By Zubeida Mustafa
ZAMIR Niazi, that indomitable champion of press freedom and honesty in journalism, died five years ago in June. His deep interest in the print media — its performance, its role as the disseminator of news, its relationship with the powers that be and the treatment it received from the rulers — prompted him to keep a close eye on the press.
That is how he managed to collect a wealth of information on what was going on in the newspaper world, material that now enriches his books.
He also kept track of the wielders of the pen and had a fairly accurate assessment of their work. Hence it was routine for us to receive a call from Zamir Sahib pointing out a sin of omission or commission we had committed or a pat on the back for work well done. We respected him for his professional judgment. He was free of all prejudices and the knowledge that we were being monitored kept us on our toes.
What put Zamir Niazi in a class of his own was his extraordinary courage. He was willing to speak the truth even if it hurt or made him vulnerable to the wrath of the mighty in the establishment. The first of his trilogy chronicling the press in Pakistan, The Press in Chains, was published in 1986 when the media in Pakistan was shackled by the military regime of Gen Ziaul Haq.
No publisher would touch the book with a bargepole. It was too risky a business in those bleak days of press controls to even attempt to expose the misdoings of the authorities. It was therefore left to the Karachi Press Club, that little island of freedom in the ocean of tyranny in the 1980s, to publish Niazi`s book. As could have been expected it sold out within no time and had to go into a second print run.
Hence the third Zamir Niazi memorial lecture on Sunday was timely. Today press freedom may not be an issue in the same way as it was three decades ago. But the responsibility of the media functionaries continues to be a matter of profound concern. It was good to be reminded of that by Mr Abid Hasan Minto, the veteran constitutional lawyer and intellectual, currently president of the leftwing National Workers Party, who was the keynote speaker of the evening. In the course of his speech he mentioned several times how the media has been co-opted to promote a point of view that gives strength to the case of feudalism and capitalism.
The theme of Mr Minto`s talk was `The space for civil rights between the state and the terrorists`. He spoke what we expected him to say — a full-blast critique from the left of the political and economic system in Pakistan. He lamented the absence of democracy in the country that had robbed the people of their fundamental rights. There was the traditional denunciation of feudalism, the establishment, the military and the religious extremists.
Mr Minto called on the intelligentsia, civil society and rational elements in political parties to join hands to bring pressure to bear on the establishment to introduce democracy in the true sense of the word and thus grant people their basic rights.But if one was expecting him to formulate a blueprint for action, there was none. In fact, he admitted that a socialist revolution was not possible in our society at present because it had not travelled far enough for that. The conditions were not ripe for a transition. Mr Minto expressed his disappointment with the left which, according to him, also has fools in its ranks as the right has.
This reminded me of the debate on `Re-imaging Socialism` taking place in the leftwing American magazine, The Nation. A few weeks ago, this publication opened its pages to self-identified socialists asking them to define their model. Barbara Ehrenreich (an American activist and columnist) and Bill Fletcher (a labour activist) pointed out that the socialist prediction was that the end of capitalism would come when people got tired of trying to live on the crumbs that fall from the rich and rose up in some fashion — preferably inclusively, democratically and non-violently — and seized the wealth for themselves.
But this has not happening even though the gap between the rich and the poor has grown and the number of those `living on crumbs` is increasing.
They admit that the infrastructure for governance, the left was expected to build has not emerged. So can we blame Mr Minto? Ehrenreich and Fletcher continue in their article, “We admit we don`t even have a plan for the deliberative process that we know has to replace the anarchic madness of capitalism…. This notion centres on what we still call `participatory democracy`, in which all voices are heard and all people equally respected. But we have no precise models of participatory democracy on the scale that is currently called for.”
Even if a model were to be devised it may be impossible to apply it universally. Every society has its own cultural and economic ethos that do not fit into a rigid politico-economic model. Mr Minto confirmed this when he said that Pakistani society is still at the stage where we are debating issues such as `should a man and a woman be allowed to marry of their own free will?`
In the debate on socialism, Michael Albert, co-editor of ZNet, has a point when he suggests that movements should foreshadow a future that is self-managing, classless and polycultural.
“Seeking transformed economic institutions requires that we begin to create such institutions in the present but also that we fight for
changes in capitalist institutions. Indeed, the path to a better future involves primarily a long march through existing institutions, battling for changes that improve people`s lives today even as they augur and prepare for more changes tomorrow.”
Albert advises that the rhetoric of the left should advance comprehension of the “ultimate values” and the “norms we seek for the future”. In this context, Mr Minto`s demand for democracy and social justice was most pertinent. But the battle against the entrenched institutions of capitalism will not be easy given the fact that globalisation has helped them consolidate themselves at a time they are supposed to be crumbling.