Freedom of the press


Yaseer Latif

It is that time when Pakistanis must be reminded of the fact that the man they call the father of the nation, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, in his role as a lawyer and a politician stood unwaveringly for the freedom of press. Speaking against the deportation of Benjamin Guy Horniman, the British editor of Bombay Chronicle, Jinnah eloquently declared in the Indian legislature: “I do maintain, and I have drunk deep at the fountain on constitutional law, that the liberty of man is the dearest thing in the law of any constitution and it should not be taken away in this fashion. If you have any case, if Mr Horniman has committed an offence, place him before a tribunal…. I speak very feelingly, because I feel that no man should be deported and certainly not on such fabricated allegations as these, which to my knowledge, are absolutely false.”
Jinnah might as well have been speaking today of Cyril Almeida and the paper that Jinnah himself had founded, Dawn, both of whom have come under sharp attack from the right wing and ultra nationalist sections of our society. On twitter, our keyboard patriots were trending hate against Dawn for doing its job well. There is absolutely nothing wrong with what Dawn reported when it spoke of differences between the civilian government and military leadership over the state’s handling of non-state actors. If it is a secret then it is not a very zealously guarded one. What calculation prompted the ministry of interior and the civilian government to then put Almeida on the notorious Exit Control List (ECL) using the draconian Exit Control Ordinance 1981 put in place by the then martial law regime of General Zia-ul-Haq, we would never know nor do I wish to surmise. These are games that our organs of state play, sometimes on others, sometimes on each other, but you already know as much if you are not living under a rock. Thankfully, Almeida’s name has since been removed from the ECL.
Jinnah’s relationship with the press dated back to his days as the chairman of the board of directors of Bombay Chronicle. His stint there made such a deep impression on a young sub-editor named Pothan Joseph that some 20 years later when Jinnah asked him to edit Dawn, Joseph jumped at the opportunity. Joseph, a Syrian Christian from Kerala and a staunch Indian nationalist, rightly believed that Jinnah would never impede on the editorial integrity and independence of his newspaper. Under Joseph’s editorship, Jinnah was always referred to as plain “Mr Jinnah” in the editorials and never as Quaid-e-Azam. This prompted attacks from various quarters within the Muslim League but Joseph stood his ground and Jinnah supported him.
Similarly, when Jinnah’s relations with Gandhi were at the lowest ebb, Dawn wrote a sharply worded editorial condemning the British for arresting Gandhi. Jinnah had wanted not just another mouthpiece for the Muslim League, and there were already many, but a credible newspaper which while highlighting the Muslim League’s point of view would remain fiercely independent and would be recognised as such. Dawn, to its credit, has kept that flag flying high till present day.
It must also be said, at the risk of tooting one’s own horn, that the late Salmaan Taseer, the founder and editor of Daily Times, followed the same tradition. It was well known that Taseer had strong Pakistani nationalist views but during his life, this newspaper often published editorials and op-eds that Taseer disagreed with, including on issues such as Balochistan and the Kalabagh Dam. This is called the freedom of the press, and for any democracy it is inviolable. Without freedom of press, no state can even be called democratic. Jinnah and Taseer, both first rate liberal democrats, understood this. This is why they made such an effort in ensuring that the newspapers they had founded would remain independent and impartial. It is a tragedy that not many in corridors of power understand this today. Instead the press is treated with contempt and loathing, and journalists are bought and sold with favours, or in other cases influenced by threats and coercion.
Even though the freedom of the press is guaranteed by our constitution under Article 19, it has been watered down through unconscionable claw-backs, which include integrity, security and defence of Pakistan, as if Pakistan’s security and integrity can be harmed by the written word. One hopes that at a future date the people of Pakistan will snatch back their fundamental rights and liberate their living constitution from the dictates of political expediency.
Let it be said, unwaveringly, that the self-styled patriots who are baying for Cyril Almeida’s blood and are calling for a ban on Dawn are the real enemies of Pakistan’s democracy and progress. Even their rhetoric is quite confused and muddled. If the story that Dawn published was untrue, why is there such a hue and cry about a ‘leak’? Is it that the story hit a raw nerve? After all, as one PML-N legislator asked, what eggs are these non-state actors laying that they are suffered by the state, even at the risk of international isolation?
Whatever the state policy may have been in the past, it is clear as day that toleration policy for non-state actors harms Pakistan internationally and discredits our case on Kashmir. True patriotism demands that we repeat this self-evident truth as many times as it is needed for it to penetrate through the thick skulls of those who determine state policy. This makes Cyril Almeida a principled patriot, and not a traitor as some would want to portray him as.
Above all, we must always remember that Pakistanis have chosen, willingly, to fashion ourselves as a parliamentary democracy. In a parliamentary democracy, the prime minister and his cabinet are the fountainheads of power, responsible to the legislature. Military is an arm of the government and not an independent stakeholder in the process. It is the civilians who must make policy and the military should obey without question. These are not my words but those of the father of the nation. May Pakistan one day live up to his name the same way Dawn has.