The crackdown on press freedoms by right-wing US President Donald Trump started on his first day in office, January 20, 2017, according to rights groups and reporters.
Aaron Cantu, an independent journalist, was one of several journalists who were arrested along with protesters, bystanders, legal observers and medics during an anti-fascist bloc march against the inauguration in Washington, DC.
Along with independent photo journalist Alexei Wood, Cantu was among the more than 230 people initially charged with felony rioting resulting from their presence at that protest.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Cantu described his arrest and prosecution as part of a “war for narratives” being waged by the Trump administration.
In April 2017, that “war on narratives” intensified when both Cantu and Wood were among the 212 people dealt a slew of additional felonies after the DC Superior Court returned a superseding indictment.
In December, a jury found six of the defendants, including Wood, not guilty on all counts, but 188 people are still facing hefty charges.
While some have had their charges reduced and others reached plea deals, the bulk of the remaining defendants are facing charges that could land them behind bars for decades.
Cantu described the ostensible effort to stifle press freedoms as distinct from previous measures taken against journalists.
“It is not a traditional authoritarian crackdown on the press, but broadly a cultural phenomenon happening in the context of shifting publishing norms, where the dishonest rich have realised that information silos work in their favour,” he said.
Although not the only example, the cases of Cantu and Wood represent one of the severest attempts to limit the space in which reporters and press workers can safely work, Cantu explained.
During Wood’s trial last month, prosecutors alleged that he could not have possibly been a reporter because he was knowledgeable of terms like “black bloc” and “kettling”.
“Black bloc” refers to a protest tactic in which demonstrators wear all black and conceal their faces to create an atmosphere of anonymity and unity while preventing identification by police or far-rightists who seek to identify them and publish their information online.
“Kettling” is a policing tactic that involves officers surrounding a group in a small area during a demonstration.
“It was a clear attempt by the state to define what a journalist looks and thinks like, where they should go, and how they should do their jobs,” Cantu continued.
“It’s hard to imagine that the norms for any other profession could be construed as evidence of a criminal conspiracy, but because journalists already fulfill [an] antagonistic [role] against power – or at least, they should – the political climate in which Wood’s prosecution took place, and in which mine soon will take place, makes our jobs that much more dangerous.”
Rights groups and watchdogs have also decried the charges as part of a broader campaign to stymie press freedoms under Trump’s rule.
The first year of the business mogul’s presidency has been characterised by open attacks on the press and incessant charges of “fake news” against media outlets critical of his policies.
In December, Trump blasted CNN in one of the latest in an ongoing series of attacks on the news network after a correction was issued over a story that inaccurately stated that his son, Donald Trump Jr, was embroiled in a scandal over leaked documents.
That story initially claimed that Wikileaks had offered Trump Jr access to leaked Democratic Party emails, but CNN later retracted that assertion.
Despite CNN’s correction and apology, President Trump accused the network of malicious intent. “Fake News CNN made a vicious and purposeful mistake yesterday,” he subsequently wrote on Twitter. “They were caught red handed.”
Suzanne Nossel, executive director of PEN America, an advocacy group for freedom of expression, argued that this instance and others like it are part of Trump’s “open war of attrition against the media”.
Trump, who has routinely promoted misinformation and conspiracy theories, has described the media as “dishonest”, “phony”, “sick”, “highly slanted” and “the enemy of the American people”, among other accusations.
“The president has made a persistent habit of these virulent attacks on the press, undermining the credibility and legitimacy of the media, crying fake news every time there’s a story he finds unflattering,” Nossel told Al Jazeera.
The seemingly shrinking space for media freedoms did not start under Trump, however.
The administration of President Barack Obama, a Democrat and Trump’s predecessor, relentlessly pursued whistleblowers and pressured journalists to hand over the names of their sources.
“Some degree of tension between a White House and press corps is natural … but this is a different order of magnitude,” Nossel added, arguing that Trump’s apparent crackdown on the press has been “much more systematic, pervasive and strategic” than that of the Obama administration and previous presidents.
