Treason charges not new for journalists in this region

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LAHORE: At a juncture when a few Pakistani television channels are religiously airing the propaganda that a sedition case should be registered against the Jang Group/Geo Television for “maligning the country’s security institutions” in the backdrop of Hamid Mir’s case and for “toeing an anti-state agenda,” they perhaps need to be reminded that this won’t be the first time when a defamatory campaign might be initiated against the largest national media house.

Just to cite one such precedent in this context, a couple of years ago, a PPP loyalist sitting in the Gilgit-Baltistan Assembly had dubbed a few Jang Group staffers as agents of Israel, India and Russia, demanding that these ‘traitors’ should be arrested and hanged.

This PPP stalwart Raziuddin Razi had to bite dust and hide for cover, when he was strongly condemned by various sections of the society for his outrageous remarks.

Before we discuss how a few American, Russian, Nazi Germany, South Korean and Zimbabwean regimes had also hurled similar allegations against their respective media houses, only to win lasting embarrassments for their countries at international forums of virtue, let us first look into the plight of numerous Pakistani journalists, progressive writers, revolutionary poets and intellectuals who were charged with sedition, treason and terrorism etc., but were later acquitted after rulers had wasted the precious years of their lives.

Much like the hostile and anti-media times after the 1857 War of Independence, Pakistan too has an unenviable history in this context.

During the pre-partition era, Mir Khalilur Rahman – the founder of the Jang Group of Newspapers – was arrested and jailed by the then Indian government for writing a piece against imperialism while a movement aimed at seeking freedom from the British Empire was in full swing.

Noted Pakistani business tycoon Yusuf Shirazi had written in his January 25, 2014 article: “The undue arrest of Mir Saheb agitated the members of this movement; therefore, they held demonstrations throughout the country – Lahore to Calcutta to Delhi to Bombay. As a result, Mir Saheb was released the very next morning.”

Faiz Ahmad Faiz (1911-1984), the influential left-wing intellectual and poet, was named and linked by Premier Liaquat Ali Khan’s government for hatching a conspiracy against it.

Faiz and a senior Pakistan Army commander Major General Akbar Khan were among the 15 individuals consequently arrested by the military police in the 1951 Rawalpindi conspiracy case.

The then Army Chief, Ayub Khan, had immediately ordered the Army troops to take control of the army headquarters, where Major General Akbar Khan was based. Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan had personally announced on March 9, 1951 that the coup attempt was foiled.

After an 18-month trial conducted in secrecy, Faiz had received a maximum sentence from the Army’s JAB Branch, though the punishment was commuted after the assassination of Liaquat Ali Khan.

The defence lawyer in this case was the notable Bengali Muslim politician Hussain Shaheed Suhrawardy, who later became Pakistan’s prime minister in 1957.

General Akbar Khan was soon rehabilitated in Pakistani political life and was appointed chief of national security by Premier Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1971.

Faiz was appointed as head of the National Council for Arts.

Basically, the Pakistani civil and military rulers have been toeing the legacy of the post-1857 British Empire.

After the 1857 War of Independence, two Muslim editors of “Doorbin” and “Sultanul Akhbar” were prosecuted and Maulvi Baqir, the editor of “Delhi Urdu Akhbar,” was shot dead for criticising the British rule.

In short, the Muslim Press was banished from its presence in the sub-continent, whereas the Hindu-owned newspapers were forgiven.

Maulana Muhammad Ali Johar (1878-1931) and Maulana Shaukat Ali (1873-1939), the two illustrious brothers and heroes of Indian Muslims before 1947, were first jailed in 1914 by the British government for producing an article in defence of the Turks. Basically, it was a strong response to a London Times anti-Turk article in these “Khilafat Movement” days.

These were the times when Maulana Shaukat Ali used to help his brother Mohammed Ali Johar publish a renowned Urdu weekly “Hamdard” and a well-read English weekly “Comrade,” which was the first English newspaper owned and edited by a Muslim.

