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The history of the press in Pakistan is scantily documented. Apart from Zamir Niazi, not many were able to keep a record of the highhandedness of state authorities that journalists had to suffer. Even Niazi’s books, though invaluable in their content and clarity, pay slight attention to the most important and wide-ranging struggle of journalists waged in the early years of Gen Ziaul Haq’s dictatorship. Freedom of the Press: The War on Words (1977-1978) is a translation by Imtiaz Piracha of Sab Se Bari Jang, originally authored in Urdu by Ahfazur Rehman. Rehman’s book was a much-needed contribution — perhaps the only one written so far on the journalists’ struggle of 1977-78 — and Piracha’s English translation will make it accessible to a larger readership.

Rehman is one of the most senior and conscientious journalists who — along with Minhaj Barna, Nisar Osmani, Wahab Siddiqui and others — played an instrumental role in the struggle to safeguard the freedom of the press and to protect the interests of journalists who were targeted by Gen Zia and his coterie. It is sad that Barna, who was the indomitable leader of this press movement, was reluctant to document his experiences and left this world without putting his pen to paper on this subject.

The struggle of 1977-78 was enormous in scale as thousands of journalists and press workers participated in its three phases. In the third phase, students, farmers and even labourers joined the movement. They courted arrest in Karachi and Lahore and suffered extreme physical and psychological torture during rigorous imprisonments, and even flogging, by military courts.

The English translation of a seminal work that documents journalists’ struggle against state repression in 1977-78 invaluably makes it accessible to a wider audience.

As many as 14 prisons across Sindh and Punjab held these journalists who were mostly incarcerated as Class C prisoners. That was the period when journalists stood up against the dictatorship and for many years continued to bear the agony of expulsions and unemployment. For his book, Rehman made extensive use of magazines and newspapers that he and his wife Mehnaz kept safe for decades. Wahab Siddiqui, editor of the weekly Al Fatah, also helped Rehman with his numerous magazines that were published under the banner of Al Fatah Publications.

The magnitude of the press movement and the zeal with which courageous journalists waged their war against the forces of tyranny can be gauged from the sheer numbers painstakingly calculated by Rehman; 168 journalists were arrested just in Lahore, and in Karachi the number of journalists and press workers who courted arrest swelled to 300. On the orders of Lt. Gen Mujeebur Rehman, information secretary during the Zia regime, the Karachi Press Club remained under police siege for days.

Those who claim that only the top generals were responsible for martial laws and their atrocities in Pakistan’s history will learn from this book that the entire state machinery was used to crush the press movements. It was not the top generals alone; officers in the civil and military bureaucracy ranging from top to bottom were involved in arresting, harassing, jailing and torturing those who dared challenge the dictatorship.

All those officers of various hues and colours moved up in their ranks, occupied top positions in the state hierarchy and fully enjoyed all the benefits and perks that their ranks entailed. The journalists, who refused to accept threats to the press, were hounded and lashed, deprived of their jobs and declared traitors by those who benefitted from the oppressive regime. It is a shame that the struggle of these pressmen and women hardly features in the history books of Pakistan.

Prominent women who actively participated in the movement and courted arrest were Lalarukh Hussain, Tamkinat Ara (wife of late senior journalist Shafqat Tanvir Mirza), Farkhanda Bukhari (wife of famous poet Shohrat Bukhari), Asifa Rizvi, Hameeda Ghangro and Nasreen Zahra.

The magnitude of the movement can be gauged from numbers; 168 journalists were arrested in Lahore, and in Karachi the number of press workers who courted arrest swelled to 300.

How difficult it is to challenge state repression becomes evident from a comparison with the state of emergency declared in India by Indira Gandhi in the mid-1970s. There was hardly any resistance from the journalist community in India and the newspapers accepted censorship and press advice without raising their voices. Rehman quotes the Times of India as saying: “Had there been organisations [such as the] PFUJ in India, it would not have been possible for Indira Gandhi to impose emergency rule.”

Rehman’s book has benefitted from his friends contributing their bit. There are photos from Ahmed Khalid, Khawar Naeem Hashmi and Zahid Hussain; news articles and stories from Al Fatah, Musawat, daily Hilal-i-Pakistan, Mayar, daily Sadaqat and many more. Hashmi was one of the journalists who were given lashes on the orders of the summary military courts. Others who were sentenced with this barbaric punishment included Iqbal Jafri, Masoodullah Khan and Nasir Zaidi.

The worst episode during this movement was written by Jamaat-i-Islami and its newspaper Jasarat. Siding with Gen Zia and his repressive junta, Maulana Salahuddin, editor of the daily Jasarat, wrote defamatory articles to malign the movement and its leaders, and dubbed the struggle as the “movement for the protection of PPP newspapers.” Journalists such as Hameed Chhapra and Hussain Naqi responded to these allegations valiantly; their responses have also been included in the book.

During the movement Rehman was general secretary of the Karachi Union of Journalists, and secretary general of the Joint Central Action Committee of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists and the All Pakistan Newspaper Employees Confederation. He was arrested in December 1977 and in April 1978, and was also exiled from Punjab for six months. For the new generation of journalists it is probably difficult to imagine how a person can be exiled from one province to another within his own country, but that was common practice by dictators such as Generals Ayub Khan and Zia, who claimed to be ‘national’ leaders, but sowed the seeds of parochial and provincial politics that were used against any federal-level movement and politics.

Freedom of the Press: The War on Words (1977-1978) is divided into two parts; the first section comprises 150 pages written immaculately by Rehman; the second contains articles and memories from other journalists such as Ali Ahmed Khan, Aslam Shaikh, Aurangzeb, Farhad Zaidi and Masood Qamar. The two forewords from Wahab Siddiqui and Iqbal Khursheed add to the rich narrative of the book. The translation by Piracha is excellent and gives a comfortable and smooth read.

The reviewer is a former member of staff

Freedom of the Press
By Ahfazur Rehman
Translated by Imtiaz Piracha
Oxford University Press, Karachi
ISBN: 978-0199407330