Earlier this month, Trump wrote on Twitter that he would “be announcing THE MOST DISHONEST & CORRUPT MEDIA AWARDS OF THE YEAR”.
The list of “winners” of the “2017 Fake News Awards” were announced on the Republican National Committee’s website on Thursday. The list appeared to reference some journalistic mistakes regarding Trump. In nearly every case that a mistake was made, however, the outlet had issued corrections.
In response to Trump’s idea of the “fake news awards”, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) recognised the “world leaders who have gone out of their way to attack the press and undermine the norms that support freedom of the media”.
Second only to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Trump was declared runner-up in the category of “Most Thin-skinned” ruler and winner in the category of “Overall Achievement in Undermining Global Press Freedoms”.
“Under Trump’s administration, the Department of Justice has failed to commit to guidelines intended to protect journalists’ sources, and the State Department has proposed to cut funding for international organisations that help buttress international norms in support of free expression,” the CPJ said in a press release earlier this month.
In August, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced his intent to suppress government leakers, threatening both reporters and their sources in the government with a crackdown.
Many of the leaks by federal government employees have been related to allegations of collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential elections.
“One of the things we are doing is reviewing policies affecting media subpoenas,” Sessions told reporters at the time, alluding to a “staggering number of leaks undermining the ability of our government to protect this country”.
Sessions added: “We respect the important role that the press plays and will give them respect, but it is not unlimited.”
Margaux Ewen, North American director of Reporters Without Borders, also acknowledged a long precedent of the US government, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, pursuing journalists for their sources, especially in cases of reputation-damaging leaks.
“The prior administration [of Obama] already had a very dire record,” she told Al Jazeera.
Yet, Ewen argued that under Trump’s administration “the environment is incredibly hostile, and journalists are faced day to day with anti-media sentiment coming from the White House, and that has a trickle-down effect also for members of the public and government officials on various levels”.
“There is definitely an increase in incidents like arrests or physical assault against journalists in the year 2017,” Ewen added.
This year has also got off to a grim start for journalists. On Tuesday, the Senate advanced legislation that would renew the National Security Agency’s ability to conduct a warrantless internet surveillance programme.
Last week, the bill passed in the US House of Representatives, where it was overwhelmingly supported by Republicans and garnered the votes of several House Democrats.
“Every administration becomes a little more savvy on how to control their message without relying on the press to relay it. That’s a natural continuation from administration to administration,” Ewen said.
“But of course what’s going on with the current administration…you’re seeing a complete escalation of anti-media activity from the US government in comparison with previous administrations.”
INDESCRIBABLE JOHN ELI
By Shabbir Aariz
This indeed is proverbially a herculean task to describe or define John Elia in any particular frame. Whosoever while mentioning him, is either trapped in contradictions of one’s own opinion or is able to confine to a few verses of John Elia to judge him. But the more one tries to understand John, the more confused one is and I believe that you need another John Elia to explain him. He is a phenomenon, a thing like a live fish to hold in your hand or an elephant amongst blinds to be described. Wusatullah Khan, a noted broadcaster, holds that knowing John is as good as dating with a liberated lady. And it is quite obvious that a man who in him is a philosopher, a scholar, a biographer, a linguist with command over Urdu, Arabic, English, Persian, Sanskrit and Hebrew and needless to say that the Ismaili sect of the subcontinent could not find anyone other than John to translate Ismaili treatises from Hebrew, it becomes a tedious affair to be conclusive about John. Common perception though with an element of truth is that John is a progressive Marxist, an unconventional poet and always in denial of everything including himself while himself saying in three line verse,
“KISKO FUSAT K MUJSAY BAHAS KARAY…..
OOR SABIT KARAY K MERA WAJOOD….
