Aminah W. Chaudhry
Murtaza Solangi is a respected senior journalist who has seen many governments and several military regimes in the course of his career. The Students’ Herald had an opportunity to discuss journalism, press freedoms and politics with Solangi in a candid conversation.
Amina Chaudhry (AW): Why did you choose journalism as a career?
Murtaza Solangi (MS): As a young student in secondary school who volunteered to teach primary school students, as a trade union leader in steel mills, as an activist in the leftist and democratic movement of the 1980s, as a singer and actor in progressive theatre and eventually as a journalist, the linking thread and the unchanging objective has always been one and the same: the Gorkian aim of being born to burn. To burn and enlighten the gloomy world.
AW: Pakistan’s ranking on the Press Freedom Index is 142 out of 180 countries. You left Pakistan as a young reporter in 1993, but decided to come back after 15 years to a country which is considered to be quite a difficult and dangerous terrain for a journalist. Why?
MS: I left the country in 1993 when I got the chance to extend my life for a few more years. This was the time when Karachi was quite literally a meat grinder. Luckily, I got education, exposure and some skills to groom myself into a better person. However, at one point, I began suffering from an identity crisis. I felt like a number – just one of millions of faceless immigrants. When you wake up in Washington, jump online to read what has happened in Larkana and Lahore, listen to Abida Parveen and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, you find that although your body is floating on the American continent, your soul is still wandering in Hyderabad. You then ask yourself: what the hell I am doing here?
So, the first opportunity I got, I put my clothes and books in two bags, bought a one-way ticket home and here I am. Have not looked back in 12 years.
AW: It is said that the struggle against General Ziaul Haq’s regime was launched by journalists and this is why press freedoms were curbed by him. With press freedoms on the decline in Pakistan, do you see any parallels with this regime and the one under General Zia? Can we draw a link between these two, or have things always been difficult for the media?
MS: I have seen the brutal martial law under General Zia as well as the current dispensation. History does repeat itself but does not copy itself. It does retain some essential elements from the past but reproduces them differently in the future. The current dispensation is a strange hybrid – more sophisticated and more brutal. Dictatorships in the past were more overt with their operations. This one operates at multiple levels, and the most dangerously at the internal level. Elements of coercion have become sophisticated and complex. Now we are confronted with more invisible chains than visible ones.
AW: Historically speaking, peripheral areas of Pakistan – especially Balochistan and the former FATA region – have always excluded from mainstream media and news. Our journalists talk in length about Kashmir and Palestine, and indeed it is a good thing to speak for the oppressed. But why not question what is happening in our own country?
MS: Journalists by design are supposed to be adversarial with their own state. That is the primary job of journalists. We are supposed to fight for people’s right to know about their state. We are supposed to be watchdogs for our state, not watchdogs against the state next door. Yes, human rights are indivisible and we must express solidarity with freedom fighters across the globe, but we don’t believe in importing or exporting of freedom, democracy or a revolution. We don’t act as agents of our own state, or a foreign state.
AW: With the new government coming to power in 2018, a number of iconic faces on mainstream media were taken off air. You were among them. What happened?
MS: I was let go from the channel where I was employed in October 2018, when the first winds of an authoritarian blizzard blew. The current wave of silencing came as a result of the controversial July 2018 elections, widely seen as ‘engineered elections.’ Since I was among the voices opposing the engineering, I was bumped off. In the same spate, Matiullah Jan, Talat Hussain and Nusrat Javed were all sacked from their positions in TV channels. Then there are other means of coercion, including bumping off channels from cables or chopping up of running programs.
AW: Besides the threat of sedition charges – which could come at the utterance of one wrong word – another danger facing journalists are death threats. With such red lines drawn and such great risks lurking around, do you think we can still have hope for future journalists to do their actual job without such fear? Also, what are these red lines and who determines them?
MS: Journalism and its platforms are changing in the post-industrial age of artificial intelligence. Information technology has made old platforms redundant. Corporate and state-controlled media has lost its glory and value. Challenges are bigger but the task of journalists living under authoritarian regimes has not changed. It has become more difficult and higher level of sophistication and skills are needed to empower and educate people. Risks have grown and so have the responsibilities. Journalism is not a job for the faint-hearted, anyway. Red lines are drawn in sand. They are like waves in the mighty Indus. Now you see them and now you don’t. They vary. They are created by changing vulnerabilities of the praetorian state and the ferocity and the strength of the resistance put up by the people. When the oppressive state feels the weakest, it responds harshly with red lines. Hence, what was not a red line yesterday is a red line today. It is very dynamic.
AW: Being a journalist, how do you see the crisis of media censorship in these times? What is the state of press freedom today and what do you think needs to be done to reclaim press freedom by political parties and workers on ground?
MS: Journalists find their strength from the strength of the democratic movement to a great extent. The weaker the democratic camp, weaker the press. As political parties sign the dotted line and capitulate, critical voices of journalists get feeble. Both take inspiration from each other. Today, as most mainstream political parties have thrown in the towel, Seth Media has totally surrendered. These are tough times. Journalism will not die as long as the peoples’ urge to know the truth doesn’t vanish. That is the demand and supply relationship right there. However, people have to support and pay for truthful journalism. You don’t get it for free. When journalists pay to dig out the truth for the people with their tears, blood and sweat, people should pay for their sustainability. Freedom of press is not free.