Arif Nizami had a profound understanding of journalism and of storytelling
Over the years, the face of Pakistani journalism has been changing, sometimes under the influence of international trends. Very few Pakistani journalists, meanwhile, can be described as catalysts for the change. Arif Nizami was one such journalist.
Arif Nizami passed away on July 21. He was 72 and had been under treatment at a hospital after suffering a heart attack. His death came as a shock to many who had known him as a journalist and a human being.
It is conceivable that early in his life he may not have thought of himself as a journalist, but he was destined to be one of the greatest names in the history of Pakistani journalism. He was a true journalist and remained one till his last breath. He was one of the best reporters this scribe met in his life. His ability to sense a ‘good story’ was exceptional.
Nizami pioneered many trends in Pakistani journalism.
Our first meeting is still fresh in my memory. It was in January 1996. Never having met the boss in person, I rode in the elevator with the man, who looked very important. Only later did I find out that he was the editor.
During more elevator rides over the following years, I realised that Nizami had a knack for mentioning important stories he wanted to get done, wrapped in what some might dismiss as small talk. Sometimes, he would hand one a note with a question scrawled on it. It was always a hint. One was tasked with figuring out the riddle. One such note I received read, “What is happening at Kinnaird?.” I knew immediately I had to go look for a story at the women’s college. For two days, I was unable not figure out the hint. On the second evening, I learnt that Kinnaird College had decided to raise the fees. After The Nation broke the story the next day, popular protests followed. Mira Phailbus, the then principal, served me and Arif sahib with a legal notice a few weeks later asking for damages. Arif sahib called me over and asked me to read the 15-page legal notice. He then asked me if I stood by my story as a reporter. When I told him that I did and that the allegations were baseless, he told me not to worry and continue looking for good stories. The decision to increase the fees had been taken by the board of governors kept a secret.
Some of the journalists who worked under him are now serving in top positions in journalism or other fields. They include Syed Javed Nazir, MA Niazi, Rashid Rehman, Sarmad Bashir, Saqlain Imam, Mahmood Awan, Jalees Hazir, Muhammad Maalick, Anjum Ibrahim, Amir Ahmed Khan, Naila Hussain, Mayed Ali, Nabila Zar and Shama Haq.
Arif Nizami was a resourceful person. He maintained close ties with all the top politicians, bureaucrats and leading persons in various fields. He kept a close watch on whatever was happening in political, economic and social spheres. Senior journalist Haseeb Haider fondly remembers him. “Arif sahib had names for everyone that he never mentioned in public. He used to call me the little Khomeini. He was a kind man who helped us establish sources.”
Haseeb recalls, “He (Arif Nizami) never liked my long hair and casual dress. When he nominated me to cover Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s visit to Italy, he also sanctioned Rs 5,000 for me to get a suit to wear and to get a haircut.”
Arif Sahib started many exciting projects, some of which proved real breakthroughs. These included ABC (Arts, Books, Culture), Femme, XY, Money and Young Nation. Profit magazine started after he founded daily Pakistan Today is doing well.
The Nation was inspired by some international dailies coming out of the UK. The newspaper was first to use the word ISI (instead of ‘sensitive agencies’ or ‘sensitive institutions’) in journalism.
Arif Nizami understood the newspaper industry like nobody did. He served as president of the APNS (All Pakistan Newspaper Society) as well as the CPNE (Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors).
“I was appointed a photographer under Nizami sahib when he was the executive editor of Nawa-i-Waqt in 1982. When he became editor of The Nation, he got me transferred to the English daily. For three consecutive years, I covered Pakistan’s cricket matches in Sharjah. For two of those years I went without waiting for his approval as he was busy in APNS meetings in Quetta and Multan. Upon return, I was given enough credit to cover all my expanses,” remembers Nawaz Alam.
Sajid Zia, a former The Nation chief reporter, says, “ he was a gem of a person.” “Some of my colleagues had left The Nation and joined another newspaper in 2001. I was very depressed and wanted to leave too. When I got a job offer, I wrote to Nizami sahib explaining how it was difficult to make ends meet with our meagre salaries. He called me to his office, listened to my concerns. Soon afterwards, our salaries were raised.”
“He always kept his cool,” says Zia, remembering another incident from the days gone by.
Arif Nizami was reporter at heart, “he was the source for so many breaking stories. Only a few were published in The Nation with his by-line. When Benazir Bhutto’s first government was dismissed, he reported the details the grounds for her dismissal and disclosed the name of the new caretaker prime minister (Moin Qureshi) a day before it all happened.” He also broke news about Najam Sethi’s arrest and the first appointment of Shehbaz Sharif, journalist Sarmad Bashir recalls.
Arif sahib supported the careers of many people, including myself. I started journalism as a sub-editor in the newsroom. Later, I became a reporter and magazine editor under him. He was kind-hearted and used his influence to help people. In 2008 on his request, the chairman of Shaikh Zayed Hospital ordered the opening of locked stores to get a portable machine for my brother’s dialysis. When MA Niazi, then executive editor of The Nation, was hospitalized and given a 15 percent chance of survival, a medical board was constituted on Arif Sahib’s request. Arif sahib was a man of great integrity. He was also full of life. He was a fine dresser and an insightful journalist. He will be long remembered for his profound understanding of political matters and the art of storytelling.
The writer is a senior journalist and general secretary of the YMCA, Lahore.