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Whenever the history of the struggle of press freedom in Pakistan will be written, the name of Minhaj Barna will be written in golden words. A veteran journalist and a trade union leader, Barna is best known for his inspiring leadership and unrelenting struggle for press freedom during the rules of military dictatorships in Pakistan. His struggle saw its peak from 1977 to 1988, during General Zia-ul-Haq’s oppressive military regime. He is described by the Pakistani media as an “icon of struggle.” Abid Hassan Minto called Barna a “sincere person and a conscientious, principled journalist,” who not only fought for the journalists but also for the rights of other press employees. He was a “man of commitment and action who remained true to his cause to the very end of his life.” I. A. Rehman called him “the battleship of Pakistan’s journalist community.”
Minhaj Barna during his struggle in the 70s, not only inspired journalists and trade union leaders, but he also engaged owners of newspapers and their representative bodies All Pakistan Newspapers Society (APNS) and the Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors (CPNE), in his struggle as he knew that any ban or restriction on newspapers will equally affect the employees and employers of these newspapers. While his struggle against restrictions on journalists was going on, he wrote a historic letter to Mir Kahlil-ur-Rahman, in which he told him in detail that how these restrictions and bans, specially the black law of Press Ordinance, can affect employees and employers in any newspaper establishment.
Mir Kahli-ur-Rahman, despite being the editor-in-chief and owner of the biggest Urdu newspaper of Pakistan, Jang, always had a soft corner for journalists and workers in general and his employees in particular. Minhaj Barna also knew this and he deemed it fit to engage Mir Sahib as a senior journalist to remove these restrictions on newspapers. Minhaj Barna who was the President of PFUJ and Chairman APNEC at that time wrote this letter on Sept 29, 1978, from Khairpur jail.
The letter gives an insight into what was happening to the journalists and newspapers in the dictatorial regimes. Mir Sahib was also facing the brunt of these restrictions as Jang being the biggest newspaper of Pakistan, was deprived of government advertisements. At that time, government advertisement were the only source of income for the newspapers. And that was the only tool which the governments at that time would use to control any newspaper to stop free flow of information. Publishing newspapers or a magazines was not easy in those days.
Barna Sahib also sought Mir Sahib’s help to convince government to maintain cordial relations with the press, which is called the fourth pillar of the state and in any country strong democracy can only be established when its press is free.
The letter starts with the acknowledgement of the support Mir Sahib gave to the press struggle in the past. The letter reads:
“With due respect, I am writing this letter to you and President of CPNE with a hope that you will pay attention with extreme sympathy and elegance because we are affiliated with the same industry and profession. Despite the fact that we often stand against each other on issues of facilities and wages of the employees, but when it comes to Press freedom, we were on the same page many times in the past and also cooperated with each other to a great extent.....”
While giving the detail of his struggle, he wrote: “As you are already aware that that our current movement started on April 30 in Lahore. We did negotiations, rather we took a lead in doing so, but all in vain. Finally, after a continuous struggle for one month, during which dozens of our comrades had to face detention, flogging and penalties from the military courts, we were able to get sanctions lifted from “Masawaat, Lahore” only. The way government accepted this demand makes another interesting story. They chose to negotiate with their own handpicked favourite people instead of having negotiation with the elected leadership of APNEC and PFUJ and announced a unilateral contract. A contract that didn’t have the signatures of either the Management of Lahore Masawaat, or Masawaat Workers Union or the top leadership of APNEC or PFUJ. With the start of Lahore’s Masawaat movement, Karachi’s two weeklies “Al-Fatah” and “Mayaar”, were also closed under the infamous Press Ordinance and during the movement Masawaat Karachi was also closed on May 10, which was earlier banned in October 1977 as well. You also criticized this unethical control of the newspaper by the government. Before and during the movement, action was taken against various newspapers and magazines across the country under the black law of Press Ordinance, by using different tactics. Demand notices worth thousands and lakhs of rupees were served to editors, publishers and printers. Of them Sadaqat, Aman, Tameer, Masawaat, Al-Fatah, Mayaar, Kehkashan, Parbhat, Riyasat, Awaz have already been closed permanently. The Editor and Joint Editor of Mayaar have been house arrested under the Marshal Law rules and arrest warrants have been issued against Al-Fatah’s publisher as well.”
