Dawn: A hawker’s twilight years mirror newspapers’ slump

‘I’ve seen the rise and fall of newspapers,’ says visually impaired Essa Sarparah — Photo by the writer.

MASTUNG: The early morning breeze is pleasantly cool before the reddish rays of the sun appear over the hills of Mastung. The meandering roads leading to the main bazaar, situated on an embankment opposite the Hammach mountains, are completely silent.

One of them leads to the Bolan Hotel, where Mama Essa Sarparah reaches at his usual time of 7am sharp.

The elderly newspaper hawker and his childhood friend, Mullah Qayyum, both in their 70s, sit across from each other sipping tea and munching on a roti. It is too early in the morning in this small town and there isn’t much activity around. But Mama Essa has already broadcast a message: a Dawn journalist is in town to meet him.

Upon entering the tiny hotel, I catch the first glimpse of Essa: clad in a traditional cap and shalwar kameez, sporting a grey beard with the sun shining on his face. He’s busy munching on his roti as I approach him. He holds my hands and says: “I used to distribute 30 copies of Dawn at Cadet College, Mastung in a day in the 1990s.”

On this World News Day, Dawn tells the story of a visually-impaired man whose livelihood is tied to the print industry

Mastung is one of the neighbouring districts of Quetta, situated 54km southeast to the provincial capital. Local newspapers arrive early morning by passenger vans, as the main town is located on the Quetta-Karachi highway. With no dearth of transportation, Essa receives his copies after 8:30am.

The visually impaired Essa initially struggled to find a job in Mastung, forcing him to beg. “I changed my mind during Gen Zia’s rule,” he tells Dawn while sipping his tea. “I was afraid I would be arrested as I was told Zia had banned beggars.”

He pauses for a bite and continues his story: he was the sole breadwinner in a family with five dependants; a stepmother, two younger brothers and an elder widowed sister.

“I used to beg to earn enough to feed them,” he recalls. “But one day, a man approached me out of nowhere and took me to Quetta.”

In the provincial capital, Essa was introduced to Inayatullah, a Pashtun newspaper dealer on Fatima Jinnah Road. “The man handed Inayatullah Rs500,” he recalls, which became the initial capital investment that funded his foray into the world of newspaper hawking.

Essa started selling newspapers in 1988 and has been at it since. From selling a good 300-400 copies a day, he says that now, his sales barely make it into the double digits.

“Back in the day, people would queue up to buy newspapers, but now the newspaper waits for buyers. Unlike the past, nobody bothers reading a newspaper now,” he adds, blaming social media for the decline in demand.

“I’ve seen both the rise and fall of newspapers. When people can read papers for free in their beds on social media, why would they spend Rs20-30 on it?”

By now, Essa’s tales have attracted an audience. Almost everyone at the Bolan Hotel has joined in around the table, harking back to the old days when newspapers, magazines and Urdu digests were all the rage. One of the listeners adds nostalgically that there was a time when everyone, including political workers and the elderly, would be visiting hotels and sitting on pavements to read newspapers.

Every day, from 9am to 12 in the afternoon, Mama Essa is out on the roads and streets of Mastung city, dedicatedly selling newspapers, despite the dwindling demand. When the time for his paper route rolls around, he leaves to pick up his daily stash. I decide to follow him, surreptitiously.

Even at 70 years of age, it appears he remembers the streets, roads, and turns of Mastung bazaar by heart.

IntekhaaaabMashriq,” he calls out to attract customers, his voice hoarse from years of yelling the names of the papers he holds. He walks slowly with his cane leading the way. He hands over a few copies to some of his regular clients — shopkeepers and roadside hotel owners. Other than that, he gets no customers.

I try to pose as a customer and buy a few copies from him. I speak to him in Brauhi, one of the local languages, but even then he hangs on my words, as if trying to place my voice.

His route eventually leads him to the crowded Quetta Bazaar in Mastung city. The sun is now high in the sky and the hustle and bustle of the marketplace gradually drown out the hawker’s cries.

Published in Dawn, September 28th, 2022

Dawn: World News Day

In 1896, The New York Times introduced on its masthead the words which went on to become not only its own manifesto but also set the standard by which other newspapers would be judged. The words ‘All the News Fit to Print’ were reportedly chosen in response to the scurrilous content of its two main competitors who were peddling news deemed ‘unfit’ for publishing or what came to be known as ‘yellow journalism’.

As World News Day is observed today, it is interesting to note that terms such as ‘yellow journalism’ are now considered belonging to another time, another generation. So is the case with the idea of ‘objective’ reporting. Current news consumers (no longer necessarily readers) are more familiar with the terms ‘fake news’, ‘keyboard warriors’ and ‘trolling’ and all that they entail. So what is the significance of the day in a contemporary context? Organised primarily by the Canadian Journalism Foundation and WAN-IFRA’S World Editors Forum, with over 500 newsrooms participating, the objective of observing this day is to bring the focus back on journalism that is committed to being fact-based and credible.

However noble the intentions, the current challenges to credible news seem almost in­­surmountable. At the same time, in today’s crisis-ridden world the need for credible sou­rces of news — and credible voices that convey the news — is greater than ever before. Perhaps even greater than during days of censorship of which journalists in Pakistan have particularly painful memories.

