Speakers at a session on the second day of the Annual Urdu Conference were unanimous in their opinion that though it had been a downhill journey for the Urdu journalism, it was to stay. They called for improving the professional standards of Urdu journalism and infuse new ideas, blood and technology to bring it on a par with the international standards.
Moderated by Dr Tauseef Ahmed Khan, the session titled ‘Urdu Sahafat Ki Do Sadyan’ had some prominent journalists – Mehmood Shaam, Suhail Warraich and Mazhar Abbas – sharing the stage at the Arts Council of Pakistan on Friday evening. Indian journalist Saeed Naqvi joined the discussion through a video link.
Dr Khan started the session by sharing a brief history of the Urdu journalism in the Sub-continent. “The Urdu journalism started in the time of the [East India] Company. Jam-i-Jahan-Numa was the first Urdu newspaper that started publishing from Kolkata in 1822,” he said, adding Urdu dailies played an important role in keeping people posted about different pre-Partition movements, including the Khilafat and Pakistan movements, and shaping their opinion.
Shedding light on the journey of Urdu journalism, Shaam said that as they celebrated the two hundred years of Urdu journalism, the difficult times it was facing these days had no precedent in the past. “Newspapers are shutting down and workers are being laid off,” he lamented, adding that Urdu was struggling under English dominance.
However, he opined that there had been some progress in terms of technology as newsrooms had gone paperless and online. He said that newspapers were unable to fulfil their role of telling the truth and ensure people’s right to know.
Shaam remarked that newspapers’ owners played into the hands of the establishment or political parties. He opined that reporters were more loyal to their beats than their organisations and readers because they paid them more than their organisations.
Naqvi said the region where he grew up and which was known for figures like Wajid Ali Shah, Firaq Gorakhpuri, Josh Malihabadi and Israrul Haque Majaz was now being ruled by Hindu nationalist Yogi Adityanath. “I don’t want to talk about the politics but this will make you realise the state of Urdu here,” he added.
He lamented that local newspapers relied on the BBC and other external sources for global developments like the Ukraine-Russia war or those taking place in next door Iran, Afghanistan and Myanmar.
“A country that will not see the world from its own point of view and see it from the perspective of the US, the UK and Europe won’t be able to make it to the world’s high table ever.” He said the positions of editors had been undermined and they did not enjoy the reputation they had in the past.
Speaking on the state of op-ed pages of Urdu newspapers, Warraich said that columns were now written to either eulogise or condemn somebody instead of having high-quality arguments to appeal to readers. He added that the topics of columns had been relegated to the subjects of marriages and how much somebody ate at a marriage ceremony, which needed to be changed.
He was of the view that columns and opinion pieces played an important role in shaping the public opinion on political, social and other issues of significance. He said newspapers’ editorial pages reflected the country’s future politics and stressed the need for improving their standards.
“An opinion piece of a newspaper was reflective of general public thinking, and the standard of columns has gone down as the intellectual standards of public have gone down,” he said, calling for raising the standards of Urdu columns to those published in the New York Times and Washington Post.
He said the media should have one agenda that is to spread awareness. Abbas said a distinction was created between the English and Urdu journalism in the country as the establishment decided from day one to keep the Urdu newspapers under control because they were opinion makers. He added that the powers that be were not bothered much by the English dailies as they had limited readership.
Due to this, Abbas said, the Urdu newspapers had historically toed the establishment’s line and if any dared to resist, it had to face consequences. The journalist further said that the important institution of editor that controlled the editorial policy of a newspaper had been done away with and replaced by the owners who introduced policies that suited their business. He said that investigative reporting was also on the decline and the culture of forwarding press release had been thriving.
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