The closure of ‘Herald’ and ‘Newsline’ in Pakistan marks a larger crisis in the country’s journalism
2019 was a difficult year for Pakistani journalism. Due to a history of state-orchestrated financial pressure and censorship, a faltering national economy, and poor management by media houses themselves, scores of journalists either lost their jobs, suffered significant pay cuts, or simply had to find work elsewhere to make a living. In the midst of the crisis, Pakistan lost two of its leading English-language magazines of current affairs the same year: Herald, which published its final issue in July and ceased its operations after 49 years of publication, and Newsline, which bid adieu in December after 30 years of existence.
Both magazines occupied a privileged place in the Pakistani print-media landscape, thanks to their fearless reporting and high standards. They won the recognition of readers and peers from around the world, housed and trained some of the best editors and journalists in Pakistan, and now leave behind a rich legacy – as well as a gap that will be hard to fill.
Herald was owned by the Dawn Media Group, which also publishes the country’s best known English-language daily. Previously known as The Illustrated Weekly, the publishers renamed it ‘Herald’ in 1970. But the magazine as most came to know it – one which so infuriated General Zia-ul-Haq that, waving a copy of the magazine at a press conference, he said he could not tolerate its kind of journalism – was given shape in 1984 by one of Pakistan’s most influential editors, Razia Bhatti. As political scientist Eqbal Ahmad put it, it was she that “had elevated [Herald] from a society rag to one of the best English language monthlies in the world.” The magazine became particularly known for its investigative reporting and analysis at a time when the country was under a military dictator.
The shift is illustrated by this anecdote from journalist Zahid Hussain, who started his career at the magazine and went on to cover Pakistan for The Times of London and Wall Street Journal:
I remember her spending an entire night working on the intro of Herald’s 1986 cover story ‘The poppy war’, an investigative story I did on the firing on poppy cultivators in Gadoon district of what is now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Interestingly, the point that took the longest to clarify was the exact time of dawn in the area when the firing took place. The story went on to win the prestigious Asia-Pacific Award for best editorial writing.
However, a series of events eventually resulted in Bhatti’s departure from the magazine. Umber Khairi, a former staffer at Herald and a co-founder of Newsline, explained the context to me. General Zia had transferred executive powers to Prime Minister Mohammad Khan Junejo in 1985 but still retained the authority to unilaterally remove the government. In 1988, he dismissed the prime minister, who had initiated inquiries into the Ojhri Camp disaster, when explosions in the Rawalpindi military-storage camp resulted in over 100 deaths. The camp was reportedly being used to supply weapons to the Afghan mujahideen to fight the Russians, and investigations into that could have had repercussions for the Inter-Services Intelligence or ISI.
There was also a clear conflict of interest: Dawn Group’s then chairperson Mahmoud Haroon also happened to be the defense minister under Zia. As Rehana Hakim – who was with Herald at the time and went on to became Newsline’s editor – told me: “Let’s say it might have been awkward or embarrassing for Mr Haroon to have a publication of the Dawn group being critical of the military dispensation he was a part of.” Moreover, Dawn had been trying to start the newspaper’s Lahore edition and needed government approval for the licensing, which, according to Khairi, made the owners susceptible to pressure. As a result, the magazine’s editorial team started coming under managerial pressure to slant stories in favour of the government and the military. According to Hakim, “it was becoming increasingly difficult for her [Bhatti] to juggle the demands of a military government with the principles of independent, objective journalism.” Meanwhile, following the announcement of the November 1988 general elections, Benazir Bhutto – daughter of executed former prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto – was entering the electoral arena. It was a major international story. Fittingly, Herald wanted to do a cover story with photos of Benazir and Zia on the front page facing each other, with the caption “Countdown to Confrontation.” But hours before the magazine went to the printers, the original photo was replaced with a generic election image. According to Khairi, “We can’t put Benazir Bhutto on the cover” was the edict from the management, which was likely worried about how the ruling dispensation would react. But the instruction from the management was limited to changing the cover image. According to Hussain, then with Herald and later a founding member of Newsline, “there was no pressure to change the editorial content… the cover story remained unchanged with Benazir’s hard-hitting interview.”
Nevertheless, the impact of politics on their journalism and its principles was clear. As one former Herald staff told me, it was seen as “humiliation”. The conflict between the editor and management escalated, and the latter eventually suggested that Bhatti should resign, which she did in August 1988 – as did most of her staff in protest. They went on to found Newsline.
Newsline was born out of a refusal to toe the line. It was founded as a cooperative; after their experience at Herald, Newsline’s editors understood that the only way for journalists to have editorial control over their own publication was to be its managers as well. The team started with a shoestring budget, and the staff had to bring office supplies from home. But they had public goodwill: the owner of Karachi’s famous Metropole Hotel gave them a room to work from, and contributors forfeited more lucrative opportunities elsewhere to write for Newsline. Its first issue came out in July 1989, and five years later, Bhatti won the Courage in Journalism award from International Women’s Media Foundation – the first Pakistani to do so. As Ahmad noted, Newsline “broke more stories, exposed more wrongs, withstood enormous pressures to retract this story and that allegation, and won more awards, national and international, than any other magazine in Pakistan.”
The magazine was to have another standoff involving Benazir Bhutto. In August 1995, the Bhutto government ordered a late-night raid at the editor’s house, after the magazine ran a story about the governor of Sindh Province. Titled ‘Az Far as the Going’s Good’ and written by future novelist Mohammad Hanif, the story was critical of then Sindh governor Kamaluddin Azfar’s rise to power. Bhatti was told to apologise and the charges would be dropped. True to her character, she refused.
