LAHORE: Renowned rights activist and writer I.A. Rehman looked back at his life at the Lahore Press Club on Saturday evening, reminding the journalists and media owners of the need to connect to each other and to society to protect the freedom for which his generation had struggled a lot.
Journalists could fight for the independence because of their strong link to the vibrant freedom-loving society in the 60s and 70s, and especially during the Zia regime. Now, this link was missing and society was silent, he told a gathering at ‘Meri Batein, Meri Yadein’ — an event the Press Club organises to acknowledge the contributions of iconic figures.
Mr Rehman, who has been a writer, editor, trade unionist, rights and peace activist, recalled the times when “the newspaper owners would dictate policy of their publications in the early days of Pakistan too. But the problem started when they realised that they could make more money through their newspapers.”
Initially journalism was considered a mission that later turned into a business. Even politicians in the past would contest elections by selling their assets, never making a fast buck after returning to the assemblies.
He said the media owners at present are in clutches much stronger than those in the past. They should strengthen their link with working journalists instead of the government to resist the pressures. They should respect journalists and connect to society otherwise conditions are going to worsen, he warned.
Narrating how he began reading newspapers in his ancestral village in Indian Punjab at the age of nine, he said he would read headlines of the Hindustan Times which just like his schoolteachers would praise the Allied Forces for crushing Germany on various fronts of the World War II. But the man in the street would support Hitler, listening to his speeches on two radios in the village without understanding the German language. Poet Josh Malihabadi too would support Hitler in his verse, he said.
Mr Rehman said his actual life started when he began writing; it was useless earlier. “I wrote my first column in Urdu in 1948, demanding a holiday on the death anniversary of Allama Iqbal. It was followed by more writings in another Urdu journal. The earning was free supply of the journal for six months.”
The first income was Rs150 which he got after writing an article in The Pakistan Times in 1950. The newspaper would give him Rs10 for writing a film review. Urdu newspapers were poor but had dignity. They were united and there was no division on any account.
He said the Press faced hardships during the early period of Pakistan. The government would close down a newspaper, confiscate its press or arrest the editor. In 1948, Faiz Ahmad Faiz was arrested after a news in Imroze was considered disgrace for a DSP. The legendary poet refused to apply for bail but was released in the evening nevertheless.
With a twinkle in his eyes, the journalist recalled how he, his friends Nisar Osmani, Minhaj Barna and others fought against the takeover of the PPL newspapers by the Ayub regime and its black law, PPO 1963, and observed a strike in 1970 to force the government to include newspaper workers in the Wage Board Award.
“I and others in the PPL were fired as a consequence,” he said. He said the fired journalists took out an Urdu newspaper which was more popular than economically viable. “I was one of the three editors and we all earned a lot of bad name. We tried our best to initiate a dialogue with our journalist brethren in East Pakistan to remove misunderstandings but were labeled as touts of Mujib,” he said.
He recalled the trade union at that time had not surrendered because society had room for the survival of honest people. Now there was no space for such people, he said, demanding (in a lighter vein) reward for “reading newspapers in the last 78 years.”
Mr Rehman made a special mention of the late Mr Nisar Osmani whom he remembers as the symbol of the dignity of journalism for laying the foundations of independent reporting in Pakistan while resisting pressures from the governments particularly of Zia. “The journalist community owes a lot to Mr Osmani and Mr Minhaj Barna,” he said.
Lahore Press Club President Shahbaz Mian presented a bouquet and a shield to Mr Rehman.