General Ziaul Haq’s regime was the darkest chapter of Pakistan’s history for professional journalists and media workers. Freedom of expression was brutally curbed through legal and illegal means, new legal infrastructures were created, journalists were imprisoned and tortured, and media were invariably closed down during this period.
The Martial Law Regulation 49 was the most lethal weapon the establishment ever invented to terrorize journalists. Ostensibly, this draconian regulation was meant to curb freedom of expression to protect Islamic ideology, state sovereignty, national unity, security, law and order and public morality as the regulation claimed. The regulation gave the government a free hand to impose pre-censorship and severe restrictions on editors, printers, publishers, media owners and writers. Journalists found guilty under the regulation were subjected to 10 years of rigorous imprisonment, fines and flogging.
Not only the private print media but news contents of the state media including PTV and Radio Pakistan were pre-censored under the new regulations. Working as News Producer for PTV in those days, I still remember teams of Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) and the Ministry of Information visiting the newsroom daily to check news bulletins randomly taking out paragraphs and pages found to be “objectionable” for broadcasting. Actually this was the second level of censorship in addition to our editors’ severe alterations who were more loyal to the regime than government officials themselves.
Although we were used to this internal censorship for which there were no written regulations or even guidelines, for private news media, pre-censorship was a novel invention? In the beginning newspapers left the censored space blank as a protest but they were ultimately pressured by the government to avoid this practice and join the crowd.
In addition to the Pakistan Penal Code and Criminal Procedure Code, other innovative tools were also widely used to terrorize media reporters and journalists. Press advice became a daily activity where news media were asked to include, exclude or change news reports, columns and features. Additionally, copies of published materials, printing machines and properties were confiscated under the notorious Press and Publication Ordinance of 1960 and 1963, introduced by another military dictator General Ayub Khan.
The 1860 Law of Libel introduced by the British rulers that protected individuals from defamation was amended altogether to remove these protections. The amended law prohibited publication of any information against anyone, even if it was true, or in the public interest.
The establishment also had a full control on the newsprint supply to magazines and newspapers and those who did not follow the government line were promptly punished by reducing or canceling the newsprint supply. Government advertisements were also a significant tool in those days to mold media in favor of the regime or punish them if they did not pay attention to their demands.
To restrain freedom of expression several print media were closed down or suspended including Masawat , Hilal and the weekly Viewpoint. Several journalists were arrested and fined including S. G.M. Badar Uddin and Nazir Naji of Masawat, Mahmood Shaam of weekly Mayaar, Altaf Hussain of Urdu Digest, Mohammad Ilyas of Pakistan Times and Asghar Rizvi of Sun.
As the regime became brutal and furious, the struggle for freedom also got momentum and became more vocal. Four brave journalists, Iqbal Ahmed Jafri, Khawar Naim Hashmi, Masoodullah Khan and Nasir Zaidi, who defied the regime and protested, were arrested and sentenced to flogging by a summary military court. Masoodullah Khan was spared because of his health condition but Nasir, Khawar and Iqbal were flogged on April 13, 1978.
The regime was trying to humiliate these journalists but actually they were exposing their own insecurities and moral bankruptcies. These four journalists will be remembered as heroes who defied a ruthless dictatorial regime and its efforts to mute voices of conscience.
The reign of terror unleashed by the military dictator General Ziaul Haq was meant to create a psychological environment of fear for smooth sailing of the regime and he was successful in ruling the nation for a long time. In the process, however, he was also able to destroy the political, cultural and economic structure of the society in the name of religion.
The recent 18th amendment to the constitution of Pakistan has provided freedom to citizens to access the government information but the journey to get to this point in the history of freedom of expression, however, has been quite a struggle for journalists and writers. To shed the dark shadows of a dreadful military dictator, who invented all the possible tools to curb freedom of journalism in Pakistan is quite an achievement but there is a long road ahead to achieve freedom of expression in a real sense.
While we enjoy the freedom to write in the 21st century, let us also remember our heroes who sacrificed to achieve these basic human rights and proved that dictators can curb freedom of expression; they can never control freedom to think freely!