February 22, 2020
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Lady Courage

Razia Bhatti, intrepid journalist, spared and favoured none

Lady Courage

IN a country where the press has had to work in shackles under successive military regimes, Razia Bhatti was truly a torchbearer. She stood up to whoever was in power, both military and civilian, and exposed them ruthlessly. And when she died on March 12, she left behind a successful English monthly, News line, which she had begun as a journalists' cooperative, the first of its kind not just in Pakistan, but perhaps in the whole of South Asia.

 "I have worked with several great editors," says I.A. Rehman, himself a former editor and now director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, as he ranks Razia Bhatti, whom he knew for 20 years, among such distinguished names as Faiz Ahmed Faiz ( Pakistan Times ), Mazhar Ali Khan ( Pakistan Times and Viewpoint ) and Ahmed Ali Khan ( Dawn ). From one of the most respected thinkers in Pakistan, this is high praise for one almost 18 years his junior in the profession. But Razia would have taken it in her stride, with her usual wide smile, modesty and endearing humility.

Her sudden death at 52 has left a void in Pakistani journalism that will be hard to fill, as another long-time friend, Zohra Yusuf, wrote in a heartfelt obituary in Dawn . Which incidentally is from the family of newspapers and journals with which Razia was associated for 18 years, going on to serve as the editor of the monthly Herald. She resigned in 1988 after differences with the management over editorial policy during General Zia-ul-Haq's regime. Controlled democracy had been introduced, but an overwhelming atmosphere of repression prevailed. A system of official 'advice' kept in check much of Pakistan's press. When the clampdown came on the Herald, Razia refused to toe the line and stuck fast to the principled stand she had always taken. She preferred, instead, to simply walk out of this well-established publishing house. She was not alone in her venture. In a manifestation of the loyalty and confidence she inspired, with her went almost the entire team she had worked with for so long.

Soon, she and her team managed to achieve what many had said would be impossible: they launched a new monthly maga-zine based purely on editorial terms, defying the market and the major publishing giants. News line proved that a cooperative journalistic venture, in which working journalists had the controlling shares and could themselves shape editorial policy, could work. The magazine managed to stay afloat and often even beat the competition, backed by a major publishing house.

The venture has come to symbolise courage in journalism. The line laid by its editor is instilled in all its staffers—reporters and editors alike. Again, it is a measure of the inspiration this modest, down-to-earth woman provided that none of them have strayed from the line.

While Razia was editor of Herald, landmark stories published in the magazine included exposes on the beggar trade, with its kidnapped and maimed children, features on the dacoits in Sindh—even getting them interviewed in their hideouts—and the narcotics trade. The narcotics story won Herald the Folio Asian Magazine Publishing Award in 1987.

Newsline continued along the same line, taking on issues like freedom of the press, the environment, literacy, population, education, health, crime, violence, child abuse, women's rights, political and financial corruption in successive governments, state terrorism, human rights abuses and religious persecution.

Within six months of Newsline 's launch,the magazine had won the 1989 Asia Pacific Award for best editorial content. And in October 1994, Razia was awarded the Courage in Journalism Award by the US-based International Women's Media Foundation in New York—the only South Asian to be so honoured.

Razia was also, as human rights activist and lawyer Asma Jahangir says, a friend of no government. In the late '70s, just before Zia came to power, Herald criticised the Bhutto government's policies and practices. Zia, recalls Rehman, was delighted and thought he'd found a supporter. His delight was short-lived as he realised he'd counted on the wrong people for support.

Razia's latest clash was with Sindh Governor Kamal Azfar last year, who took exception to a profile that Newsline did of him. Her house and offices were raided. She refused to be intimidated by threats of police action. The incident caused an uproar in the journalists and human rights community, and Azfar was forced to withdraw the case.

She had earlier come under fire from the Mohajir Qaumi Movement (MQM), whose chief Altaf Hussain threatened her at a public rally for her magazine's write-ups about his party's human rights abuses at a time when the group was at the height of its power in Karachi, where Newsline is based. Bhatti and her team refused to back down, although more powerful publications were terrorised into toeing their line.

But when the MQM became the target of police excesses, Razia was just as hard-hitting, lambasting Benazir Bhutto for having given the police 'a licence to kill'. In her last editorial, she warned that violence never comes without a price and advocated a peace process to bring the MQM into the mainstream. Her example will be hard to emulate, but it has set a standard for all times to come.

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