All other English newspapers, which were either owned by British or Anglo-Indians, supported the government but the “Comrade” stood against the government.

The two brothers were also sent behind the bars in 1919 for publishing what the British charged as seditious materials and organising protests.

Maulana Zafar Ali Khan (1873-1956), a high calibre writer, poet, translator and journalist, was arrested and forced to live in jails for years for challenging the British elite.

The charges leveled were, of course, sedition and treason.

He had launched his newspaper “Daily Zamindar” from Lahore, though it was founded by his father Maulvi Sirajuddin Ahmad in Hyderabad Deccan.

It must be added that “Zamindar” used to purchase news from reputed wire agencies like “Reuters” and the “Associated Press of India.”

All other newspapers of the time used to translate news from English newspapers and publish next day.

During First World War (1914- 1919), “Zamindar” was asked not to publish any war news. So, it was closed down temporarily and Zafar Ali Khan had to start another magazine “Sitara-e- Subah.”

Agha Shorish Kashmiri (1917-1975), a known scholar, debater and the chief editor of the weekly “Chattan” was sent behind the bars many a time in his eventful life.

He was first arrested during the anti-Qadyani Movement of 1953.

General Sher Ali was handcuffed on the charge of sedition for giving an innocuous speech and Shorish was taken into custody under the Defence of Pakistan Rules.

This era was marked by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s determined onslaught against various sections of the national media.

As soon as Bhutto attained power, he dismissed the chairman of National Press Trust (that he had vowed to abolish) and the editor of Pakistan Times.

His rival from the Ayub days, Altaf Gauhar, who was then the editor of Daily Dawn, was placed under arrest.

The printers, editors and publishers of magazines like “Urdu Digest,” “Zindagi” and “Punjab Punch” were arrested for protesting against Bhutto’s regime. Newspapers like “Hurriyat” and “Jasarat” were banned and their editors imprisoned.

They were convicted and sentenced even before the writ petitions challenging their arrests could be heard in the Lahore High Court.

Noted poet Habib Jalib and famous religious scholar Abul Kalam Azad had also faced jails for confronting different governments.

Dr. Maleeha Lodhi, Pakistan’s former ambassador to the US and the UK, was accused of sedition in 1992 by the then government because she had published a hostile poem in “The News International.”

She was the editor of this newspaper then.

Famous Geo News anchor, Najam Sethi, can also tell a lot about sedition charges against him and other fellow Pakistani journalists. In 1999, when Sethi had tried to expose the then government scandals to the BBC, he was accused of treason.

The supreme court of Pakistan had rejected the trumped up charges of “treason” and freed him after one month.

While in detention, Sethi had suffered a heart attack, which had consequently necessitated a heart surgery in 2000. After he was freed by the court, the government started to harass him by slapping over 50 trumped-up income tax fraud cases.

It also accused him of being a “non-Muslim” and tried to deprive him of his voting rights. But all the cases against him were rejected by the tax tribunals and high court of the country and all his rights were restored by the Chief Election Commissioner.

Many years earlier, Sethi was also booked in the 1973 Hyderabad conspiracy case along with the likes of the then banned National Awami Party chief Khan Abdul Wali Khan, Ghaus Bakhsh Bizenjo, Nawab Khair Bakhsh Marri, Sardar Ataullah Mengal and revolutionary poet Habib Jalib etc.

Actually, Sethi was among the 52 people arrested on charges of treason and for acting against the ideology of Pakistan.

The Hyderabad tribunal (1975-1979) was then established on the orders of the then Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to prosecute these 52 people.

By the way, Sethi was also imprisoned by the military government of General Zia ul Haq for one month (“preventive detention”) in 1984 without formally being charged for any crime. But the real reason was Gen Zia’s aversion to a book published by Vanguard Books.