He further wrote:
“...I will not go in the past, but at least, in Ayub Khan’s era, when the infamous Press and Publication Ordinance was implemented in 1963, PFUJ, CPNE and APNS jointly stood against it. They staged joint strikes and protests and asked the government to repeal the law completely. Later on, all political parties including Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), termed this a black law and demanded its repeal.”
While seeking Mir Khalil-ur-Rahman’s support he wrote:
“We and you have a common position and it should be, that all laws that are called emergency and extraordinary laws which are applied on the press editors and journalists whose spirit is contrary to the established principles of justice should be repealed. In addition, all such extraordinary courts should be abolished, from where justice cannot be expected.”
While addressing Mir Sahib Barna further wrote, “I have also heard that you recently have approved a resolution from APNS, in which you have shown your concern on the current uncertain situation and have also suggested that discussion should be held to repeal Press Ordinance and to form rules and regulation, and PFUJ representatives should be involved in these negotiations. I hope by saying PFUJ, you meant the actual PFUJ.”
Barna Sahib was aware that any new rules and regulations under Martial cannot assure press freedom, so he entrusted MKR with the task of conveying his suggestions to the government as the senior most editor and journalist. He wrote:
“Let me tell you one thing about the rules and regulations and the Press Council that these are the plans which only flourish under democratic environment. If a new ordinance of similar nature is promulgated in place of current Press Ordinance, no matter it carries different title, but if Martial Law rules and regulations continue to remain in force and a temporary ban is not put on their use and implementation, you may form 10 rules or regulations and make a new Press Council, there will be no change in the situation. Newspapers and journalists may form voluntarily rules for themselves (I will insist on voluntary), and to ensure their implementation at national level a supervisory institution can be formed by repealing the Press Ordinance and replacing it with a simple Press Registration Act consisting of couple of clauses. The registration number for any newspaper and magazine should be issued by Post Master General of the concerned province, as is done in England or other democratic countries of the world. The declaration is simply a document by the publisher/editor of a newspaper or magazine containing his own personal data and that of his publication ie if the newspaper or magazine will be a daily or weekly, its language and place of publication etc. Secondly, in democratic countries of the world Press Councils only play a moral or ethical role. They do not have Punitive Powers. If any newspaper violates SOPs or ethical standards then it passes a condemnation resolution or censure motion, which is also published by the concerned newspaper because it is also a member of the Press Council. Otherwise, the government or any citizen of the country holds the right to file a civil suit against that newspaper in civil courts. Main objectives of Britain’s Press Council is to guard freedom of the Press.”
While suggesting Mir Sahib’s name in negotiations with the government he wrote:
“...On July 28, I wrote a letter to Chief Marshal Law Administrator Zia-ul-Haq through the Superintendent of Khairpur Central jail in which I have mentioned in detail the violence and torture meted out on us ... I have explained the stance of PFUJ and APNEC and requested him to intervene at the earliest to stop this violence and accept the eight-point manifesto given by PFUJ and APNEC, release all the arrested people unconditionally and create a cordial relation between the government and the Press. If this was not done and our demands were not met directly or through negotiations, I will announce a hunger strike unto death from jail. ... I have also mentioned in my letter that negotiations will only be done by three-member committee of PFUJ and APNEC. If deemed necessary or important then three senior editors could be there as witness at the time of negotiations or contract. Which means you, Ahmed Ali Khan (Dawn) and Sheikh Ali Muhammad (Aftab).
“I hope that APNS and CPNE will join hands with APNEC and PFUJ in their principled struggle for the freedom of the press. If you principally agree on our stance, then you should do this. It will be a good gesture for the future,” he concluded.
Despite the passage of many decades situation is still the same. No matter it’s a democratic government or dictatorship, press freedom remains a challenge. In recent years, Pakistani press is passing through its worst phase. We miserably miss warriors like Mir Kahlil-ur-Rahman and Minhaj Barna, who could take the captainship of this sinking boat. We only hope to see a new dawn in coming years, where we will be free to write and speak truth.
—Letter credit: Ahfaazur Rahman’s book “Sub se bari Jang” and “Sahaafi” magazine of Karachi Union of Journalists, March 2017