Grateful for Mati – Abbas Nasir

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MANY editors are dreamers who wish to see egalitarian values flourish in society and basic freedoms respected as an article of faith but in today’s Pakistan those dreams have been shattered and supplanted by a nightmare.

Admittedly, some editors, perhaps less than a handful, have made it harder on themselves by refusing to ‘outsource’ or cede control of their newsrooms to powerful forces and one phone call does not lead to a news item being upgraded to front-page or another to being dropped.

Most others have a much easier life. For example one TV producer was telling me that on ‘sensitive’ stories they don’t even have to apply their minds on what to run in their tickers, headlines as national security-vetted, wrath-proof content is WhatsApp-delivered to the hub of their news operations.

If you happen to be a prime-time TV presenter, an anchor, because we love to embrace Americanisms even as we loathe the US, and have outsourced your editorial thinking your life is sanguine, can’t get easier than it is.

You comfortably arrive at your TV station in your SUV, in all likelihood with a Vigo-load of guards in tow, WhatsApp’d script in hand and a few powder puffs later you are ready to go. If you are in a minority that still believes editorial control is for the journalist, you know you are walking on thin ice.

You can be charged with being anti-state, accused of sedition, harassed, shot at and also intimidated by sponsored patriotic hordes online and all for your one audacious act of exercising editorial control over your content and shaping your output.

A lot of grey does lie between these two extremes. There are those who, when forced to, play the game. But their distaste is writ large on their faces and at the first opportunity, they furnish evidence that journalism is what they are about.

Then there is an army of those who toe the line with such relish that you marvel at their audacity when they insist on being called journalists and not PR men/women, an area to which their origins can be traced with ease. ‘Senior analyst’ is emerging as a compromise term for this breed.

Where does someone like Matiullah Jan fit into this media canvas? Well, nowhere to be honest. Matiullah Jan lives, breathes, sleeps journalism and clearly believes in the letter and the spirit of the law. Any transgressions, a violation of the law, so anger him that he is known to lose his cool.

He goes ballistic and any attempt to get him to temper his thoughts with a little measured reflection is dismissed with contempt. If he does not see your point, the reason in it, in a moment the discussion can degenerate into him more or less accusing you of a copout.

When I was editor he filed a story that raised questions about the integrity of Justice Dogar who had been installed as the chief justice of the Supreme Court by Gen Musharraf after the latter’s November 2007 ‘coup’ where he sacked the entire superior judiciary.

Keen to carry the story, I sent it to Dawn’s counsel to be ‘legalled’ and told Mati as much. My wonderful friend and one of the wisest, gutsiest free speech and rule of law advocates in the country, Muneer Malik, was happy with it and emailed it back to me in the evening.

Having arrived in office a minute earlier, I was still to check my emails that morning when Mati called from Islamabad. He sounded impatient and asked me whether I was going to carry his story at all. I said yes I would but once it had been approved by Mr Malik.

Mati told me he checked with Muneer Malik and the story had been sent back to me so ‘why are you sitting on it?’ I exploded. Why in the world did he ask the lawyer? Didn’t he trust me? In any case it was my call to carry a story. We had a heated argument. Not sure how it ended; one of us must have hung up.

Next day the story was front-paged in the newspaper and made the waves we knew it would. I was still seething at that call by Mati. Then I started to reflect. Even if he overstepped the line, it was his passion that got the better of him.

There was no personal gain, profit involved. He wanted to ensure the facts about a not-so-kosher man got into the public domain. He was also frustrated as DawnNews was shut down under Musharraf’s emergency those days so he did not have any outlet apart from the paper.

His passion has exacted a heavy price from Mati and without doubt his family. He has been out of work for a considerable period of time and currently uses Youtube, Twitter and Facebook for his reporting.

His shabby car and very modest home are a testament to his integrity. This was perhaps why even those journalists he hauled over the coals in his Apna Gareeban TV programme that focused on undue official favours, patronage to journalists, stood up for him.

How many are able to live by the values they profess as Matiullah Jan does? His schoolteacher wife, Kaniz Sughra, who must be helping to keep the family afloat, was stoic and principled in the aftermath of his abduction. Responding to an on-camera question if she’d appeal to the prime minister to intervene, she refused.

She said Mati was a citizen of Pakistan and entitled to all protections under the law as anyone else: he is not a criminal, he is not anti-state. He just speaks the truth, talks of the rule of law. Is that a crime? Their son Abdul Razaq was equally strong and supportive of his father’s work.

Such values cherished and shared across their family must be the strength Matiullah Jan needs to do what he does. I, for one, am grateful for you and your family, my friend.