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United we press, divided we sell

The late MA Shakoor started the journalists’ movement in Pakistan. He and a few others started the Sindh Union of Journalists (SUJ) and then the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ). He once talked about how he came up with the plan to start a union for journalists in 1950. It showed why it’s so important for journalists to work together to fight for things like “freedom of the press, freedom of expression,” and the public’s right to know. This unity has been fading over time, which has given “forces of darkness” a chance to divide the journalist community. These forces have always been afraid of Pakistan’s intellectual and progressive growth.

Later, the journalists fought brave fights against military dictators and authoritarian regimes. They were led by veterans like Minhaj Barna and Nisar Usmani.

Unity among journalists has never been more important than it is now. The PFUJ has dedicated “World Press Freedom Day” to writer and anchor Arshad Sharif, who was brutally killed last year after he was almost forced to leave Pakistan. Not only is May 3 important for journalists in Pakistan, but so is May 13. That’s the day that three journalists, Nasir Zaidi, Iqbal Jaffery, and Khawar Naeem Hashmi, were beaten in Kot Lakhpat jail in Lahore for fighting for press freedom in 1978.

MA Shakoor, who was in prison and exile during General Ayub Khan’s rule and later became a teacher in London, said, “When I went to Vietnam on a journalistic assignment in January 1950, I was amazed to see a beautiful small pagoda built on a single granite pillar in the middle of a small pond. Even after the damage caused by the Japanese attack, the French colonial war, and the American terror bombing, it still stands in the pond. When I got back to Karachi, I showed everyone the picture of the pagoda standing on a single granite pillar and said, “This picture, to me, represents the position of the KUJ (then the SUJ) in relation to the PFUJ, which was being built up slowly in 1950.”

To have lived for 72 years as a fighter for “freedom of the press” and the rights of working journalists and media workers in a country like Pakistan is an accomplishment in and of itself. Journalists in Pakistan have to deal with problems that have never been seen before, such as attacks on media workers and media houses, the unsolved murders of their colleagues, and media laws that go back to the colonial era.

In Pakistan, “freedom of the press” has always been seen as a “threat” by both military and civilian leaders. Even Article 19 of the Constitution is written in a way that guarantees “freedom of the press” but puts a lot of “unreasonable restrictions” on the press in the name of “reasonable restrictions.” Second, to keep the press in check, the ruling elite used a “carrot and stick” strategy to buy or crush the media, and in the process, the media lost its way.

Journalism has turned into a business, so people now talk about it as a “industry.” But can a “profession” like journalism or mass communication become a “industry,” and if so, how can it protect “freedom of the press”? The press’s main job is to tell every perfect government that it isn’t perfect. Now that the media is a business or “industry” and writers are its employees, it’s hard to criticise the government for its wrongdoings because it gives the media industry ads and other benefits. That’s why the fight for freedom of the press became less important. Journalists who were killed or died while doing their jobs rarely got justice, and their families rarely got help. Most industries or companies care more about making money than doing good work, which goes against what “journalism” stands for.

So it’s not surprising that professional editors are now seen as a dying breed. This has hurt professionalism and the fight for press freedom in the country. Journalism is now seen as both a job and a business. The business side is given a lot of weight, and we sell one kind of our product through ads and the other through the news. So, the lack of morals grew, which hurt the unity of journalists and groups as well.

The late Ahmad Ali Khan, who was the longest-serving editor of the DAWN newspaper and one of the founders of PFUJ, once talked about this problem in a different way. He once said, “What we’ve learned from our time in South Asia is that journalism as a job came before journalism as a business. But we all know now that journalism can’t do its job of helping the public good without being able to make money. A news organisation that doesn’t have much money can be quickly scared off or give in to the temptation to sell itself to the highest bidder.

So, it was important for journalists to form a group. When the PFUJ was created in 1950, it included a “code of conduct” as part of its constitution. This code said that accepting a bribe was the worst crime. The different rulers used government ads as the most effective way to “buy” the media houses. This is why PFUJ’s principled attitude from the start has been that an Independent Board should be given the power to make decisions about ads, newspaper circulation, and the ABC.

People think that General Zia ul Haq’s 11-year rule was the worst for media because he tried to divide Pakistan’s politics and journalists in order to keep his rule going longer. He also used the “carrot and stick” method a lot. People who followed his policy and “mission” were rewarded, but those who didn’t were punished.

So, the first big split in PFUJ happened when journalists’ battles were at their worst and they were being beaten, brought before military courts, and given sentences. In the years that followed, it became even more divided. Not only did it split into more groups and groups, but dozens of associations were also formed. Governments used their “Information Departments” and ministry to pay off people. This is clear from the fact that the ministry had its own “secret fund” until 2012, when the Supreme Court finally shut it down in the Hamid Mir and others versus Federation of Pakistan case.

Four different information bills and rules were passed after General Pervez Musharraf left office. These included PEMRA and freedom of information. But media and TV stations were also banned right in front of him. After TV channels went away, political journalism caused media houses and writers to be seen as tools of one political party or the other.

In the post-digital media era, it is important to debate and talk about this medium, which is by far the best place for “freedom of expression.” The problem is that there is no “editorial control,” which leads to a lot of “disinformation” and fake news that would be hard to stop. So, when false knowledge is the only thing people know, it’s not only bad for the profession, but also for society as a whole.

Journalists in Pakistan can only fight for their rights and the rights of other media workers if they are skilled and work together. They can also fight for freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and the right of the public to know. A million-dollar question is: Will they ever come together on one platform that sticks to the golden rules that groups like PFUJ were founded on in 1950?

Since journalists and their many groups need to work together, it is up to the state and the courts to help Arshad Sharif and all the other journalists who were brutally silenced while doing their jobs. The number is not 121.