A look at media censorship during the British Raj leaves us asking how much progress Pakistan has really made
In the 21st century, we can note that Pakistani journalism has experienced an organic development of professionalism, periods of draconian suppression and frequently innovated new modes of resisting extraneous control.
Journalism in Pakistan has indeed progressed over the past decades in discursive, technological and institutional terms.
With the dissemination and subsequent regulation of satellite and broadcast technologies, journalism has morphed into a form characterised by 24-hour “breaking” news, colloquially referred to as “the media”.
At the same time, virtual spaces on the internet, driven by social media sites, have opened up new spheres of debate and discussion.
It would, however, be a misnomer to conflate these forms of progress with the attainment of “Freedom”.
As long as it remains true that there is a fine line demarcating what can and cannot be said in public discourse, journalistic or expressive freedom, in a political sense, in fact, is never truly attained.
It can only be strived towards — that in itself is a constant struggle.
While it is important to look to the future for advances in expressive freedoms and journalistic liberties, it is equally important to look at the struggles of the past.
Pakistan’s history is peppered with incidents of centralised control, repression and censorship that have left their marks on the character of this emergent 21st century news media.
At the same time, the fact that the struggle for attaining Pakistan, the anti-colonial freedom struggle of Muslims in the subcontinent, was catalysed by newsprint, continues to stand as a source of inspiration and vitalisation to continuing strands of serious journalism and news reporting in Pakistan.
It is paradoxical, then, that the very medium which took on the struggle for freedom of expression and self-determination of Muslims in British India is the same format that is most hotly contested in our country today.
How can the state, or the powers that be, ever see it justifiable to repress that very mode of expression which breathed life into the struggle for this country?
The history of Pakistani journalism undoubtedly stretches further back than the birth of Pakistan. Two of the largest print and electronic media houses in this country — Dawn and Jang — were formed well before Partition.
However, the roots of Pakistani journalism cannot be confined within the chronological bounds of 1947-present, nor can it be simply tied to the anti-colonial movement of Muslims in the subcontinent, which eventually spawned Pakistan.
The pre-history of Pakistani journalism actually stretches further back than the 1940s, before the journalistic interventions of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan for a Muslim identity, even prior to the closure of Muslim periodicals such as Sultan-ul-Akhbar, Gulshan-i-Nowbahar and Siraj-ul-Akhbar through the Indian Press Laws promulgated by the British authorities in the aftermath of the 1857 War of Independence.
In fact, the history of Pakistani journalism is the history of a format and a technique of articulating and disseminating information — the history of the production and dissemination of newsprint, along with the emergence of news-reading publics.
Even prior to the rise of the printing press and mass production, historian C. A. Bayly has traced a subcontinental tradition of newswriting and political reporting enshrined in the tradition of akhbar-nafeesi.
These early-modern akhbar-nafees or newswriters in Bayly’s account were neither journalists nor public intellectuals, but closer to information runners who used to report on matters of different princely courts for the benefit of the sovereign who commissioned them. Their activities comprised an admixture of diplomacy, espionage and reportage.
It is no wonder that the honourific title of the Mughal sovereign included the terms hoshyar and khabardar, for he would be alert and aware of developments in his own and surrounding territories and the affairs of his subjects, thanks to briefings delivered by the akhbar-nafees.
The arrival of the printing press at the dawn of modernity and the emergence of a new colonial public abruptly pulled this pre-modern informational membrane inside out:
With the rise of commercial and political newsprint, a newly emergent newsreading public now demanded to know more about the affairs of the sovereign, about politics, commerce and war.
Onset of modernity
Soon after the East India Company (EIC) set up dominions in their presidencies of Bengal, Madras and Bombay, the first printing presses and typesets also arrived in the subcontinent.
The earlier uses of the press included printing calendars, bibles and almanacs by the missionaries, and this technology was not utilised for news reporting until the end of the 18th century.
It is James Augustus Hicky who is widely attributed by historians to be the founder of modern print journalism in the subcontinent. As noted by Graham Shaw in Printing in Calcutta to 1800:
“It remains an interesting fact that printing was introduced into Calcutta in 1777 only on the whim of a bankrupt businessman who whilst in prison resorted to his former calling of printing simply as a convenient means of paying off some of his debts!”
