“A journalist writes stories. We are not the story.”
Muhammad Ziauddin, one of Pakistan’s most respected newspaper editors and professional journalists, passed away recently after a prolonged illness. He was 83. During an illustrious career spanning over 60 years, he worked for almost all major newspapers of the country including The Muslim, The News, Dawn and The Express Tribune as well as with the PPI news agency and the Pakistan and Gulf Economist. Till the very end, he did not give up writing – or reading. In his own words, to write a column meant reading a lot and understanding what was happening all around. Never was he one to write fluff.
In contrast to his final years of a quiet life at Media Town outside Islamabad, much of his professional time was one of action - as he witnessed and reported on important events in the country’s tumultuous history. When a young Ziauddin started his career, the country was under martial law. Soon after came the break-up of Pakistan, followed by a civilian martial law. This was interrupted by bouts of democracy followed by stretches of dictatorship. For a journalist, there could be no better period for reporting. The stories were many, and there was much to dwell and comment on. The trick, of course, was to write with honesty and not be swayed by the various factors and quarters at play. This is where the usually quiet and self-effacing seemed to excel. The story had to be written without fear or favour. He did justice to his work.
There was much to learn from him. Sitting perched over his laptop – at ease in the newsroom in Karachi or his office in Islamabad, Ziauddin sahib would be never be too busy for those who came for advice or simply to talk. Many vented. Others simply came to sit with him. He never complained and always made time for them. That is how over the years, Muhammad Ziauddin influenced hundreds of young journalists on how to move ahead in this challenging profession. He urged caution. Encouraged common sense. He told journalists candidly where they were going wrong.
When Ziauddin sahib, as I addressed him, became the executive editor of The Express Tribune, the newspaper where I was editor, he told me about an incident where then president, Gen Musharraf, had encouraged Overseas Pakistanis to “teach Ziauddin a lesson”. The comment came after Ziauddin, in his capacity as Dawn’s London correspondent, critically reported on the dictator’s visit. But Ziauddin never reported this comment or its reaction. “A journalist writes stories. We are not the story.”
Sitting perched over his laptop – at ease the newsroom in Karachi or his office in Islamabad, Ziauddin sahib would be never too busy for those who came for advice or simply to talk. Many vented. Others simply came to sit with him. He never complained and always made time for them.
What was most impressive about him was the friendships he cultivated with the young and the old. For all of them, Ziauddin sahib wasn’t just an editor. As my immediate supervisor, Ziauddin sahib was always there to guide me along. When the paper was launched, there was a great responsibility on our shoulders. We went on to launch three print editions and one online edition. In our work together I feel that his biggest quality was that he let me make my own mistakes.
Ziauddin sahib rarely interfered. Instead he advised me and waited for me to act. He would never get angry and would patiently wait and then discuss the progress and counsel me. We weathered many storms like this. This was the same approach he took with other colleagues - whether publisher Bilal Lakhani or our section or city editors.
What I remember the most are the fun moments together. Ziauddin sahib had a great sense of humour. He would comment on situations or give his opinion on certain developments, and we would laugh together – it helped relieve the tensions of the newsroom and lessen the stress. Such was his personality.
Looking back, I can say that the quality I admired the most was his optimism. Rarely did I see him give up or lose hope. Despite the odds and the obstacles, he would continue to trudge along – observing and writing, commenting and counselling. He felt strongly for the profession and did all he could to ensure better working conditions and more unity. Till the very end he continued to bring warring media factions together on the table to reach some sort of understanding. And every time he was heading a newspaper, one of his priorities remained better pay and conditions for his sub-ordinates.
There was much to learn from Muhammad Ziauddin. He has left behind a legacy not only in terms of his stories and commentaries but also the reputation he cultivated – his honesty and integrity as well as his modesty and open approach. With his departure, we see the end of an era of journalism in Pakistan. He was possibly one of the last journalists who refused to bend to pressure and stood their ground against those who tried to stifle free expression or influence the media. He will be remembered for years to come, and one can only hope that those he influenced over the years will continue to follow his footprints.
The writer is a former director of the Centre for Excellence in Journalism, and a former editor of The Express Tribune