Mir Shakil vows to fight on

Gives comprehensive rejoinder to official charges;
says his group built over 50 years is under threat

By our correspondent

ISLAMABAD: The Editor-in-Chief Jang/The News Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman again pledged on Sunday to fight back and brave all government pressures, intimidation and coercion to uphold the freedom of Press.

Addressing the working journalists of Rawalpindi and Islamabad and the general public at the Rawalpindi Press Club, Shakil deplored that the issues, which should have been settled in the courts, were being decided by dint of state power.

"I could have sealed a deal with the rulers in August last year if I had so wanted, but I chose not to leave the path of truth, for which I am being subjected to torture, and intimidation. And now a sedition case has been instituted against me and the government plans to try me in a military court," he said, asking, "Are we living in a martial law regime and is it sedition to publish an advertisement of the MQM?"

In his speech, Shakil used no rhetoric at all and instead weaved his arguments on the basis of the published facts. But, at the same time, he regretted that the government was looking at things with prejudice. He built his arguments with a statement of the prime minister in which the latter had clearly warned the newspapers to mend their ways or face dire consequences.

So enthusiastic was the response of the audience that they burst into anti-Saif slogans whenever Shakil narrated the details of how he was forced into situations where he was rendered simply helpless. He argued and proved that the press was no longer free in the country; that the governments had placed newspaper owners in positions where they had no other alternative but to act against their conscience. Clapping hands would go up quite frequently whenever Shakil would argue and demolish the government's allegations against the Jang Group.

At the end of his speech, the audio tapes were played and the gathering could not help expressing its anger over Senator Saifur Rehman when he was heard telling Shakil "...Not even the father of the judge would have dared give a decision in your favour if I had known about this appeal." Needless to say that slogans of shame echoed in the packed Rawalpindi Press Club for quite some time.

Shakil thanked the journalists who had come to the Press Club and convinced them that the real issue today was that of the freedom of the press. "Senators Pervaiz Rashid, Mushahid Hussain and others say no newspaper owner is supporting me but my answer to them is that workers from all over Pakistan are with me. There are some newspaper owners also who support me but then they are under government pressure."

During his speech, some workers criticised the role of newspaper bodies. Shakil had, in fact, been invited by various journalist bodies at the Press Club, which became crowded as representatives of lawyers, intellectuals, labour unions and political parties came in large numbers to listen to him. On the occasion, Abdul Hameed Chappra, President PFUJ, Rana Gulam Qadir, President Jang Union, and Perviaz Shaukat, Secretary General Press Club and an office-bearer of APNEC also addressed. The editor-in-chief of Jang/The News denied he had ever blackmailed the government to get any television channel and challenged Information Minister Mushahid Hussain to prove the government's allegations.

"But I can prove that we applied for the channel by participating in the tenders for STN and PTV 1, the details of which are still buried in government files. They made it a point to frame rules in such a way that I could not get it. I did not ask for television channel as a bribe but as a right like any other citizen of the country." He questioned, "Why did the government not accuse me of blackmail on this issue seven months ago when the conflict started and why has this allegation came out of the blue when I have moved the Supreme Court against them?"

He challenged Senator Saifur Rehman to establish that he had ever agreed to sack the journalists on the hit-list provided the government gave him the television channel. Shakil deplored that his group was being subjected to the worst kind of propaganda and simultaneously denied the chance to defend its position. "Doesn't this very act of the government establish its malafide intention?", Shakil asked while adding in a lighter vein: "The amount of tax outstanding against Jang group till yesterday was about Rs 2.5 billion but overnight, it increased to Rs 3 billion." The editor-in-chief of the Jang/The News said the Jang Group had become a big institution after a continued struggle spread over 50 years of hard work. "But brother Saif (Senator) has become so big (in terms of money) in so little a period. You cannot object to normal growth but you can object to abnormal growth", he said and added: "If you look at the industrial growth of some of the rulers, you don't tend to believe it, considering the period."

Reminding that the Lahore Jang took off in 1981, Shakil invited the public to see the group's balance sheet in 1981 till now and compare it with that of the House of Ittefaq for the same period. "And you will see that our assets were more than theirs when we started but now theirs have literally doubled in 18 years and we are too small as compared to them. This growth is simply unnatural and abnormal," he said.

Shakil agreed that the press could not play a major constructive role in the country because they had been put and still were under tremendous pressures. "But the problem is that I accept this fact but they don't." He referred to three stories about the rulers, which were published in the foreign press and said those were not reproduced in some of the newspapers here, although they claimed to be independent newspapers.

He categorically denied a charge that he was working on a political agenda and argued that evidence (published) was in abundance to disprove the government. "Why after all they refuse to see the other side of the story. Why stick to negative approach alone? Why attend to mere doubts? This is simply not rational, not logical, not reasonable."

He denied the charge that the the press had severed the country. He also disagreed with some of the newspaper owners who hold this point of view. He said nobody could claim in the third world that here was complete freedom of the press. He said the rulers did not want to see the printed words of the other side (opposition), which was against all norms of democracy.

He said some of the newspaper owners talked of sacrifices rendered for press freedom. "I do not dispute their claim. They might also have fought for the ideology of Pakistan but then they repeat it so often in their speeches that it creates a bad taste. If two persons make a speech and one of them mentions the word 'Pakistan' ten times while the other does so only three or four times, should it mean that the latter does not love Pakistan?", Shakil asked.

He said the government was engaged in the character assassination of the Jang group on television: one by not allowing the Jang group to explain its side of the story and two: by withholding the truth. "For instance, they cite a particular story that was published in our newspaper but do not mention the contradiction printed the next day. They have objection to an astrological prediction which goes against them, but if we publish the next day another prediction which favours them, they would not talk of it." He said the government had now resorted to third degree tactics and lately sent cameramen in his house in the guise of Wapda officials to film the residence.

Shakil recalled that he had bought a plot of land in Lahore and a newspaper alleged that Mr Sharif had given it to the Jang Group. "I filed a case against the newspaper and finally won it in the court." He said if he had hushed up the matter with the present government, he too, would have been taking loans and enjoying life but he did not do so because this would have been tantamount to treason with the profession and freedom of press.

The editor-in-chief of Jang/The News offered special thanks to Dawn Karachi, Business Recorder and particularly to Mr Aziz Siddiqui for writing editorials/articles in support of the freedom of press in such hard times. He was also thankful to The Qaumi Awaz and The Jurrat daily for their support to press freedom as they braved government pressures to publish advertisements.

The News International Pakistan