‘Can journalists be activists?’ – Razia Bhatti Memorial Lecture 2023 – II

Following up from my earlier post, here’s the video recording of the Razia Bhatti Memorial Lecture 2023 I delivered online recently for the Center of Excellence in Journalism at IBA, Karachi.

Text of my talk below with slides.

22 March 2023

Thank you Umber Khairi, Amber Rahim Shamsi, Akbar Zaid, and friends.

I feel honoured and humbled to present this year’s Razia Bhatti Memorial Lecture, named for someone who remains a role model for so many journalists and women, someone I knew personally and admired greatly.

CEJ poster for the talk. My photo by Ali Mehdi Zaidi, London

Over my 30-year long career, I’ve worked in various groundbreaking journalistic initiatives with mainstream media as well as alternative models. At the same time, I’ve also been part of the struggles for peace, human rights, gender rights, and democracy.

I call myself primarily a journalist. But I’m also an activist. An insider-outsider, to use an anthropological term.

Journalists are supposed to be observers, but sometimes, we need to be more than an observer. And we can’t separate ourselves from our context. What we can do is to be as fair, honest, and accurate as possible.

According to one school of thought, you can either be a journalist or an activist.

My friend the legendary journalist Kathy Gannon who I look up to and admire immensely, holds this view. In fact, she prefers to call herself a reporter rather than a journalist.

Anyone who has followed Kathy’s reporting can see that she upholds progressive values. But she also maintains a neutral tone and refuses to get drawn into taking public positions.

To be honest, I never knew I had a choice. I started my journalism career as an intern in Karachi with the eveninger The Star, around the time the Women’s Action Forum sprang up in resistance to the unjust laws imposed by a military dictator seeking legitimacy in religion.

As a teenager, I participated in those protests, while also subbing copy at The Star Weekend.

This was down the corridor from the Herald, led by Razia.  I remember her as soft-spoken, modest and unassuming, with a quiet serenity and almost shy demeanour. Her team, mostly women and some men, shared an enviable camaraderie.

Their laughter countered the menace of those days of political repression with a new focus on religion and national ideology. And the heavy censorship.

Resistance to dictatorship is activism. In such situations, journalists simply trying to do their job fairly are forced to take sides. In Pakistan, where such situations are all too frequent, journalism becomes linked to the struggle for democracy.

The Herald was among the dissenting publications along with The Star, the weekly Viewpoint, the dailies The Frontier Post and The Muslim and some Sindhi language papers.

In the Zia days, as now, the independent media devised ingenious and courageous means of getting news and analysis across.

At the Star Weekend, my first editor Zohra Yusuf in quiet defiance published articles of banned authors under assumed bylines. As an intern and later editorial assistant-cum-illustrator, I was part of the resistance.

My little contribution included cheeky takes on women’s oppression, like this piece I wrote and illustrated. 

I reported on women’s demonstrations, besides illustrations for City Star and other pieces poking gentle fun at politicians and generals. I did art reviews and theatre reviews including editor Imran Aslam’s satirical plays.

Was this activism?

In 1988, under pressure from the authorities and publishers, Razia resigned rather than compromising her editorial independence. Most of the editorial team walked out with her. Together, they launched a bold new venture.

Newsline team, 1995.

Newsline was the first magazine in Pakistan run by a journalists’ cooperative with complete editorial freedom and independence, brought out on a shoe-string budget. 

Razia saw the journalists’ role “as both reporter and crusader. In a civilisation that seems to be regressing into new holocausts, we must seek and speak the truth for we are the voice of voiceless millions.”

Is this journalism or activism?

I had moved to Lahore in 1988 and joined the founding team of the Frontier Post Lahore a year later. 

I also became a volunteer with the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan that Asma Jahangir had recently established. I later served on the HRCP Council, for three consecutive terms. 

Mentors like Asma, Dr Mubashir Hasan and I.A. Rehman also invited me to join the people-to-people organization being formed in the early 1990s, the Pakistan-India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy. 

My interactions and learnings in these movements and the women’s movement have given me perspective, informed my views and my journalism.

The traditional view about the best journalism being ‘objective’ has come into question over the years. We have seen the rise of the right-wing media but somehow it is only the progressive media that gets labelled as ‘activist’.

Being based in Boston over the last few years, I observed the shift in the ‘objective’ tone when Donald Trump ran for office. The right-wing media promoted him shamelessly while the mainstream media, even those seen as ‘progressive’ found it hard to take him seriously. They all covered him compulsively as he made for good headlines. Often, the context was missing.

For journalists, having a point of view doesn’t mean not talking to people you disagree with or to cancel out their perspectives. To retain credibility, we need to acknowledge views contrary to ours, to be civil, respectful, and keep a neutral tone, like Kathy Gannon.

My journalism and activism came together with the peace platform Aman Ki Asha that I was invited to head when it was launched by the Jang Group and the Times of India in 2010. 

Over the next few years, Aman Ki Asha mainstreamed peace in a way like never before, bringing it out of the ambit of the leftist, intellectual circles. 

