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A Towering Life in Pakistani Journalism

Published 28 Dec, 2021 11:58am
Farhan Bokhari remembers Muhammad Ziauddin (1938-2021).

Known to a large community of friends and fellow journalists simply as Zia sahab or M. Ziauddin, his passing away on November 29, 2021, has been widely noted as the end of an era.

A memorable episode from the days of Pakistan under the late General Ziaul Haq has been cited time and time again as evidence of Muhammad Ziauddin’s firm grip on the economy, along with a consistently defiant streak in defence of the values he so vigorously cherished.

In the early 1980s, an unexpected phone call from a director of the state-owned Pakistan Television (PTV) surprised Zia sahab, a critic of the ruling establishment. Invited to lead a three- member panel and host at least six shows dedicated to Pakistan’s ‘economic progress’, the event quickly became a disaster for the ruling structure. Armed with a set of questions drawn from publicly available government documents, Zia sahab challenged Lieutenant General Saeed Qadir, then the minister of production and railways. “The numbers here show a different picture,” he remarked politely in that first episode, as he pulled up a stack of papers following General Qadir’s claim of a visibly improving performance across the areas under his charge.

The gap between the reality versus the official spin in that famous episode remains a grim reminder of how Pakistan’s successive regimes habitually tell half-truths, conveniently ignoring the relevant other half to make up the whole truth.

Few may remember that the second episode was recorded, this time with the government’s petroleum minister in the chair. However, it was never aired for being too unpalatable while plans for the remaining four episodes were quietly abandoned. Hence came the end of the government’s plan to present a sub acha or all is well view for the local audience. This was the era when Pakistan was receiving a great deal of flak from international publications, notably the Far Eastern Economic Review (FEER), whose correspondent in Pakistan – the late respected journalist Salamat Ali – was first jailed and eventually forced into exile, following the publication of an investigative story. To Zia sahab’s credit in the months that followed the recording of the first two episodes, senior government officials scratched their heads repeatedly to understand exactly how supposedly well-guarded ‘secrets’ were revealed in the few publicly available documents.

Zia sahab’s journey in Pakistani journalism was unusual. Although he first graduated with a degree in Pharmacy from Dhaka University, he eventually earned a Master’s degree in Journalism from Karachi University in 1964. In a career spanning over 57 years, he served six publications (Pakistan Economist, Morning News, The Muslim, DAWN, THE NEWS and The Express Tribune), including stints as editor followed by a brief association as a regular analyst with Aaj TV.

Many episodes from his long professional career were vividly remembered at a memorial held on December 3, 2021, at the National Press Club in Islamabad, where he had laid the foundation of a weekly discussion on national issues under the banner of the ‘Senior Journalist Forum’. The memorial brought together friends, colleagues and ardent admirers of Zia sahab. Before he passed away, his founding of a forum for weekly discussions at the National Press Club was cited by many of the attendees on Friday as his enduring commitment to the cause of free speech in Pakistan. The gathering routinely assembles a cross section representing the media, academics and experts from different occupations. Farhatullah Babar, a leader of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) remembered him for turning down an invitation from former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto to accompany her on an overseas trip. “I cannot accept this without clearance from my editor” he said, turning the matter over to the late Ahmed Ali Khan, the respected Editor of DAWN. Zia sahab was a product of the old school of Pakistani journalism. Fouzia Shahid, a respected journalist who has frequently appeared on the frontlines of media related activism, cited Zia sahab’s calm demeanour in the face of disagreements with colleagues. 

Among his memorable contributions to Pakistan’s media was the Economic and Business Report (EBR) published every Monday by DAWN. He led a team of journalists seeking to break new ground, effectively pushing economic stories from the periphery to the benefit of mainstream readers. Ehtisham-ul-Haq, a former DAWN colleague of his, remembers the early days of EBR when the section drew both admiration and scorn from readers. “Some were outraged and even considered legal action. However, as journalists writing news reports and investigative pieces for EBR, we were repeatedly urged by Zia sahab to have all the evidence at our finger tips.” One particularly angry complainant eventually backed down from a threatened law suit after being made aware that the concerned EBR reporter was fully armed with watertight evidence in support of his story.

In addition to the prestige he earned through his incisive writings, his office, notably during his association with DAWN Islamabad, became a regular meeting spot over evening tea with other respected journalists, analysts and experts. It was here that Zia sahab presided over intellectually stimulating exchanges on areas of central interest to Pakistan’s future. Throughout his career, Zia sahab, was close to and well-respected by a range of Pakistani leaders, notably the former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto who reached out to him more than once for his view on Pakistan’s economic trends. During her second tenure, Benazir Bhutto in a press conference asked him to personally look into data prepared by the Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) regarding the collection of customs duties. Following a set of engagements with FBR officials over the next four months, he quietly presented his findings to the prime minister, noting the many gaps in official statistics.

While he was widely respected, Zia sahab was from the old school. He ignored rumours of Benazir Bhutto having invited him more than once to join her government in a senior advisory capacity. Such was the respect afforded to him that the Paris based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) labelled him as an ‘elder statesman of Pakistani journalism’. In addition to his commitment to free and fair journalism, he often took pride in being a ‘peacenik’. Elected in 2002 to preside over the South Asian Free Media Association (SAFMA) for a four-year tenure, he travelled to other parts of South Asia to promote broader cooperation and the values of peace among journalists.

Behind his towering figure stood a not too widely known personal tragedy, when he lost his 24-year old daughter in 1996 to a fatal bout of asthma. He chose to deal with this tragic episode quietly within the confines of his private life.

Born in Madras (Chennai) in India, his formative years as a young journalist were spent in Karachi before he moved to Islamabad. To the end, M. Ziauddin stood by the values that earned him respect both among journalists and his readers. He is survived by a widow, two sons and a daughter. He is also mourned by a large number of journalists who remember him as a towering figure.

Farhan Bokhari is an Islamabad based journalist.