The Company’s government was not thrilled by the prospect of privately published newsprint broadsheets circulating in its territories, where its rule over the populous native inhabitants was held together by only a fragile veneer of appearances and illusions.
Hence, the first governor general of India Warren Hastings pursued a gruelling extra-legal strangulation of Hicky’s Gazette by instructing postmasters to suppress its distribution in the dawk.
Hicky is now granted accolades for maintaining a stringently critical editorial line against Hastings and the Company’s arbitrary rule in his Gazette, and consistently lampooning powerful colonialists in his signature satirical style.
In fact, Hicky spent much of his days as a printer indebted and in prison. After being forcibly deported from India, the ill-fated founder of modern news-media in the subcontinent died penniless on a boat to China.
Modernity and its discontents
It would appear that modern journalism in colonial India was born in a prison. Since then, journalism in the subcontinent has scarcely, if ever, escaped these incarcerating walls of fear and coercion.
Colonial documents from the early 19th century on the topic are ripe with the “fear” or “dangers of a free press in India”.
The EIC’s administrators and shareholders were constantly anxious about the potential of the new medium of the press to disrupt their colonial rule and depriving Britain of its bejeweled possessions.
It is a common misapprehension of colonial times that the British brought along with their rule a modern, liberal understanding to the subcontinent. The history of colonial journalism in India would in fact have it the other way.
The East India Company actively tried to suppress this new medium, as it drew adventurers and private profiteers to the lucrative market of selling newsprint commodities to European inhabitants of the three presidency towns of Calcutta, Madras and Bombay.
The repression employed by the Company was neither liberal, nor was it progressive. From 1780 onwards, the Company carefully monitored each piece of newsprint that was being circulated within its territories.
The first infraction in the press recorded by the Company was of Irish-American William Duane, proprietor of a Calcutta paper called The Indian World, where he published reports with an American revolutionary flair considered damaging by the Company.
Having no legal mechanism to apprehend such infractions, Governor General John Shore retorted to brute force against Duane.
On a number of occasions, peons and domestic servants were sent to rough up and forcibly abduct Duane and hold him without warrant.
In the meantime, the Company contrived a way to get rid of Duane by rescinding his license to reside in their colonial territory, and effectively deported him.
Soon after Duane’s extralegal deportation, the EIC, under Governor General Cornwallis, enacted the first printing press regulations in India with the following five precepts:
1stly — Every Printer of a Newspaper to print his name at the bottom of the Paper.
2ndly — Every Editor and Proprietor of a Paper to deliver his Name and place of abode to the Secretary to Government.
3rdly — No Paper to be published on a Sunday.
4thly — No Paper to be published at all until it shall have been previously inspected by the Secretary to the Government; or by a Person authorised by him for that purpose.
5thly — The penalty for offending against any of the above Regulations to be immediate embarkation for Europe.
With these five simple but comprehensive draconian maxims, the EIC formally enacted censorship in early 19th century India.
A government censor would scrutinise the proofs, prior to the publication or distribution of any printed matter.
The only printers and publishers in India at the time were of European descent, hence the threat of deportation to Europe was a formidable threat.
The Company’s anxieties with print stemmed from the fear that the Europeans would discuss the news amongst themselves, and this news would spread to the natives, who would soon come to know the truth and ultimately overthrow the yoke of European domination.
Some liberal proponents of the press as a means of delivering enlightenment to the natives also became vocal about the positive aspects of a press in India.
One such man was an adventurer and mariner by the name of James Silk Buckingham, who arrived in Calcutta in 1818 and soon bought The Calcutta Journal.
Prior to this, the liberal-minded Marquis Rawdon had relaxed the censorship regulations to a set of rules for editors by which they may regulate themselves.
J.S. Buckingham took advantage of this regulatory lapse in order to publish articles critical of the colonial authorities.
As the government lacked the authority to deport Buckingham at the time, it attempted various strategies to strangle The Calcutta Journal, until finally his enterprise was suppressed and he was shipped back to England.
