Street Life Islamabad: Pen tribe in fight to write

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The Independent Online
"THIS LETTER? No, I cannot send it to my officer. It is improper," said the clerk at the federal ministry for works in Islamabad.

"What is improper about it?" I asked him.

"You say, `Dear sir', and then you go straight to what you want. It is not how you write a letter to a senior officer. I will tell you how to write," he said.

He started dictating to me: "With due respect and humble submission, I beg to state that..." I had to write what he wanted because I knew he would never send the letter to his officer if I did not follow his advice. It is precisely this culture that is being resisted by Pakistan's journalists.

"We want freedom. Free the press." I looked out at the crowd as they marched towards parliament square. There were several hundred journalists - almost two-thirds of the city's "pen tribe", as they are called in the national language, Urdu.

In a country where people still insist official letters conclude with "your most obedient servant", press freedom seems a little out of place. But journalists are a tough lot. They never give up.

The struggle for press freedom in Pakistan started soon after its independence in 1947. Generations have come and gone. It seems like only yesterday that we used to march down Islamabad's streets chanting slogans against General Zia ul Haq and his junta. A growing resentment against his rule forced him to give limited freedom to the press in 1985.

Slowly but steadily, journalists gained more freedom. Weak governments and differences within the country's ruling elite made the task easier. The rulers needed a free press to attack one another, so the press became almost as free as it could be in a developing country. The rulers tried to muzzle it but could not. They did not have enough votes in the parliament to revive the censorship laws.

But this all changed when Muhammad Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League- Nawaz party won a two-thirds majority in the 1997 elections. Although more than 65 per cent of people did not vote, Prime MinisterSharif presented this victory as "a heavy mandate" and set about accumulating as much power as possible. Members of parliament were deprived of the right to vote against the desires of their party leader. The powers of the president were curtailed.

A tax dispute with thelargest newspaper group, Jang, was used to fuel a campaign against the press. The proprietors were asked to sack the journalists the government did not like. Policestarted following senior journalists. Journalists who protested were beaten.

But this did not discourage the journalists. They shielded individual colleagues to prevent arrests or beatings. They travelled together, ate together, slept in the same houses. Hundreds gathered outside the Jang office every night to brave the police batons trying to prevent the delivery of newsprint.

Their newspaper was reduced from 20 to four pages. But they did not give up. Their struggle is not about taxes, nor pay. It is for a free press.

So the struggle continues. With grey hair and long careers in journalism we are joining a younger generation in protesting: "Down with dictators. Long live democracy."

Anwar Iqbal is assistant editor of `The News' in Islamabad