This interview was published in September-October 1999 edition of Aurora.
As Editor of the Nation and President of the Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors (CPNE), Arif Nizami knows more than most about the political and commercial pressures that come with newspaper publishing. In this exclusive interview he speaks about the challenges of safeguarding a free press, India’s recent attempts to ban PTV and the *Dawn and The Nation websites and the reasons why publishers seemingly lack the will to initiate effective training programmes. And as Arif Nizami is also one of Lahore’s most prominent citizens, we began by asking him about the changing face of Lahore.*
AURORA: Do you think Lahore is emerging as a significant commercial alternative to Karachi?
Arif Nizami: Although it's still not as big a market as Karachi and it will take time to get there, Punjab, which basically means Lahore and Faisalabad, has become an important hub of commercial activity. This has mostly happened in the past five or six years and is this due to a certain extent to the law and order situation in Karachi. An industrial area has grown around Lahore and although I don't have any figures, from direct evidence I can see that there has been an increase in the number of business houses. Some have established branch offices while others have set up new projects. For example, although Honda Atlas have their motorcycle factory in Karachi, they chose to set up their car manufacturing plant near Lahore although the main market for their cars is Karachi. Lahore is also becoming an important market for newspapers. Circulation is increasing and with it the potential to generate advertising revenue. Dawn and Business Recorder now have Lahore editions. All this shows that Lahore has emerged as an important commercial centre.
A: Is the Punjab consumer different from the Karachi consumer?
AN: Although the Lahore consumer is not as cosmopolitan as the Karachi consumer, he or she is more discerning and more difficult to please. Lahore consumers demand personalised service. Karachi has a different culture. For example, in Karachi the supermarket concept has been present for many years while in Lahore this concept has yet to catch on. Many years ago in Lahore there was a department store called Shalimar. It closed down because it didn't generate enough business. Then there was Pace, which ran into financial difficulties. One could argue that these enterprises weren't managed properly. Yet, when it opened many housewives switched to Pace for their groceries and household items, but in the end they went back to their former grocery stores because they missed the personalised service. Now there's Tes-Mart, which is doing well and hopefully will continue to do so. Things are changing in Lahore; look at all the traffic jams in the city due to the increasing number of cars. This shows that there are more and more people who can afford to buy their own cars. Also, until recently the weekend concept did not exist in Lahore. Now on Saturdays there is a lot of traffic on the roads and the restaurants are full. People are going out more and that is a sign that Lahore is evolving into a cosmopolitan city and that there is an industrial and business elite that is fast developing in Lahore.
A: In terms of newspaper readership is there a Lahore reader as opposed to a Karachi reader?
AN: I don't think so, especially not as far as the English language newspaper market is concerned. Naturally people want to read about their neighbourhood first then their city and finally about national affairs, but that is not particular to Lahore only. Having said this, this order of precedence doesn't work out in our newspaper environment because generally speaking, English language newspapers are read by individuals who have opinions on every matter; so you can't really replicate the American pattern of a local newspaper here. Which is why Karachi based writers like Ardeshir Cowasjee, for example, have a following in Lahore. He used to write for The Nation and continues to write for Dawn or Amina Jilani who writes for both The Nation and Dawn. The difference between the two markets is that Karachi tends to be a market unto itself, an inward looking market in the sense that Karachi writers and Karachi newspapers are well known throughout the country, but it's not the same the other way around. In terms of English language newspaper readership especially, there has been a lot of growth in the Punjab. The Nation was launched from Lahore, then came the Frontier Post and The News. Urdu newspapers too have seen growth. The market has expanded and with it many new names have come up.
A: Will The Nation be launching a Karachi edition soon?
