Wednesday December 08, 2021

The struggle of the PFUJ

March 21, 2021

Part - I

What an event it was in Islamabad on March 17, for the journalist community! It was the book launch of ‘From layoffs to lashes: PFUJ’s 70-year fight for media freedom’ – compiled by Mazhar Abbas and edited by Nizamuddin Siddiqui and Waris Raza.

There was also a seminar to discuss freedom of the press and the current media crisis in Pakistan. The book itself deserves a detailed treatment, so here I begin with some of the ideas that people like Farhatullah Babar, Hamid Mir, Munizae Jahangir and Nasir Zaidi shared with the audience, and some of the jokes that Fawad Chaudhry and Shibli Faraz uttered to lighten the mood of a pretty serious gathering. The second part of this article will deal with the book.

At the event, the first salvo came from Mazhar Abbas – one of the most respected journalists in Pakistan who has fought for freedom of expression in this country. Mazhar Abbas was convener of Team PFUJ-70 that came into being to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Union’s establishment. He shared some of the experiences of his predecessors in the PFUJ and recalled how M A Shakoor narrated the obstacles in the formation of the union. He reminded the audience that, right after the inception of Pakistan, some nasty elements in the nascent state took it upon themselves to impose curbs on fundamental rights such as the freedom of assembly and that of expression. They put hurdles in the way of a developing press industry and never liked any criticism of their wrongdoings.

The audience was pleased when Farhatullah Babar took the floor and in his peculiar soft style mocked the ‘unknown people’ who abduct, torture, and even kill journalists. Babar was a voice of sanity in the Senate of Pakistan and his unwavering commitment to fundamental and human rights is well acknowledged. He recalled that while in the Senate he repeatedly asked questions about defence spending in Pakistan but never got answers. He lamented the fact that previously at least we knew who to fight against, but now ‘unknown’ persons have taken over and blurred their identity.

Right after such sober discourse, Shibli Faraz asked to speak early as he had to leave. He began by praising some role models in Pakistani journalism and moved on to call them lighthouses of hope. Then he suggested that the media in Pakistan has to meet the requirements of the new era. He did not elaborate on what those requirements were and how the media professionals in Pakistan with meagre and uncertain salaries could meet them. He accused the opposition of not helping the PTI government when it tried to pass a bill for journalists’ protection in the country.

Perhaps the best speech of the evening came in the thundering voice of Nasir Zaidi. He is one of those brave journalists whose struggle for freedom of expression spans at least half a century. With his advancing age, he has not lost the spark of his youth, and when he speaks the mic shudders and listeners sit up. He was clear in his observation that the current situation of media freedom in Pakistan is the worst in its 74-year history. ‘It is even worse than how it was in 1947’ because at that time at least journalists were sure to get salaries on time and there was some job security.

Nasir Zaidi highlighted the financial crisis that some ‘black forces’ have created for the media industry in Pakistan, suggesting that the imposed authoritarianism in Pakistan should be resisted at all costs. He said that the PFUJ has over the years put up stiff resistance to challenge all dictatorships – from General Ayub Khan to General Musharraf – and will do so under this hybrid regime too. The attempts by rulers to divide journalists’ unions have continued since the 1970s, but the fighters of the PFUJ have faced torture and endured hardships but never surrendered.

Hamid Mir differed from Farhatullah Babar regarding the ‘unknown people’. He believed that these people are no more ‘unknown’ and they have now become very well known. But there are curbs on the media due to which even victims of abductions and torture are afraid to share the details of their ordeals. It is an unfortunate fact that now the state does not even allow journalists to write critically about some ‘friendly’ countries, Hamid Mir lamented.

Munizae Jahangir channeled her mother Asma Jahangir while condemning those who impose curbs on the media in Pakistan. She was proud that people still remember her mother because she spoke the truth and named and called out those responsible for this sorry state of fundamental rights in Pakistan. Munizae called for the accountability of all state institutions without giving any preferential treatment to anyone. She struck a chord with all journalists present there who yearn for such open talk in the absence of Asma Jahangir.

Munizae was of the firm conviction that all organs of state and institutions are brought under the accountability net, and are not protected from criticism, freedom of expression will remain a pipedream. She suggested that parliament should decide which details regarding the defence budget are to be kept secret for particular reasons. Trolling of media persons, especially of women, was another cause of concern with which the audience agreed. She gave the example of the Aurat March when the authorities gave permission to some conservative parties to stage a counter demo at the same venue.

Muhammad Malik highlighted the weakness within the media, and attributed this weakness to a declining professional standard in journalism. Owners have formed their own bodies to the exclusion of journalists and there is hardly any training for media professionals. Professional capacity is a major issue that media houses should tackle by providing training and capacity development, Malik recommended. Then there is self-censorship imposed by media owners themselves who feel obliged to impose some no-go areas for their commentators. Unless the media in Pakistan resists the curbs imposed by the state, the situation will not improve.

At this point, Fawad Chaudhry made some interesting observations. He informed the audience that, compared to other Muslim countries, the freedom of expression in Pakistan is much more relaxed. We should not compare our country with the most advanced countries of the world, he advised the journalists present. To him, Pakistanis enjoy ‘more freedoms than the citizens of other Muslim countries’. Perhaps he does not realize that this may be one reason why no Muslim country has a functioning democracy or a thriving civil society. If you believe him, you should stop talking and writing about fundamental rights at all.

Ahsan Iqbal, Dr Ishtiaq Ahmed, Harris Khalique, Hussain Naqi, Matiullah Jan, Raza Rabbani and Shahid Khaqan Abbasi spoke at length and I wish the mainstream media could telecast their speeches. Though there was live streaming from the PFUJ page, it should have reached a wider audience via TV channels. The points discussed by the speakers were all relevant and offered a wakeup call to the government and state authorities.

The PFUJ has raised the banner of media freedom all along and with the leadership of valiant fighters such as Nasir Zaidi and Shehzada Zulfiqar, the proposed long march in April is likely to be a major blow to the PTI government.

To be continued

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.