ZINDZGI K LIYAY ZARORI HAY
(Anyone prepared to argue and prove that my existence is imperative for life). His poetry is admittedly very close to life and his verses in the words of a legendry poet, Majrooh Sultanpuri, are like a dialogue which no other poet has the distinction to be capable of. John has an extra-ordinary craft of connecting with his audience that has created an unprecedented fan following which no other contemporary poet can claim to have. So magical is his poetry and its rendition that it has created a cult of his admirers with such an obsession and longing for the life of melancholy lead by John Elia himself. It is no secret that he was never a happy man with defiance and protest against everything and anything around. Loudly a nonconformist when he says
“unjaman main mayri khamooshi…..
burdabari nahin hay wehshat hay”.
His style made him famous and popular. He appears to be disgusted even with creation when he says … “HASILE KUN HAY YEH JAHANE KHARAAB….
YAHI MUMKIN THA AYSI UJLAT MAIN”.
His admirers strangely wish to pass through the same pain and despair that is hallmark of John’s poetry besides satire and the disdain for the system which contributed to his sadness in life. He has so glorified and romanticized the pain and sadness that it leaves his audience in frenzied ecstasy.
John Elia was born in the year 1931 and died in 2002. He originally belonged to Amroha in the state of Uttar Pradesh, younger brother of Rayees Amrohi, a known journalist and writer. John migrated to Pakistan in the year 1957 and settled in Karachi where he is buried now. But Amroha never left his heart and mind. He never felt comfortable after leaving Amroha partly because his stay in Karachi brought him in conflict with the system too. Many other things have also contributed to his sadness in life. He was married to a well-known writer of Pakistan, Zahida Hina but in mid-80’s , the relation between the two became bumpy and ended up in divorce which left John devastated and for ten long years thereafter went in depression without writing a word.
As is true about many in the history of literature, John earned his name and fame more after his death than in his life time while he was not received well and felt a strange type of suffocation when he says,
“AAP APNAY SAY HUMSUKHAN REHNA…..
HUMNISHEEN SAANS PHOOL JATI HAY”.
Thanks to the electronic boom and You Tube that brought him to the lime light and enabled audience to reach him and his works. As if this was not enough that his first poetic collection only came to be published when he reached the age of 60. It is worthwhile mention that he has as many as seven poetic collections to his credit namely SHAYAD, YANI, LEKIN, GUMAAN, GOYA, FARMOD and RAMOOZ. Except one, all other are published posthumously. This is besides his scholarly works in prose which may require greater insight to go into.
John all his life remained honest, direct and straightforward in expressing his views on matters of public interest. He also never demonstrated any pretentions or reservations while expressing the truth of his personal life. He never made any secret of his fantasies, love affairs or drinking habits. Yet he was never at peace either with the times or with himself. John Elia, in my humble opinion lived ahead of times and even the desire of dying young without being bed ridden was not granted to him except that he strangely enough wanted to die of tuberculosis and which he did.
(The author, a senior lawyers, is a well known poet and writer. Feedback at: [email protected])
Manto: Why I wanted to read a ‘lewd’ writer
By Naveed Hussain
I first read Saadat Hasan Manto as a teenager and the spirit of what I’m writing now was etched on my memory in those years.
I was too young to understand the intricacies of his stories but I enjoyed what I read and craved for more. Back then, Manto wasn’t available in the small town of Haripur where I lived. A friend introduced me to a schoolteacher, a bibliophile who had a modest collection of Manto in his personal library.
“Why do you want to read Manto, he’s a ribald, lewd writer,” he quipped. “This is exactly why I want to read him,” I replied, almost impulsively. He smiled and agreed to lend me Manto’s books. Thus began my journey to explore Manto. The more I read, the deeper my love for him became.
Manto was a nonconformist, an unorthodox and ruthlessly bold writer. He didn’t believe in the so-called literary norms of ‘decency’ and ‘civility’ set by didactic writers of his time. For him, truth is truth. No matter how bitter and despicable the reality, Manto never dilutes the truth. Like a muckraker, he pokes his nose into the muck, rakes it, and then holds it up to the reader – in all its profound ugliness and twisted beauty. “If you don’t know your society, read my stories. If you find a defect, it’s the defect of your society, not my stories,” he says.