AN: Yes, at some stage, but there is no urgency for The Nation to have a Karachi edition. Karachi is a big market and we don't want to rush into it, we don't want to adopt a policy of trying to capture the market through discounted advertisement rates. In Karachi one has to be careful and study the market. First of all, one has to contend with the question, especially among the English language newspapers, of combined advertising rates. Some newspapers charge for one station and give two stations free with the result that many Karachi based advertising agencies and their clients will go for the combined rate because, irrespective of the result, they are getting two stations free. This often adversely affects the advertising revenue potential of Punjab-based newspapers. This in itself is a reason to have a Karachi edition. Secondly, because of the limited number of copies of The Nation that go to Karachi on the night coach, PIA has discontinued this service. Thirdly, last winter, due to fog we weren't able to get The Nation to Karachi on time for a month. Our plan is first to electronically transmit The Nation to Karachi and print it there; the second stage will involve a local Karachi edition. A Karachi edition is a major logistical operation. We could have done it a few years ago, but because of the situation in Karachi where newspapers can be held hostage to one political party or the another, publishing from Karachi is now a slightly more hazardous proposition.
A: As President of the CPNE, what are your views regarding the recent action taken by the government against the Jang Group?
AN: These are difficult times for the press in this country. Whether it's the Jang Group or incidents of journalists being harassed, arrested or beaten up and humiliated; generally speaking, political parties, especially those in power, don't have a deep enough understanding of the role of a free press in a democracy. The result is that criticism is not tolerated and these kinds of methods are used. One can also blame the press; some publishers and editors have veered too close to the government with the result that, because we live in a feudal society, the government begins to expect too much from the press. The government doesn't believe there is a role for the opposition and then complains about irresponsible newspapers. My reply is yes, there are some irresponsible newspapers and there should be a code of ethics. I would even support a press council, although I would rather have a segment of the press that is irresponsible and which readers reject themselves rather than a press that is emasculated and responsible only to the government. On balance and I hate to say so, I don't think the present scenario is a very good environment for a free press in Pakistan. The lever of government advertising is used against the press and if that doesn't work the tax or the custom people take over. But the press in Pakistan is by and large very resilient. It's not easy to roll back the freedom that has been achieved and there is a lot of unanimity of views on the freedom issue among the press despite our differences. Plus the press now works on an international plane. Take Najam Sethi for example; look at the hue and cry the international media raised regarding the treatment he was subjected to. It's no longer easy for governments to ride roughshod over the press.
A: Do you anticipate that the government might impose further restrictions on the press?
AN: I don't see any immediate danger of that; what I object to is the mindset. I remember the present Prime Minister stating he would abolish the Information Ministry. It was said in all sincerity because at that time the Pakistan Muslim League was in opposition. Later, when I raised this question with Mushahid Hussain Syed, the Federal Minister for Information, pointing out that apart from failing to abolish the Information Ministry, the government has not even deregulated government advertising, which is another way of pressurising the press, his answer was that none of this was included in the manifesto. This kind of mindset is not healthy. To take the point further, governments often exercise a policy of exclusion; foreign visits being a case in point. Take The Nation, which is sometimes perceived by some to be pro government, but the fact of the matter is that because of our critical policy, our reporters are often not asked to accompany the Prime Minister and cover his foreign visits, which I believe is our right. By exercising a policy of exclusion the message to journalists is "if you aren't good boys we won't take you."
A: Do you think most readers are sufficiently informed to recognise yellow journalism for what it is and reject it?
AN: First of all, let me state that I hold no brief for yellow or irresponsible journalism. One of the current debates in the British media is the fact that neither the Press Council nor the Press Commission have resolved the issue of what constitutes the invasion of an individual's privacy. What is important however, is that if the press does overstep the mark regarding the invasion of privacy the threat of a statutory body exists. Similarly, we should have a code of ethics or a Press Council or a kind of self regulatory mechanism. However, in the absence of such a mechanism, for the government to tar all the press with the same brush is wrong. Secondly, readers are not immature. Credibility is very important. The public might buy a newspaper because it is cheaper than another or because it carries a sensational headline. But readers will eventually realise that what is being reported in the cheaper, more sensational newspaper is misleading and at some point they will ultimately reject the paper as a waste of money. Like consumer satisfaction in any product, newspapers sell credibility. Sensationalism, yellow journalism, lies, are serious matters, but what the government chooses to call irresponsible often isn't. Yes, there are black sheep in our profession, but to enact a law or set up special courts to gag the press in the name of punishing a few irresponsible newspapers is not on. This is anathema to any democratic process.