There was a joint editorial. The marketing departments of both media giants organized mega events that the journalism teams covered. 

Billboards in Mumbai announcing ‘LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOUR’ barely a year after the horrific Mumbai attacks catalysed the energies of many young people.  

Social media was starting to gain traction. Multiple unauthorized Aman Ki Asha accounts cropped up on Facebook, the main platform at the time. 

There was a brand logo. Gulzar’s iconic poem became the Aman Ki Asha anthem, sung by music maestros Rahat Fateh Ali and Shankar Mahadevan:

Nazr mein rehte ho jab tum nazar nahi aatey
(You are in my sight even when you are out of sight(.

There were Aman Ki Asha concerts with Indian Ocean and Strings performing together, and readings with legends like Amitabh Bachchan and Zia Mohyeddin, Intizar Hussain and Gulzar, – and journalists Mohammad Hanif, Zahid Hussain who have both been with Newsline.

Gulzar recited his poem dedicated to Mehdi Hasan for Aman Ki Asha: 

aankhon ko visa nahi lagta
sapnon ki sarhad hoti nahi
band aakhon se roz main sarhad paar chala jaata hoon
milne Mehdi Hasan se

(Eyes don’t need a visa, dreams have no frontier)

There were mushairas, including an all-women one in Karachi, where the incapacitated Mehdi Hasan was brought on a wheelchair to meet the Indian participants, who touched his feet, kissed his hands and wept.

The marketing departments organised events, and the journalist teams covered them. Other media outlets do this too – organizing forums or seminars and getting them reported on. 

The Pakistan side produced pages every week – drip irrigation compared to the Times of India’s flash floods.

But calling for peace with India attracts the attention of those whose bread and butter depends on tensions between our two countries. I along with my colleagues faced hostility, campaigns against us calling us traitors and enemy agents. 

The Aman Ki Asha wave subsided around 2014 due to political constraints on both sides of the border. However, the constituency it had energized continues, including through the website www.amankiasha.com that I still edit. 

Since moving to the Boston area, I have had more interaction with Southasians in the diaspora, while retaining contacts with those back in the region.

As the Covid-19 pandemic raged in 2021, we decided to give peace movement a push. We held online meeting of over 80 friends and comrades to discuss how to do this. We agreed that as focusing on India-Pakistan was not getting us where we wanted, we needed to take a regional approach. 

If France and Germany can come together in the European Union, why can’t India and Pakistan come together in a Southasian Union or Federation? The Southasia Peace Action Network that emerged from that meeting had its seeds in this thought, planted by Dr Mubashir Hasan’s words to me in Lahore many years ago.

We had breakout rooms with moderators and notetakers. The granddaughter of journalist Kuldip Nayar, a respected journalist in her own right, put together the comprehensive overall report, compiling notes from the rapporteurs. 

We have been holding regular discussions on the last Sunday of every month, a series of curated events themed ‘Imagine! Neighbours in Peace’, a title borrowed from an unpublished volume by the pioneering cross-border online platform Chowk.com, 2005, that I had contributed to. So far, Sapan has organised 16 dialogues in this series.  

Our first event, after the online meeting that launched Sapan, was originally planned as a call to open sporting ties – #KhelneDo – and visas in the South Asia, #MilneDo. But as the Covid outbreak wreaked havoc particularly in India, we pivoted and converted it at the last minute to a meeting highlighting ‘Cross-border empathy and cooperation in the time of Covid’. 

Along the line, we agreed to write Sapan in sentence case rather than all caps, which makes it more like a word – a word that evokes ‘dream’ and ‘friend’ in various languages. 

From this has emerged a new journalistic venture, the Sapan News Network, started in July-August 2021, produced not on a shoestring budget but on an entirely voluntary basis 

Sapan News sends out syndicated features to mainstream and alternative media outlets in the region and abroad. We are now trying to raise the money to professionalise it.

We also agreed to write ‘Southasia’ as one word in a bid to restore “some of the historical unity of our common living space, without wishing any violence on the existing nation states,” following the lead of Himal Southasian magazine.

The aim is to amplify the narrative of peace, regionalism and dialogue. In fact, we are launching the new website this weekend, built entirely by volunteers – www.sapannews.com

Is this journalism or activism?

I’d like to close with the thought that while we all have our biases, it’s important to be fair and accurate regardless of our personal views or biases.

I believe one can be a credible journalist while also being an activist if one fulfills the basic ethical requirements and responsibilities of journalism. These include: 

  • Provide as full and complete information as possible and ensure that it is verified and accurate – follow a two-source verification process 
  • Be fair to all sides, including those mentioned or interviewed – avoid name calling and stereotyping
  • Be transparent about sources of information and revenue

It’s also important to ask the right questions and provide context and nuance to the stories produced – don’t just string together information.

I believe I’ve provided a fair bit of context and nuance to this discussion. So I’ll end with a question, and leave it to the audience to decide:

Are journalism and activism really incompatible – or, in what circumstances are journalism and activism compatible?

Thank you.

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