Mr Majid Nizami, President of the All Pakistan Newspapers Society, is right: the press should expect rough weather ahead. Mr Nawaz Sharif’s government is in a nasty mood. It is out to “teach” journalists a lesson in “patriotism”, in particular their “patriotic” duty to support him in power for the next decade or so.
When MNA Ch Altaf Hussain told parliament a couple of months ago that Mr Sharif’s dirty tricksters had prepared a “Hit List” of journalists, everyone scoffed at the poor fellow. Why, the very idea was preposterous, we thought, surely Mr Sharif would never act in such an irresponsible manner. Well, it turns out we were all wrong. The list which Ch Altaf Hussain had vouchsafed is just the tip of the iceberg.
Ghulam Hussain, editor of “Facts International” and “Siyasi Log” has been imprisoned twice and forced to stop publishing his papers. Abbas Athar of the Nawa i Waqt and Aasir Ajmal of The Muslim say they have been threatened with dire consequences. Hamid Mir of Jang has been accosted by unknown thugs. Nusrat Javed, formerly of The Nation and currently of The News, has been rapped on more than one occasion. Jawad Nazir of The News was warned of the consequences of a “fan dropping over his head” or “being run over by a truck”. Azhar Sohail of Jang fears for his life. Shaheen Sehbai of Dawn has had his house ransacked and his sons roughed up. Javed Haider of Musawaat was taken to a police station and accused of being a “terrorist”. Athar Masood, the editor of Lahore’s Jang, was chased by thugs on a motorbike, his house was “burgled” and intelligence officials went round to harass his father. Ghani Jafar, the executive editor of The Muslim, was beaten up by the police and hospitalised. Mariana Babar of The News was manhandled by the police and has lodged a complaint in the courts. Maleeha Lodhi, the editor of The News in Islamabad, has received threatening calls and letters. She was forced to apprise President Ishaq Khan of her “difficulties”. Only recently, she was charged with “sedition” for allowing a poem to be published. Countless journalists in Sindh have many serious complaints.
We at The Friday Times, too, have had more than our share of troubles. The Punjab government threatened to take action against us in 1991. Our printers were harassed. We were warned by the DIG early this year to lay off Mr Sharif or else. Following a stream of obnoxious and threatening phone calls, a gang of goons paid us a surprise visit. A complaint to President Ishaq Khan relieved the pressure but only temporarily it seems.
Now the government has embarked on another strategy to browbeat the press. Islamabad has unleashed the Income-Tax department to dig into the files and drum up incriminating charges against the owners of newspapers and printing presses. Take the case of the Jang/News Group. It is common knowledge that the government has charged the Jang Group with “smuggling” paper, seized its newsprint warehouses and stopped the public-sector banks (UBL and HBL) from allowing them to import newsprint. Reduced to handouts of paper on a daily basis, the Group is being allowed to continue publication as long as it “behaves” itself.
Or look at what Islamabad is doing to muzzle The Friday Times. Within the last fortnight, three trumped-up cases have been initiated by the income tax authorities against us and more are being planned feverishly. The government is demanding millions of rupees. The tax authorities are also leaning heavily on our printers.
It may be premature to go into the details of such harassment because we are hoping that Islamabad will see the folly of its ways and call off the hounds. But if it doesn’t, TFT’s position should be crystal clear. We don’t have any business “empire” to protect. We’re a small paper which is fiercely determined to guard its independence. So we will not be silenced. We will not be intimidated. We have nothing to hide or fear. Not from the income tax authorities, not from the police, not from the agencies. And we will present our case in all arenas, before the CPNE, the APNS, the superior courts of appeal and in the highest forum in the country — the public. We will name names, publish documents and give evidence to the foreign press and to human rights organisations all over the world. If it is to be David vs Goliath all over again, so be it. If Islamabad is set upon making TFT a heroic cause, we are ready to join battle.
We therefore urge the Prime Minister to call off the goon squads before there is more bitterness. Governments are fated to come and go but the press is destined to forge ahead in the new democratic order. Human rights and press freedom are universal causes. They are the hallmark of civilised nations. Mr Sharif cannot flout these values with impunity and hope to escape widespread censure. In any case, the law of nature dictates that injustice may last a while but tyranny cannot endure.