We were sitting in a half-lit room in a Washington suburb. All five of us had worked as journalists in Pakistan. And what brought us today was the airing of an off camera discussion between two talk show hosts of a prominent Pakistani channel and a property tycoon.
The footage has instigated a war of sorts between news channels as they accuse each other of being corrupt, dishonest and sleazy. We came here to discuss the so-called media-gate scandal, but shame, embarrassment and guilt overwhelmed us. So we started reminiscing about our past, perhaps to avoid thinking about our inglorious present.
Those were the days when people joined journalism out of political conviction, not to make easy money or become famous. There was little money or fame in the media then.
We recalled that in the Zia era, when the press was in chains, we also met in half-lit rooms but out of fear, not shame. Such meetings were illegal and those caught almost always lost their jobs. Some were even jailed and flogged. So we met late at night in secluded places.
We remembered one such meeting that we all attended. The lights were off all over the dark city, so the full moon shone in all its glory.
Free from the dwarfing influence of the neon lights and electric bulbs, it looked beautiful. But we shut the window, lit a candle and one of us tried to read an old newspaper, which carried the story we were looking for.
The jasmine and the Queen of the Night wafted through the closed doors. But even their aroma could not make us open the window.
I could not wipe the picture off my mind. There he was, Nasir Zaidi, chained to a hospital bed with two rifle-toting police constables flanking him.
We were not friends yet, but I knew him as a gentle and soft-spoken man, respected by everybody for his honesty and an almost religious fervour for a free press. But when his time came, his honesty and softness could not protect him. He had to receive all 15 lashes on his back and was now lying on a hospital bed, chained and handcuffed like a common criminal.
His crime? He defied a dictator’s order to close down some newspapers that dared criticise the army’s interference in politics.
On May 13, 1978 the then military government in Pakistan ordered four journalists flogged for refusing to toe the official line. The government issued a brief press note to announce the verdict.
Three of them were flogged within 70 minutes after the judgment and sent to prison to complete their terms. The fourth escaped because the prison doctor declared him unfit for the lashes.
The whipping was in reprisal for a countrywide agitation by the journalists against the government’s media policy. Within a year after taking over, the martial law government had closed down 11 newspapers and fined 13 others.
Two of the journalists flogged during Gen Ziaul Haq’s martial law — Zaidi and Jafri —are my friends now. Jafri is emotional, robust and quarrelsome. Zaidi is quiet and shy. He also suffers from asthma.
We never saw him arguing with anyone. Although we were convinced that all four were innocent, we never understood how anyone could flog Zaidi. He was so friendly and polite that everybody loved him.
Even his editors never called him by his first name. He was always addressed as Zaidi Sahib. His flogging was a shock for the entire media community. I saw several of his friends crying.
Zaidi is so humble that he never discusses his sacrifices. He says that as a journalist he had a personal reason to protest the dictator’s decision to close down newspapers. Like other, he says, journalists also have the right to work and if there are no newspapers, there will be no work for journalists.
Besides, he says, journalists also have professional reasons for disliking dictators. The press, according to him, does not prosper in a controlled society. There is not much a journalist can do in a dictatorship.
A free press and a dictatorship are like oil and water; they don’t mix. And he has a point. In a controlled press, most of the words are handed down by the dictator’s ministry of information and journalists simply reprint or broadcast them.
Nobody knows it better than journalists from Muslim nations. Before the Arab spring, which started only last year, almost all of them had totalitarian regimes. From Central and South Asia to the Middle East, the media was run by the rulers. Journalism, as it is known in democracies like India or the United States, does not exist.