It was titled “From Jinnah to Zia” and authored by the former chief justice of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, Justice Mohammad Munir.

The book was basically based on Justice Mohammad Munir’s confession that had he not legitimised the first martial law in Pakistan in 1958, the way for General Zia’s 1977 martial law would not have been paved.

Sethi was charged with “piracy of books” to undermine his credibility.

Ustad Daman, an eminent Punjabi poet had a flair of his own, was arrested on terrorism charges after a bomb had been discovered from his shabby house located in the old city of Lahore.

He too was sent to jail on directives of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who was reportedly offended by one of the classic Daman poems.

In United States of America, history shows that those holding sway in the power corridors had resorted to leveling such frivolous accusations against their national media houses only to cover up their own wrongdoings.

US Press history bears testimony to the fact that since World War II, pen and camera have rattled both White House and the American legislative bodies, only to invite their wrath.

To cite a few examples, when legendary journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein broke the Watergate scandal during the Richard Nixon regime in 1972-73, the White House had continued to denounce The Washington Post’s coverage as biased and misleading.

The esteemed US newspaper’s publisher Katharine Graham was even subjected to harassment by President Nixon’s aides.

The string of scoops given by Woodward and Bernstein had alleged the then US Attorney General of controlling a secret fund to gather information on Nixon’s political adversaries.

The stories had revealed how Nixon’s loyalists had run a massive campaign of spying and sabotage to strengthen the sitting President’s re-election bid in 1972.

The Watergate scam ultimately led to numerous investigations and the eventual resignation of President Nixon on August 9, 1974 – the first-ever US head of state to relinquish charge in office.

As soon as the Court had held Nixon guilty, the US Senate had to call for his impeachment and the President was left with no option but to quit.

Journalists Woodward and Bernstein were hence vindicated.

Woodward, the author of best-sellers like “All the President’s Men,” “ The Final Days,” “Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA 1981-1987,” “The Agenda,” “The War Within: A Secret White House History” and the relatively recent sensation “Obama’s Wars,” was also accused by former US President Ronald Reagan of fabricating his death-bed interview with a former CIA Director William Casey.

Besides having overseen covert one billion dollar US assistance to the Afghan Mujahideen against the former Soviet Union, the then CIA boss Casey was also instrumental in the Solidarity movement of Poland and a number of coups in South and Central America.

As described in his book “Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA 1981-1987,” Woodward had claimed that during his final encounter with the former CIA chief, the latter had confessed diverting funds to rebel groups operating within Nicaragua.

President Reagan had labeled Woodward ‘a liar,’ but history has proved that whatever the celebrated journalist wrote was absolutely spot-on.

While a CIA report had found that William Casey spoke to newsman Woodward 43 times, Casey’s deputy Bob Gates also wrote in his book that the CIA director on his death-bed had made statements similar to those reported by the afore-mentioned scribe.

The all-time famous US broadcast journalist Edward Murrow, still remembered as being one of journalism’s greatest figures, was also bullied by a powerful US Senator of his time.

Murrow had produced a series of reports that had contributed to the downfall of Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1950s, but not before the illustrious broadcaster was dubbed a ‘Soviet spy’ by the fuming legislator.

In his famous programme “See It Now,” Murrow would criticise Senator McCarthy for making unsubstantiated claims that there were a large number of Soviet spies inside the United States government.

During the Cold War era, Senator McCarthy would blame anybody whom he disliked within the US government and the media, and dub him a Soviet spy at will.

These accusations received wide publicity initially and increased his approval ratings. McCarthy appeared on Murrow’s show “See It Now” in 1954 and dubbed the television anchor a ‘spy’ on his face, accusing him of conspiring against the US interests by working for a Russian espionage organisation.

This response did not go well with the American viewers and McCarthy’s popularity declined steeply.

This episode is seen as a turning point in the history of US television.

In February 1950, the above-mentioned Senator had asserted that he had a list of the members of a Russian spy ring, who were employed in the State Department, but his inability to prove his claims led him to be censured by the US Senate.

