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July 21, 2019

Why the caged bird sings


July 21, 2019

American writer and poet Maya Angelou knows “why the caged bird sings”. She could well have borrowed this symbolism and this imagery from our traditional poetry. Obviously, the bird represents freedom or desire to be free. The cage symbolises confinement or oppression.

There is a reason why I am reminded this week of Maya Angelou’s truly stirring phrase. Yes, my reference is the state of the media in this country and an utter lack of understanding on the part of our rulers of how stifling of free expression affects not just our social and economic progress but also our national security.

Incidentally, it was Maya Angelou’s autobiography, published in 1969, that was titled: 'I know why the caged bird sings'. It described the sufferings of an African-American in a racist environment. Her poem ‘Caged bird’ came much later. For us, though there is a wealth of poetic expressions to lean on to sing of freedom in, proverbially, a cage. We have Faiz, for instance.

There is, I confess, something very personal in the choice of this parable to reflect on the journey that the media has made in Pakistan. On Monday, the Centre for Excellence in Journalism (CEJ), at the IBA, Karachi, unveiled a frame that contained the first issue of this newspaper, The News. Some of us who were members of the dream team that launched the paper in February 1991 were present on the occasion with a few other colleagues.

This was no big deal, of course, because the CEJ has a gallery of such frames that portray big events in our history. But for those of us who gathered on the occasion, it became an opportunity, as the poet said, to “look before and after, and pine for what is not”. We dabbled in nostalgia and exchanged fond memories to momentarily evoke that once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Since I happened to be the launch editor of this newspaper in Karachi, I testify that it truly signaled the arrival of the digital era in print journalism in Pakistan. It was what you call a game changer. But the real story is that of the hope that it had inspired in the future of journalism in this country. In my excitement, I had written the first editorial a few months before the launch, with this heading: 'Journey of a thousand dreams'.

One measure of the impact that we were able to make is that a number of those who began their career with The News as young warriors are now the shining stars on the media horizon. The irony, though, is that these gifted professionals, too, are unable to brighten the media’s prospects in these darkened times.

I am very tempted to write more about that time when this newspaper was launched but there is so much more on the media front that demands attention. So, I will conclude this rather personal digression with a Wordsworth quote that I had also recited at the CEJ: “Though nothing can bring back the hour / Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower; / We will grieve not, rather find / Strength in what remain behind”.

Sadly, it is very difficult to find strength in what remains behind. One event that a number of media commentators have grieved about is the demise of the monthly news magazine ‘Herald’. Look how the launching of a new publication in 1991 and closing down of another publication in 2019 has juxtaposed in this column.

Again, I have had a relationship with ‘Herald’ and had written rather frequently for it in the late seventies and the eighties when one of Pakistani journalism’s icons, Razia Bhatti, was its editor. Again, there are memories to contend with. But we have to attend to this tragedy that the best English monthly of Pakistan is suspending its publication.

Irrespective of all the reasons that have contributed to this journalistic fatality, the story that needs to be told is about the viability of independent media in Pakistan, including in the economic context. The pity of it is that ‘Herald’ is not to continue even on the web. This means that we now have only the struggling ‘Newsline’ to give us a taste of serious, investigative journalism.

By the way, ‘Newsline’ had a umbilical connection with ‘Herald’. It was founded by Razia and some of her colleagues when they left the Herald. But these are stories that will never be properly told because our reservoir of intellectual capital, something that cannot be borrowed from a foreign institution, is so depleted. We do not have a market for books, magazines and newspapers.

What we have are unruly gangs of social media activists who indulge in their own kind of vigilantism to check free expression and open discussion for political reasons. I do not have a presence on social media, though I do receive a lot of unsolicited material on WhatsApp. But I must refer to a published report that said that on Tuesday that the official Twitter account of the PTI “fired off over two dozen tweets in English and Urdu, lambasting the press for criticism, saying it can be deemed ‘anti-state’”.

We can understand the mindset that would look at criticism as an act of treason but it is hard to accept the wisdom of the workers of a political party who show such contempt for dissenting views in what is supposed to be a democratic dispensation. It was reported that the PTI had distanced itself from this digital campaign. But this distance is not clearly visible.

With reference to this campaign, the prime minister’s focal person on digital media was quoted as saying that it was an effort to “educate” journalists which had been “blown out of context”. But it seems all they have is little patience for diversity of opinion.

Unlike Maya Angelou, then, they have no idea of why a caged bird sings. They have no ears for a song that awakens the dream of freedom in times of suppression. We, in our present state of despair, need to bolster our spirits with songs of freedom.

For that matter, let me conclude this piece with a note of cheer. Our friend Zafar Abbas, editor of ‘Dawn’, has this week won the prestigious Gwen Ifill Press Freedom Award of 2019. This was announced by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Two months ago, Cyril Almeida had won the IPI’s World Press Freedom Hero award. We do sing our songs.

The writer is a senior journalist.

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