The fear that Buckingham’s Journal aroused in the Company administrators had little to do with his liberal-minded critique.
Rather, it stemmed from the fact that the natives had begun setting up their own printing enterprises in local languages, and that they would take inspiration from Buckingham and criticise government policy in public discourse.
These native printers and publishers, as the administrators would note, could also not be deported to Europe as they didn’t require a license to reside in their own territories.
Hence a new regime of press regulations was swiftly put in place in 1823. Writing against the colonial government would be penalised by revoking the license to print — and printing without a license would result in jail time.
Natives are restless
Ram Mohan Roy, an influential scholar and reformer, set up one of the first local language printing presses in Calcutta. He began issuing two newsprint broadsheets, Meerat-ul-Akhbar in Persian and Sambad Kaumudi in Bengali.
After these regulations were put in place, Roy travelled to London to pursue a legal case against the Company and publicly voiced his disapproval, eventually shutting down his paper in protest.
The first ever Urdu language newspaper Jam-i-Jahan Numa (Mirror of the World) was also published in Calcutta during this time by a Hindu proprietor.
Innovations in typefaces for local languages spurred local publishing in the early 19th century, mushrooming towards the middle.
This was the time of the great rebellion of 1857, in which the printing presses played an important part in disseminating information about the conflict throughout the territories.
As the events of the ‘mutiny’ unfolded, the native language press became active and issued statements about freedom that the colonial authorities found deplorable.
In the June of 1857, a new press regulation limiting the circulation of books, pamphlets and printed matter was put into force, which later came to be known as the Gagging Act.
This is also the period when Muslim news periodicals began to formulate critiques of colonial rule. However, as Margarita Barns notes in The Indian Press, a majority of the Urdu newspapers in this time were edited by Hindus.
Through the aftermath and brutal repression of 1857, a Muslim identity began emerging through the press, and it was through the press that they voiced their earliest calls for freedom.
In the 20th century, newspaper editors and journalists greatly aided the birth of a new political consciousness in the colonial subcontinent.
Political parties such as the Congress and the All India Muslim League were sustained and supported by affiliated print organs, which voiced their concerns and reservations to negotiations with the British authorities.
Since the first decade of the 20th century, the British Raj enforced a draconian regime of press censorship fueled by the same anxieties about the dangers of a free press and free-thinking public opinion.
The origins of the printing press, and along with it the history of Pakistani journalism, lie in the dawn of colonial modernity.
In this colonial realm, the freedom to discuss collective issues has always been a contested space, freedom to print and publish was a constant struggle, and there is scarcely a period where this was completely attained.
Even if this freedom is attained on one occasion, it could be easily yield to forms of constraint.
As Margarita Barns concludes about freedom of expression in her own monograph on the press written a few years before the creation of Pakistan:
“World conditions today have jeopardised this supreme ideal. Experience of totalitarianism leaves no doubt that once liberty is lost, nothing short of a revolutionary situation would seem to hold out any prospect of its return… Above all, there is the persistent danger that, because the times are critical, emergency powers devised to meet the needs of the moment may have the effect of permanently restricting the freedom which has been so dearly won.”
Indeed, when Barns was about to publish her history of Indian journalism in 1939, war broke out which imposed a new strict regime banning the publication and distribution of anything “to influence public opinion in a manner likely to be prejudicial to the defence of the realm or the efficient prosecution of war.”
These measures only convinced her to rush the publication of her monograph, as “never was there a more opportune moment to recall phases of the struggle for the liberty of expression.”
Today, as World Press Freedom Day encourages us to think about the current state and future of the freedom to print and publish without constraints, we must, at the same time, also recall the continued struggles fought over two centuries for the ever-fleeting right to print and publish freely.
It is paradoxical to think that any Pakistani policy maker would have ever felt justified in curtailing the use of the very press that has been so instrumental in making Pakistan into a realistic outcome through the constant labour and advocacy of journalists, editors, printers, publishers and hawkers.
The freedom of expression is a delicate yet important right, generations have fought for it — it should always be cherished when one has it, and it should be constantly struggled for when one doesn’t.