A: What do you think about India's recent moves to block the Dawn and The Nation websites and ban PTV?
AN: It was quite silly of the Indians to do this. I was surprised this coming from a country like India. They did PTV a favour given its credibility ratings. I wrote a letter to the President of the Editor's Guild of India, Ajit Bhattacharya, on the banning and the Council responded very well. An article appeared in Indian Express condemning the blocking and a number of other Indian newspapers did the same. Governments can't get away with this kind of thing anymore. Recently, the Economist was withheld here for a few days. This was also a silly thing to do. Before the government took the decision, perhaps I would have not read the offending editorial, but by the time the Economist was released anyone who mattered knew about it and some newspapers had already reproduced the editorial. One way or another, people are going to get the information.
A: When did you launch The Nation?
AN: After founding Nawa-e-Waqt, my late father wanted to publish an English language newspaper. He wanted to do this on a big scale and he imported a large printing press. Subsequently however, he ran into a series of problems; he fell out with his partner, Ayub Khan declared martial law and then in 1964 he died. Afterwards, the project continued to flounder. We didn't have the resources and when we had the resources we couldn't get the declaration because of the Press and Publications Ordinance. It was only in 1985 during the Junejo government that our application for a declaration for an English language newspaper was finally granted. At the time, Hamid Nasir Chatta was the Information Minister. I don't know if they knew what they were doing or whether it was something to do with the euphoria of a democratic order, but the declaration went through. I was also a little beholden to Mian Nawaz Sharif who as Chief Minister of the Punjab, recommended that the declaration be granted. However, as only the Prime Minister could grant the declaration I approached the Information Minister and I just couldn't believe it when I got the declaration in 1986. When we launched The Nation in October 1986 there was only one newspaper in Lahore – the Pakistan Times – and people were sick and tired of it. An interesting point is that when I launched The Nation I asked all the established writers who wrote for the English language press to contribute, but almost all declined for one reason or another. The result was that almost all those who contributed to The Nation in its early days were new writers. It was a positive experience because at the time there were very few good journalists who could write in English so we had a good deal of training to do.
A: Is journalism as a subject properly taught in Pakistan?
AN: The answer is a big no.
A: Shouldn't publishers be doing something about this?
AN: Initially, The Nation, Dawn and the Jang Group talked about starting a Press Institute of Pakistan to impart training. The Jang Group never took any interest in the project, Dawnwas interested initially. A Karachi Institute was opened and another in Lahore. The government of the day initially took a little bit of interest in the project but in the end for whatever reasons, it became the Nawa-e-Waqt/Nation Group's baby. We closed down the Karachi Institute and worked on developing the Press Institute in Lahore as a training ground for mid career journalists. Presently, it's not very active but in the past it used to invite experts from the international press to come to Pakistan and provide training and give lectures. One of the problems is that to make this kind of effort viable one has to charge, but as it is it's an uphill struggle just to get newspapers to even nominate people to attend these sessions. What is really lacking in a newspaper be it an English language or an Urdu one is the nitty gritty sub-editor. The faceless man who brings out the newspaper. As only reporters and columnists have their byline, people with any calibre are not attracted to subbing and those that are, require constant mid career training, partly because the technology is changing so much. Publishers should invest in this training.
A: Why aren't they?
AN: Rivalry, lack of commitment. What would it cost for the three major newspaper publishing groups to get together? We already have a building and the staff. But because the Press Institute is perceived to be our baby, the other two groups are not interested. Even the government complains about the poor standards of journalism but it hasn't made any attempt to establish an endowment to start a training institute.
Arif Nizami was in conversation with Mariam Ali Baig. For feedback: firstname.lastname@example.org