During the Senate hearings, McCarthy had even accused the probing Senators of “protecting Communists” and “shielding traitors.”

The Senate committee report labeled McCarthy’s charges a “fraud and a hoax.”

It was the same Senator McCarthy who had also assaulted another eminent US journalist Drew Pearson in 1950 after calling him a “KGB handler.”

The Pulitzer Prize-winning US Journalist Seymour Hersh who broke the stories about the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib jail in 2004 and for reporting on military actions in Afghanistan, had been slated by the Pentagon.

While the White House vehemently denied all the allegations heaved in Hersh’s stories, only times proved again that the journalist had not fabricated anything.

Today the Internet is littered with gory tales and images of US military’s atrocities in Afghanistan and the infamous Abu Gharib prison.

American legal history shows that media outlets having the audacity to criticise governments have always won laurels in the court of law for the last 275 years or so.

In the New York Times Company versus United States Case of 1971, the US Supreme Court had made it possible for prestigious American newspapers “The New York Times” and “The Washington Post” to publish the then classified Pentagon Papers without any risk of government reprimand.

It is imperative to note that the financial exploitation of Press by the German rulers during the German War (1618-48) through the imposition of trade restrictions to create an artificial dearth of printing paper and the shutting down of hostile newspapers by the former USSR in early 20th Century during Joseph Stalin’s reign, may have forced many publishers to succumb to these state pressures, but media has always had the last laugh!

Times that followed proved that these eras were the worst in world history.

The Press was also inhibited in the Nazi Germany during the dictatorship of Adolf Hitler, who had curtailed Press freedom through his information minister Dr. Joseph Goebbels’ ministry of public enlightenment and propaganda by setting over 20,000 offensive books on fire and by even executing journalists after trying them as traitors.

Even a layman knows that history has not forgiven this most-feared dictator of the 20th Century and his brutalities.

A Russian media baron Vladimir Gusinsky was arrested in 2000 for harshly condemning the policies of President Vladimir Putin in Chechnya War and the rampant corruption at Kremlin.

He was consequently accused of hoodwinking $10 million state funds.

The media magnate had moved to Israel from Spain in 2001 after a Spanish court had refused to extradite him to Moscow on an earlier warrant. Gusinsky had enjoyed great power and sway under the Presidency of Boris Yeltsin, but rapidly fell out of favour when Putin came to power in 1999.

In 2003, Gusinsky was again arrested in Greece on Russian multi-million-dollar fraud charges, though Putin has always been publicly denying any involvement in the media tycoon’s persecution.

In 2006, a Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, well known for her criticisms of Russia’s actions in Chechnya, was killed in her house.

Former South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, who had committed suicide a couple of years ago after having fallen from grace for his involvement in a corruption scam, was yet another state head who is known to have enjoyed the least congenial relationship with his country’s media houses.

Since assuming power in 2003, he had often clashed with the most influential South Korean newspapers like the “Chosun Ilbo” and had even gone on to sue them for publishing stories about his financial corruption.

President Roh had used various methods of media suppression during his tenure, including tax investigations against the newspapers and television channels that were critical of him.

After he was found guilty of financial corruption, this former South Korean President had to apologise to the public before deciding to end his life.

The sitting Zimbabwean President, Robert Mugabe, is also one of those modern day rulers who are globally known for suppressing the media outlets and journalists writing or airing anything ‘offensive’ against them.

While the editor of an independent weekly “The Standard” was taken into custody in 1999 for publishing an article claiming that 23 army officers had been arrested for plotting a coup against President Mugabe, two journalists Mark Chavunduka and Ray Choto were subjected to extreme torture for writing this well-read investigative piece.

In 2008, after advice from the Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom, Queen Elizabeth II had cancelled and annulled the honorary knighthood bestowed upon Robert Mugabe in 1994.

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