While the phenomenon of fake news has been known to be around for over a century, it was Donald Trump who made it part of the mainstream discourse. He accused critics of peddling fake news about him, while at the same time used it as an effective propaganda tool against his opponents, including journalists. His aide, Kellyanne Conway, went a step further by introducing in the lexicon the idea of ‘alternative facts’, which was actually a euphemism for lies.

The challenges to credible news seem almost insurmountable.

Fake news can only be defeated or countered with fact-based journalism and this is where the importance of professional newsrooms (in newspaper offices or TV/radio channels) is truly felt. However, at a time when social media is overtaking even the traditional electronic media — not to mention print — there is a scramble to be the first to break the news. This often entails compromising on fact-checking. TV channels, in competition for ratings, are also among those peddling fake news even if inadvertently.

So why should anyone care about the news? Does truth in journalism and in reporting actually make a difference in people’s lives? Just going by the threats and violence faced by journalists in the line of duty, fact-based and investigative reporting is upsetting the apple cart of corruption and repression in several parts of the world. The extreme response of those thus exposed earns many countries — including Pakistan — the reputation of being among the ‘most dangerous place for journalists’ by organisations promoting press freedom. In a world where populist leaders are increasingly trampling on people’s rights — and not only in Third World countries — the media’s adversarial and watchdog roles assume greater significance.

It is not only ground-breaking news that has an impact or makes a difference. Not every investigation on the part of journalists can lead to the resignation of a head of state as was the case with The Washington Post and the Watergate scandal involving Richard Nixon.

In the case of Pakistan, for instance, sustained reporting on an issue can achieve far-reaching positive results. We have seen how reports on honour killings (a vile practice unheard of some decades back) helped both in awareness and consciousness raising, leading to human rights groups taking up the issue and campaigning till ultimately the judiciary stop­ped condoning the practice. Si­­milarly, when the first group of agricultural labour managed to escape from the bondage of feudal landlords in Sindh, it was newspaper reporting that helped HRCP campaign for a law against bonded labour that was passed in 1992.

Journalists in Pakistan may not have covered themselves in full glory with their stories. However, they have shown resilience and resistance when it has mattered most. During the dictatorship of Gen Ziaul Haq, when journalists were not only imprisoned but also flogged they courageously covered the democratic movements — including the Movement for Restoration of Democracy and the nascent Women’s Action Forum. The pictorial coverage of women protesters in Lahore in 1983 being dragged into police vans has become an iconic part of Pakistan’s news history.

However, these are possibly the worst times for those whose jobs it is to convey news. In a highly divisive society and under attack, fairly or not, for being partisan or being a beneficiary of the ‘lifafa’ system, journalists must reiterate their commitment to speak truth to power.

The writer is a human rights activist.

Published in Dawn, September 28th, 2022

Dawn: The whole truth

The war on truth has never been more relentless than it is today. Authoritarianism is on the rise and purveyors of ‘alternative facts’ have multiple channels of communication whereby they can obfuscate, deflect and deliberately misinform. World News Day 2022 is an occasion to celebrate fact-based journalism and remind people why this calling is so critical to democracy and human rights, to all those values that make the world a more livable place. When journalism is done well, when journalists can do their job without having to second-guess themselves for fear of putting a step ‘wrong’, they have the power to shine a light in the darkest corners and hold governments’ feet to the fire. Granted, this may seem like a utopian fantasy, and many a time vested interests do come in the way of this objective — but it should nevertheless be at least an aspirational goal.

Unfortunately, in Pakistan we seem to be drifting in reverse. With hugely consequential decisions on the political landscape happening behind closed doors, it is fertile ground for conjecture and conspiracy theories. To that, add propaganda and ‘fake news’ wheeled out as ‘journalism’, and the result is a citizenry losing trust in mainstream media. Social media — the go-to news source especially for Pakistan’s massive youth demographic — erases context and shades of grey, fostering a correspondingly reductive thought process. Together, both have led to the extreme social polarisation that we can see today. Nevertheless, many journalists, despite threats and intimidation, continue to do stellar work, uncovering facts and asking the searching questions that all those who wield power and must be held accountable should face as a matter of course. Perhaps the media as a whole must do more to showcase such journalism. It could also do a better job of explaining to its audience why they, the people, must fiercely guard their right to information which, in turn, depends on the right to free speech exercised by the press. No trade-off is worth the price of being kept in ignorance.

Noxious though some of its effects are, social media is the apotheosis of a process that began some two decades ago when Pakistani television news channels exploded on the scene. The frenetic news cycle reduced information to easily digestible, transient sound bites. As the audience, with advertisers following suit, shifted to the electronic medium, the circulation of newspapers went into steady decline. Sept 25 was National Newspaper Readership Day, an opportunity to appreciate the unique advantages that print journalism enjoys. An island of stability amid the din of digital and electronic media, print — especially newspapers of record — still inspires a certain level of trust. After all, the permanence of the medium demands a higher level of diligence on the part of its practitioners as well as the grace to acknowledge errors. For those reasons alone, newspapers are more relevant than ever today.

Published in Dawn, September 28th, 2022