Herald, for its part, continued under the editorship of Sherry Rehman. Despite the exit of Bhatti and other editorial staff, the magazine maintained a commitment to high journalistic standards. This was an era that saw remarkable reporting and legwork in Pakistani journalism. Ali Haider Habib, the magazine’s senior assistant editor before it shut down, writes, “the stories covered by Herald in the 1990s on the country’s political strife, particularly the violence in Karachi, are a masterclass in fearless reportage.” No researcher on Pakistan, especially Karachi, where the two magazines were based, can complete their work without consulting their archives.
The split did create some differences among journalists, between those who were seen as being closer to the establishment – that is, Herald – and those who were pushing the boundaries – that is, Newsline. The rivalry between the two magazines was strong, and it only added to the richness of the writing, reporting, and analysis in the English-language press.
What distinguished Newsline even more so than Herald, in my opinion, was that it became a nursery for journalists under Bhatti, just as Herald was under her too. The quality of her editing was stellar, her attention to detail meticulous. Writers like Mohammad Hanif, Hasan Mujtaba, and Nafisa Shah started their careers at Newsline, and were products of what was dubbed the ‘slave room’ at the magazine. The habit of obsessing over detail was carried on by Rehana Hakim when she became Newsline’s editor after Bhatti’s death from a brain hemorrhage in March 1996. (Read Bhatti’s obituary from the Himal Southasian archives.) It was to the credit of the institution that it could reproduce from within.
While there has been extensive commentary on state censorship in Pakistan, the army’s attack on the press, and its impact on journalists and journalism, not enough is written about instances where media houses themselves have let journalists down. No improvement in the fortunes of journalists and their profession can be expected without an honest internal critique.
The media landscape in Pakistan changed in the 2000s during General Pervez Musharraf’s rule after he allowed private channels to operate. While it did play a role in his eventual downfall, the proliferation of new channels had detrimental consequences on the quality of journalism in Pakistan. Most individuals who invested in TV networks were businessmen with financial interests, and enhancing the quality of journalism was not their chief interest. TV had no space for stories based on legwork, and investigative work was largely replaced with studio opinions and sound bites. As Ali Arqam, formerly at the Newsline, told me, “This kind of journalism relies more on connections and sources, not reporting and legwork.” Today, Pakistan has dozens of current-affairs channels and talk shows where highly paid anchors ask their guests to offer opinions on what’s happening in the country.
This phenomenon, however, seriously impacted the financial security of print magazines, with advertisement money going into TV channels instead. As a consequence, Newsline’s ad revenues also suffered, its last editor Hakim told me, adding that they lost some of their “best staff and freelance writers to the electronic media, which paid three to four times more.”
Once Newsline was bought by Hum Network, a major broadcasting company based in Karachi, in 2014, it did try to return to its strength. But it was too little too late. Newsline’s main strength used to be its combative, investigative cover stories that went toe-to-toe with the powerful. That cutting edge was lost in its final years. Its cover stories were often written by opinion-makers from their desks, the same commentators who would appear on TV every evening and on Twitter every hour, regurgitating the same views. Whereas the magazine produced new journalists in the past, this was no longer the case. Lack of intrepid reporters meant a lack of new stories. By the time Newsline’s monthly issues would come out, its stories would often be dated and the analysis stale. The magazine’s senior editors also discounted the web, ignoring the fact that there was an online readership for thoughtful, analytical long-form writing. As the new owners of the magazine never gave Newsline the resources to develop its web presence, the magazine failed to evolve into new territory.
Herald, being part of the Dawn Group, didn’t face a shortage of resources the way Newsline did. The magazine continued to publish critical stories, from questioning sectarianism in Punjab to covering controversial Chinese projects in Gwadar. Despite a change in the political and financial environment, it seemed there was still space for considered and nuanced journalism. However, it too failed to adapt to the changing world of digital media. While Newsline was constrained by resources, Herald, it seemed, suffered from bureaucratic inertia in finding the convergence between print and the web.
However, in the larger scheme of things, the challenge was not technological for Herald. According to its last editor, Badar Alam, the main issue was censorship – and the management’s refusal to stand up to it. In an interview given to an online video channel, he said that the Dawn Group “didn’t try to find a constructive solution to censorship,” adding that when faced with censorship, they to surrendered to it. The magazine’s hard-nosed, investigative coverage was also adding pressure on the group’s broader business interests. The editorial team, he said, “tried to find a way where Herald’s core brand of investigative journalism wouldn’t be compromised and where Herald would survive.” “But if there are objections on anything and everything we write, then what can we write?” said Alam, indicating that it was editorial pressure rather than the financial situation that finally caused the magazine to shut down. In contrast to what the group’s CEO Hameed Haroon once claimed – that “management staffers within the corporate entity may not address editorial issues and thus may not influence the content of the news in any manner whatsoever” – the opposite seems to have been the case.
In many ways, 2020 is worse than 1989 for journalists in Pakistan, when Bhatti and her colleagues started Newsline. Since coming to power in 2018, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Pakistan Thereek-e-Insaf government has been extremely hostile towards the press, from sitting ministers openly attacking them on social media to the complete refusal to allow government advertisements on critical publications. This time, there will be no more Herald; Newsline will not be around either, because those who bought the magazine didn’t seem to care for its legacy. It’s a sad twist of fate that a magazine born out of a fight with a big-media house has been terminated by a big-media house. In the absence of credible alternatives, Pakistani journalism will take some time to recover from the loss of two of its finest English-language publications. This feature was first published in the Himal news magazine, Nepal.