The Friday Times History
By Najam Sethi
The idea of a truly independent and liberal paper was born one night as I lay fuming under the stars on a hot and sticky August night in Kot Lakhpat Jail in Lahore in 1984.
The idea of a truly independent and liberal paper was born one night as I lay fuming under the stars on a hot and sticky August night in Kot Lakhpat Jail in Lahore in 1984. The country was writhing under martial law. Not a single newspaper editor had dared to write the truth about why General Zia ul Haq had used “preventive detention” laws to jail me. In fact they had all readily clutched at the officially sponsored lies about my case. One day, I silently raged, I would have my own paper and it would stand up to tyranny and expose the lies and fear that stalk our everyday lives.
General Zia ul Haq didn’t like me. I had published “From Jinnah to Zia” by Justice (retd) Mohammad Munir after every major publisher in the country had turned it down because it was overly critical of the dictator. After the author’s death a couple of years later, a khaki emissary advised me to quietly withdraw the book from sale. “You can ban it”, I had demurred. Then I published a book on US-Pak Relations whose cover was taken from a painting by the famous artist Mian Ijaz ul Hasan. It showed the US Aid emblem in which there are two clasped hands in friendship, except that Mian Ijaz had rendered one of the hands as a skeleton and squeezed a drop of blood out of it. The then US Ambassador to Pakistan protested to General Zia and the dye was cast. When Henry Kissinger complained about his book being pirated by a bookseller in Karachi, they went instead for me in Lahore and bunged me in as a “terrorist”. Amnesty International and BBC investigated the case and rubbished the authorities. But not a single Pakistani newspaper was prepared to expose the lie. In the event, no charges were formally pressed and I was released a month later. But by then an idea had begun to germinate whose time would come one day.
There is a passage in Emma Duncan’s wonderful book on Pakistan written in 1987 (Breaking the Curfew) that describes the path Jugnu Mohsin, my wife and TFT’s publisher, had to take during 1985-1988 for permission to publish TFT.
In order to start a magazine, an applicant has to have his form cleared and stamped by, in turn, the city magistrate, the local police, the city magistrate, the provincial press information department, the chief minister’s office, the provincial press information department, the federal press information department, the intelligence bureau, the federal press information department, the provincial press information department, the deputy commissioner and, once again, for luck, the provincial press information department.
In order to start a magazine, an applicant has to have his form cleared and stamped by, in turn, the city magistrate, the local police, the city magistrate
Several decisions were critical and some moments were noteworthy. Jugnu had to be the listed as the “publisher” because I was too notorious an offender for comfort. Then we waited to apply pending the arrival of a City Magistrate who might be more sympathetic than curious. As luck would have it, Mr Sher Afghan, with antecedents in Okara from where Jugnu’s family hails, arrived on the scene in 1985 and helped push the application along. Then a friendly Director General Public Relations Punjab nudged the file to chief minister Nawaz Sharif’s office where it lay in cold storage for months until Jugnu’s cousin-in-law Javed Bokhari was appointed principal secretary to the CM and put up the file to Nawaz Sharif.
When Jugnu was called for an interview with Mr Sharif, she was pregnant with Mira and looking sufficiently benign. Nawaz was pleased to note that she was the niece of Syed Sajjad Haider, a stalwart of the Muslim League from Okara. But he was more than a little curious when she confirmed for him that she was Syeda Abida Hussain’s cousin. “Ah”, said Nawaz, his eyes narrowing, “is this going to be a political paper?”. “Of course not”, Jugnu smiled back, feigning innocence, “it’s going to be a social chit chat thing, you know, with lots of pictures of parties and weddings”.
“Good”, advised Nawaz, adding “I hope you won’t get me into trouble”. And with a flourish he signed the paper.
A month later, there was a knock on my office door and in walked a thick set, rather ominous looking Police Inspector with a file under his arm.
“Najam Aziz Sethi, s/o Abdul Aziz Sethi?”, he inquired in an officious manner. “Yes”, I mumbled.
“I’m from the IB”, he explained in Urdu, “Have you applied for permission to start a weekly paper?”
“No”, I said quickly, my heart skipping a beat. “But my wife wants to take out a social chit-chat thingie”, I volunteered eagerly.
