Majid Nizami’s sheer longevity as Editor of Nawa-i-Waqt ensured that his death would cause a quake in Pakistani journalism. The figures speak for themselves: he was Editor since 1962, for over half a century. When he became Editor-in-chief of this newspaper in 1986, he had been Editor of Nawa-i-Waqt for almost a quarter of a century.

But as the accolades flow in, it becomes all the more necessary to remember that Majid Nizami took over at a bad time for Pakistani journalism, with Field Marshal Ayub Khan at the height of his power, firmly entrenched, with his reforming zeal tapering off. It was the year that he promulgated his Constitution, and got it approved by a referendum of Basic Democrats. Those local councillors also served as an electoral college for a National Assembly and two provincial assemblies. This was the time when several publications, including The Pakistan Times, Imroze and Mashriq, were taken over by the government, and put into the National Press Trust. The threat to other publications was obvious, and did not have to be put into words. But it was, often enough.

It is possible to see Majid Nizami forced into a position where he would stand for press freedom. Press freedom is ultimately essential for driving sales, not just of the paper, but of advertising space. This makes it virtually impossible for any embarrassment to the powerful, whether the government, or the private sector, from being kept completely under wraps. It is the reason that even Western media, dominated as it might be by Zionists and their sympathisers, finds it necessary now to cover the massacres in Gaza. It has to engage in some criticism, no matter how inadequate, of Israel.

Apart from press freedom, it is possible to see that Nizami learnt another lesson in the Ayub years: military rule was anathema. Not because it was military rule, though that was certainly a reason, but because it was inimical to press freedom. However, Nizami’s learning wasn’t over, because the Ayub years led to the fall of Ayub, and the rise of Yahya.

That in turn led to two cataclysmic events. One was the break-up of Pakistan, and the second was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto coming to power. The first meant that the Pakistan that had come into being in 1947 was no more. The second meant that an elected government had taken office for the first time in Pakistan (or rather, what was left of it) since Liaquat Ali Khan. It brought to the fore another phenomenon, that of civil dictatorship. Bhutto may have been elected, but his style of ruling was not particularly democratic. However, just as Nizami had weathered the Ayub dictatorship, he now faced Bhutto.

He continued to fight for, not so much press freedom, as the right to publish whatever information he and his team had gathered. It was perhaps symbolic that the year he became Editor of Nawa-i-Waqt was also the same year that saw the promulgation of the infamous Press and Publications Ordinance, which was a culmination of the press laws which had been inherited from the British Raj, and which reflected both the restrictions imposed by a colonizing power as well as those of the censors during World War II. The PPO, as it was called, was used to control the Press by means of the power of the government to shut down a publication, or rather the threat to shut it down. This power of the government to ensure the publication of its version of events, or to make sure that it could black out some or even all reporting, did not depend on just these two powers, but also on that of government control of newsprint quotas and of its advertising.

Newsprint was imported, and publications could import according to the quotas they were allocated. A measure to control the outflow of foreign exchange became a press control measure. Until the 1970s, the government had been the largest advertiser, but it became even larger when the Bhutto government nationalized entire industries. In all this turbulence, Majid Nizami continued to stick to the principle of press freedom, of the right, even the duty, of the newspaperman to report the news as he saw fit.

He had realised something that all newspapermen do: that the media is both a business and a mission. The newspaper must sell, so that advertising space in it can be sold. The reader who buys it must feel that he is getting value for money, which is why there must be information in it, information which the reader finds useful. If the information is not useful, the reader will not bother wasting his money to buy the publication. However, if the newspaper does not sell, advertisers will not buy space in it. The only way to promote one’s mission is to make it successful as a business, to make sure that the package is attractive enough to make readers not to hanker after more. And in the media, attractiveness is about credibility, as well as comprehensiveness. Not only must all news be printed, but the news items must be true.

This was not what the Ayub or Bhutto governments wanted. The truth was embarrassing for the governments, exposing their various sins of omission and commission. Also, the truth exposed individuals in government, both elected and permanent, to embarrassment. This brings up a marked tendency in Majid Nizami’s career: his strong opinions. He championed what seemed to be unpopular causes, and made them apparently his own. But he never espoused an issue without supporters. Look at any of the causes for which he took up the cudgels: the freedom of Kashmir, the return of Stranded Pakistanis from Bangladesh, relations with India. While his positions found opponents, it cannot be said that there was no public opinion favouring his view.

It is thus no coincidence that the publications of his group easily fulfilled the definition of good newspapers: that they must be a mirror to society. It is not possible to forget his words to the founding staff of this newspaper, when he addressed them when it first came out: “Remember, above you is the mosque and below you is Nawa-i-Waqt,” (the mosque was on the 5th floor, the Nawa-i-Waqt offices on the third floor, The Nation on the 4th). The Group is now larger, with the addition of a TV channel and Waqt News, the building has moved down Queens Road; but the floor arrangement remains the same.

 The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as executive editor of The Nation.

maniazi@nation.com.pk