Manto wrote on socially taboo topics like sex, incest and prostitution, which earned him the wrath of contemporary traditionalists, conservatives and even progressives. For some of his ‘lewd’ and ‘obscene’ stories he had to face lawsuits – among them were great stories such as Thanda Gosht, Bu, Khol Do, Dhuan and Kali Shalwar.
But it is to miss the point to simply say that Manto wrote about sex. He wrote about the sexual debauchery of men and the sexual exploitation of women; about our patriarchal society where women are often treated as a ‘sex toy’, not a human being. Unlike many, I don’t compare Manto with DH Lawrence, because Manto is not lustful, even though he explicitly writes about the female anatomy. He’s more like Guy de Maupassant, who sees the throbbing heart, not the sensuous body, of the prostitute.
Manto blames the ‘diseased mind’ for reading ‘ribaldry’ into his stories. If a sex maniac derives morbid gratification from Venus De Milo, should we blame Alexandros of Antioch for chiselling such a ‘graphic’ sculpture? No, certainly not.
For contemporary literary pundits, Manto was also unacceptable because he wrote ‘indecent’ language. “They [the critics] criticise me when my characters verbally abuse one another – but why don’t they criticise their society instead where hundreds of thousands of profanities are hurled on the streets, every day,” he wonders.
I also love Manto because he was honest. He was an unflinchingly true writer who believed in calling a spade a spade. Sketch-writing was introduced as a genre in Urdu literature much earlier, but Manto created his own peculiar tell-all style. He didn’t write only the good qualities of his characters. “In my bathroom, everyone is naked. I don’t clothe them because it’s the tailor’s job,” he writes.
Manto’s sketches, which he initially wrote for the Lahore-based Daily Afaq newspaper, were later collected and published as Ganjay Farishtay. Manto wasn’t a hypocrite. He minced no words while writing about his dead friends. “I curse a thousand times a so-called civilised society where a man’s character is cleansed of all its ills and tagged as ‘May-God-Bless Him’,” Manto wrote in Ganjay Farishtay. Manto wrote sketches of filmstars Ashok Kumar, Shyam, Noor Jahan, literary figures such as Meera Ji, Agha Hashar and Ismat Chughtai and some politicians. “I have no camera that could have washed smallpox marks off the face of Agha Hashar or change obscenities uttered by him in his flowery style.”
Before embarking on his literary career, Manto had read Russian, French and English masters like Chekhov, Gorky, Victor Hugo, de Maupassant and Oscar Wilde and translated some of their works into Urdu. Surprisingly enough, despite his love for revolutionaries, Manto was not a Marxist ideologue. He was a humanist who was pained to see social injustices, economic disparities and exploitation of the underprivileged. He hated the obscurantist clergy and parasitic elites alike.
Although Manto had migrated to Pakistan after 1947, he couldn’t understand the rationale of partitioning a land along religious lines. His stories of bloodshed and cross-border migration, such as Teetwaal Ka Kutta and Toba Tek Singh, made him unpopular with ‘patriotic’ Pakistanis. To this day he remains a shadowy figure on the official literary lists of Pakistan: our school curricula, our national awards, our drawing room conversations.
Manto was acknowledged as a creative genius even by his detractors. And he knew this, which is perhaps why he wanted these words to mark his grave: “Here lies Saadat Hasan Manto and with him lie all the secrets and mysteries of the art of short story writing. Under tons of earth he lies, still wondering who among the two is the greater short story writer: he or God.”
Manto’s family feared his self-written epitaph would attract the unwanted attention of the ignorantly religious, so on his grave one finds a Ghalib couplet. He faced censorship all his life and even now has chunks of his stories taken out by the authorities. But as we mark his centenary year, I can say this with the instant certainty I felt as a young man in Haripur: the words and stories of Saadat Hasan Manto will outlive us all.
Gauhar Raza: Giving Poetry the Power to Protest
By Asheesh Mamgain
If things were different his poems would have been different, or maybe he would not have been a poet at all. But things are what they are. And that is why Gauhar Raza, the poet is writing, and it is why he writes his poetry of protest.
