Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), though facing some organizational problems these days, has an unprecedented history of struggle from 1950 to date. However, the two greatest movements to its credit were the 10-day complete shutdown of newspapers in the country for better wages in 1970 and the March 1978 movement against the ban on then opposition newspaper daily Musawaat (Karachi and Lahore editions) during which some 400 journalists courted arrest and faced hardships.
Back in 1978 I was a student of mass communication at Karachi University and remember organizing a protest meeting in solidarity with the movement. However, I don’t have first-hand experience from the field and so I’m totally depending on my memories – so I would like to excuse myself in advance for any factual errors of recollection.
The 1978 movement was certainly one of the greatest journalists’ struggles in the world. Many top journalists and editors of 1980s have many personal stories to tell, about their prison days during the word martial law period that Pakistan has experienced. The way they were treated by the martial law authorities and the way they were greeted by political prisoners in jails is worth remembering.
Many young journalists of the post-1990s era are not aware of the stories of courage, conviction and commitment that our predecessor generation of journalists exhibited. Facing military courts was not easy but those journalists who faced them not only stood firm but also accepted their farcical convictions with smiles. When four of them – Nasir Zaidi, Iqbal Jaffery, Khawar Hashmi and Masoodullah Khan – were told by the Military Court officer that it is better if they end the movement and surrender, Khan sahib said, “It is your, not our, tradition to surrender.” The officer in khaki got annoyed and all four were sentenced to one year rigorous imprisonment and 10 lashes each. After the verdict all four journalists raised the slogan, “Azadi-e-Sahafat Zindabad [Long Live Free Press].”
The convictions were carried the same evening with the exception that on doctor’s advice, the sentence of lashes as not carried out against Masoodullah Khan. He was not happy and insisted that if the martial law authorities want they should carry the conviction. The other three were administered lashes.
These are our grand heros but they are not the only ones. The struggles produced many. If one goes through the history of this struggle, journalists will find scores of people, some of whom later become top journalists and editors. I wish some of them should also write and the one man who can even write a book on the movement is Mr Ahfazur Rehman, the former president of the PFUJ. In 1978 he was the head of the Action Committee whose duty it was to prepare the list of journalists who would court arrest in Lahore and Karachi, the two cities selected for the gesture.
Though not much has been written some research was conducted in the Punjab University in the early 1990. Thanks to Dr Mehdi Hasan, the former chairman of the Mass Communication Department of the university. However, what one is still missing are firsthand accounts from those who went to prison, faced military courts and how they were treated in jail. Some of the leaders of the movement went through hardship and some were even shifted to prison cells with notoriety for darkness like the Mach and Mianwali jails.
It was quite a challenge when the decision was taken to launch the movement as there was complete censorship and it was not easy to communicate with fellow colleagues, particularly those living in other cities. There were no mobile phones, no social media and all news of PFUJ and its affiliated bodies were banned. In their daily press advice, the martial law regime’s information officers were told to strictly censor out information. Even those working in the state-run PTV were facing a lot of problems.
Many whom the martial law authorities suspected of being supporters of ousted Pakistan People’s Party supporters including reporters, producers and other union members, were sacked, put behind bars. Seven were sentenced to one year imprisonments and 15 lashes each.
However, some opposition newspapers and one or two English papers tried and gave small coverage to this crackdown.
What was amazing was the fact that despite all these practical difficulties, large number of people including workers of political parties welcomed the batch of three to four journalists as they courted arrest at Regal Chowk in Karachi and Mall Road in Lahore. The crowd greeted them with anti-martial law and pro-freedom of the press slogans.
Despite these restrictions people were fully involved with this movement. I will quote one incident narrated to me by an old colleague. Some journalists were hiding in a flat near Hyderi Market. They were supposed to court arrest in a few days but a night before when one of them went downstairs to have his ‘paan and cigarette,’ he was surprised when the shopkeeper advised him, “Brother, move to some other place, there can be a police raid, tonight. I was surprised as how he came to know that we will court arrest, tomorrow.”
Some leaders of the movement like Nisar Usmani and Minhaj Barna were often shifted from one prison to another. General Ziaul Haq knew that it would be difficult to break these leaders so he tried to break the movement in a different way. He gave the task to former secretary information Lt Gen Mujeebur Rehman and Jamaat-e-Islami’s Mahmood Azam Farooqi, who was the information minister. Some of the leaders within the PFUJ used delay in the elections as an excuse to break the movement. Had they been sincere they would have fought within the framework of the PFUJ Constitution instead of siding with the martial law authorities. They announced the break-up of PFUJ after a meeting with Mujeebur Rehman.
But the movement continued and ended when the ban was finally lifted. The movement started with a hunger strike followed by the decision of courting arrests. Some big names who got a taste of breakfast and meal of the jail includes Nisar Usmani, Minhaj Barna, Hussain Naqi, I H Rashid, S G M Badruddin, Abdul Hameed Chapra, Wali Khan Wajid, Hafeez Raquib, Abdul Qadoos Sheikh, Pir Pekar Naqvi, Khalid Ali, Sabihuddin Ghousi, Siddiq Baloch, Ali Ahmad Khan and over 400 others.
It would be unfair if one did not pay tribute to the contribution of Sindhi Hari Committee of Rasul Bux Palejo’s Awami Tehreek. They joined the movement and one worker each of the committee also courted arrest along with each batch of journalists.
However, the stories which one would be more interested to read and share would be firsthand accounts like the one I read about Sabihuddin Ghousi’s letters from inside prison as to how he use to spend his time with other prisoners in Mianwali jail.
I also wish that those enjoying media freedoms to write and speak on TV today should also make a documentary of one of the greatest journalists’ movements ever. Whatever benefit including good salaries, privileges and packages they are enjoying today, is because of those who not only sacrificed their good days in prison, many lost their jobs, remained jobless for years to see freedom of the press survived in Pakistan. I hope one day someone will repay them their debts, if nothing else by remembering them and the long struggle they waged for us.
(The author is a seasoned journalist and former secretary-general of Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists.)
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