But our press has remained in chains for 40 years. Despite that, Kuldip Nayyar told me that the Pakistani press is bolder than India’s, because we people have learnt the art of saying things between the lines.
For example, April 4th, the day Bhutto was hanged in 1979, is also the day that Martin Luther Kingjr was assassinated in 1968. On the first anniversary of Mr Bhuttos execution [because we could not write on him], we wrote articles paying tributes to Martin Luther King. An influential member of the Ministry of Information told me, “We know that you are telling people, today is the death anniversary of Bhutto, we know it.”
Our press has been ruthlessly suppressed in our short history of 50 years. And look at what is happening even now. This is a so-called democratic era and the man [Nawaz Sharif] who claims every week to have a heavy mandate’, look at what he is doing to the press.
• Did this tradition of muzzling the press start very early on in Pakistan’s history?
I have mentioned it in detail in my first book. Three days before Pakistan came into being, on August 11th 1947, Jinnah made his first speech. In that speech he explained the secular nature of the polity of the new nation. Some people, with the backing of some bureaucrats, tried to censor that portion of the speech. So this thing started right from the word go.
• The press attempts to evade governmental influence by seeking revenue from the private sector. If it faces censorship from that sector as well, what can a newspaper do to survive?
It’s a walk on a razor’s edge. There are journalists who are trying to fight both forms of censorship. But one must remember that for a good cause you will always find only a minority. The redeeming thing, however, is that this minority ultimately triumphs. It takes time but it does happen. One should always dream. Dreams should not die. Your dreams are your identity. So many Utopias have proved to be nightmares. But there is still a Utopia.
• You have written about government attempts to curb press freedom and of other forces within society which intimidate the press. Which of these is more sinister?
Some six months back I thought the darkest period for the press was Zia’s martial law, and that perhaps even more dangerous was when he lifted censorship and we fell into selfcensorship. That destroyed our faculties. But seeing what has been happening over the last week or so, I am in much pain. I used to say that now the worst is over. But I think I was wrong. Something terrible is happening. We have to stand united. Every citizen must stand up for their rights. It is our right to know. You, can’t take that away.