“Maybe I would have written about love, the beauty of nature and science. But as things stand my poetry is predominantly about resistance and protest,” said Raza, who is faithful to the tradition of resistance poetry to the extent that he has throttled, without much difficulty, the romantic and the scientist in him. “The need to write poetry always arose when something happened around me which affected me, to the core. I have never written and will never write poetry just for the sake of it.”
“The murder of Safdar Hashmi, the breaking up of the Soviet Union, the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the killing of an activist in Afghanistan, the death of Rohith Vemula are some of those things,” he said.
Raza’s second published collection of ghazals and nazms (71 in all) came out in November 2017 and is titled Khamoshi, or Silence.
Is there a lot of anger in his poems? Yes, there is definitely a lot of anger. But then there is also hope. That is where Raza becomes special.
“For me, a poem that merely complains or rants about the injustice, violence and persecution happening all around is not enough. A poet has to go beyond this; he has to give a vision. The vision of an alternative world, of a better world. Only then will his poetry be successful and meaningful. A poet has to show the consciousness he wants to bring into society.”
So how does he define good poetry? “Well, a good poem should be able to raise the level of the reader at least one notch higher, and also give him a fresh perspective about the aspect being dealt in the poem. Something new to dwell upon,” said Raza.
The influences that shaped his poetic thought came pretty early, at home and at the Aligarh Muslim University where he studied. Raza’s father, Wizarat Hussain, worked in the education department there and was a second-generation Leftist.
“The question about the existence of God came up very early in my life and soon I became an atheist for life,” said Raza. Literature was read with passion at home and by the time he was 15 he had read all the Urdu literature available at the AMU library as well as a solid portion of Russian literature.
“During my growing years, Leftist thought had a major presence in the university. On the other hand, the fundamental forces were also steadily getting stronger. I was smitten by the leftist idea. I was part of a literary study circle, we served tea at the secret meetings of leftist groups and listened to discussions at home between my father and other intellectuals such as Irfan Habib and Iqtidar Alam Khan.”
There was a lot of churning in his mind and soon he started pouring the remnants of all that into his poems. When it comes to poetry some of Raza’s major influences have been Ghalib, Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Sahir Ludhianvi. He is often seen reciting their work at length during his various lectures, with Sahir Ludhianvi’s long poem ‘Parchhaiyan’ or Shadows one of his favourites.
“Writing the kind of poetry I do is not easy. Each time a write a poem I must relive all the pain and emotion I went through when the particular incident happened that forced me to write. All those disturbing images come rushing back to me. It is a difficult thing to undergo.”
Nor is poetry Raza’s only means of reaching the people. He recently retired as chief scientist from the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research. He is also into documentary filmmaking, his documentaries on Bhagat Singh and the 2002 Gujarat genocide being very well known.
Where does poetry stand today, as a means of communication with the reader? According to Raza, “for one, social media has helped. It has helped poets reach a wider audience. Also, the tradition of musharias and kavi sammelans (poetry meets) is still very strong in India. So even if a poet is competing with the multimedia world, it is easy to reach one’s audience with one’s poetry, provided you have something pertinent to say.”
More broadly speaking, however, “I have to say that things have progressed in a disturbing direction. A poem I wrote 20 years ago, I could rededicate it to Rohith Vemula and then to Gauri Lankesh. This disturbing trend is seen all over the world. I believe that the fall of the USSR has been a major turning point in the way our World has evolved.”
A few lines from one of his poems brings out his concern and struggle.
Mein phool khilata hoon jab bhi,
Woh baad e khizan le aate hain,
Mein geet sunata hoon jab bhi,
Yeh aag se ji bahlate hain.
Whenever I make a flower blossom
They bring the autumn wind
Whenever I sing a song
They give the soul succour with flame.
But Raza is still hopeful. “There has been a resurgence of resistance poetry in Urdu in the recent past. The trend of religious poetry in Urdu has also reduced in recent times. The youth today has become more involved in this attempt to bring a positive change. I have seen young people reading protest poetry and reacting to it. Once again universities have become a place of resistance and struggle for change.”