His eyes twinkled. He smiled wryly and leaned over the table.
“Same difference, Sethi Sahib.”
Silence. I rubbed my hands under the table. He smiled, surveyed my office, pulled out a chair and made himself comfortable.
“Would you like some tea?” I asked.
“No sugar, please, I have diabetes”.
“Is there a problem with the permission?”, I asked innocently.
“There could be”, he pursed his lips mysteriously, “if you are involved”.
“But I’m not involved. You see…”.
“Come, come Sethi Sahib, we know all about you. You’re a trouble maker, aren’t you, always upsetting people and going to prison”, he said menacingly. “Your wife is fronting for you, isn’t she? There’s no way you can be cleared.”
“Hmmn”, I nodded glumly, not to affirm that I was a “trouble maker” but to confirm to myself that the game was over.
The tea arrived. He stirred it, helped himself to a handful of biscuits.
“How did my book sell?” he asked.
I was nonplussed and couldn’t place the Urdu book in question. It must have showed on my expression.
“Forgotten about it, haven’t you?” he chuckled. “I’ve seen a lot of unsold copies lying about in your shop”, he noted.
“But if they haven’t sold out, why have you paid the supplier in full?”, he inquired. Then he proceeded to pull a book out of his file and placed it on the table in front of me.
“Oh, this, yes, yes, some fellow came to see me some months ago and said he was hard up and wanted me to sell this book. It didn’t sell at all but I gave him the cash anyway because he seemed genuinely in difficulty”, I explained.
“Do you remember who that fellow was?”, he grinned mysteriously.
Oh no, I thought, maybe there’s some subversive material in this book and they’re going to pin it on me.
“No, I don’t remember”, I said flatly.
“I see”, he said softly. Silence. A long silence. He slurped his tea with evident pleasure.
“This book, Sethi Sahib, is written by my deceased father”, he finally explained, “I was in civvies when I brought it to your shop three months ago after every bookseller in Lahore had refused to stock it, let alone sell it. I didn’t tell you I worked for the IB. But you not only took it, you gave me full payment in cash last month even though many copies remain unsold”.
“Really?”, I said dumbly, with vague recollections of someone imploring me to buy the book because he needed the money desperately.
“Really!”, he exclaimed emphatically. “You may be a trouble maker for some but for me you’re an angel”.
Relief. Smiles all round. More slurping of tea. He got up, shook my hand, and turned on his heel. At the door, he turned around, bowed, and said: “Good luck with your paper, sir, the IB is going to say that Jugnu Mohsin Sahiba’s father is in the clear and we shall omit to note whether she is married or not”.
Permission to publish TFT arrived in the post to Jugnu in 1987, three years after the application was submitted in 1985.
But General Zia was still around. And there was no sign of any press freedom. In fact, only months earlier, Aziz Siddiqui, the gentle editor of the Frontier Post in Peshawar, had been relieved under ISI pressure because he had published a small item about how Mrs Zia ul Haq had drawn on the public exchequer for medical treatment abroad. So we determined to lie low.
But that was easier said than done. Under the law, we were obliged to publish the paper within three months, failing which the permission would lapse. So Jugnu did the unprecedented thing of writing for permission to the DC to delay the publication of TFT for one year because of circumstances beyond her control. She explained that she had just had a baby and was too busy being a mother to be an editor or publisher. The usual “family” strings were pulled and permission was duly granted. We were in the throes of asking for another year’s extension when General Zia ul Haq perished in an air crash.
That night Jugnu and I sat up until the early hours of the morning planning the new paper. In the following weeks, we marshaled our meager resources and by December were ensconced in a small office on Turner Road, just behind the Lahore High Court. I went around Lahore and Karachi to the offices of the Big Wigs in the media asking for advice. One media baron bluntly said “If you’re got money to throw away, give it to charity”; another advised “It’s more difficult than a daily, that’s why we’ve not ventured into an English weekly”. But five months later, in May 1989, Jugnu and I launched TFT without a thought of how it would survive in the big bad world out there.
Najam Sethi is the Editor-in-Chief of The Friday Times. He is based in Lahore and wrote this editorial for the 15th Anniversary of The Friday Times