Veteran Journalist Undeterred by Corona Continues Hunger Strike For Press Freedom

Veteran Journalist Undeterred by Corona Continues Hunger Strike For Press Freedom
I haven’t seen or heard from Azhar Munir for nearly 20 years. I remember his slim gentle figure from my Lahore days, a maverick intellectual, writer, researcher, poet, and activist. He was an outlier who would take up his one-man campaigns for the causes that moved him, regardless of who stood with him or not and whether it invoked fanfare or not.

For instance, there was his hunger strike for Burmese human rights activist, Aung San Suu Kyi, when she was detained. He did the same when Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N government viciously targeted the Jang Group in the 1990s to prevent it from launching an independent 24/7 television news channel. The then government kept the channel from being born by pulling out old tax cases, pressuring the media group to fire certain journalists, and blocking advertisements and newsprint supplies. Jang and News were reduced to publishing just a few pages daily. The matter ended apparently as a quid-pro-quo for the TV channel being dropped.

Azhar Munir worked at Jang once but then he was working with another media group, Daily Pakistan. He remembers the embarrassment of some fellow journalists who tried to get him to call off that hunger strike.

What has changed besides the fact that we are older? I feel compelled to reconnect with him on hearing about his current hunger strike, an extraordinary act of solidarity in this time of fear when most people are looking out for themselves.

His current hunger strike camp is for the release of chief editor and proprietor of the Jang Group Mir Shakilur Rahman, arrested on March 12 by Pakistan’s National Accountability Bureau ostensibly for illegal dealings on a 34-year old property transaction. Summoned to Lahore for a verification hearing, Rahman was detained in violation of NAB’s own laws that do not allow arrest at this stage.

He was then denied bail to be by his ailing older brother Mir Jamilur Rahman whose life eventually faded away in Karachi after a struggle with cancer. It was only after he passed away that Mir Shakilur Rahman was allowed out to attend the funeral. He was back to NAB custody in Lahore, ahead of hearings before NAB and Lahore High Court.

The Unabated Strike for Press Freedom

It was early Sunday morning in Lahore at about 6:30 am when I spoke with Azhar Munir on the phone. He was about to leave his one-room apartment in Mozang for the daily, solitary hunger camp he set up seven days earlier, at the Press Club, similar to his earlier camps.

This old-school intellectual doesn’t own a car or a motorbike, or even a smartphone. In the absence of public transport, he would walk three kilometres to Simla Pahari, where he will open up a chequered blanket and spread it on the footpath opposite the Press Club entrance.

He’ll take off his slippers and sit down in front of a large yellow banner covered with words in Urdu. In the centre: BHOOK HARTAL - hunger strike, followed by his name flanked by: “Jang Geo ko jeenay do… Media ko jeenay do” – Let Jang, Geo live… Let the media live.

The line on top asserts: “Corona ke khilaf jang zaroori… Magar media ki azadi ki jang jeetna bhi zaroori hai” – War against Corona is important… but it is also important to win the war for media freedom.The second line: “Mir Shakilur Rahman ki giriftari media ka gala dabane ki mazmum koshish” – This arrest of Mir Shakil… is a condemnable effort to strangle the media.

Azhar Munir, now 65, may look frail but he has a steel will and can keep going for a long time. “I’ve led a tough life”, he tells me. “I can walk 15-20 km in the heat and go for days without eating”.

At the hunger camp, he sits hunched up in his white pyjama kurta, armed with nothing more than his will and his patience. Occasionally, some colleagues join him in solidarity. Late at night, he would fold up his sheet and banner and stash them at the Press Club. Then he would walk home to eat his one frugal meal of the day and get some sleep.

There have been a couple of media interviews, but in times of coronavirus, there’s little space for much else. It even took Jang/Geo several days to run reports about his protest.

But as Munir stresses, this is not about a particular media group or an individual. Reviewing NAB’s allegations against Rahman, Munir says: “This case isn't a case at all. It is just revenge for telling the truth, like other media groups. Mir Shakil wasn't trying to leave the country. There was no need to arrest and detain him. They are trying to make an example out of him.”

The grandiosely named ‘Simla Pahari’, the little hillock housing the Press Club, is a roundabout in a heavily trafficked area. The Jang, News and Geo offices are a short walk up on Davis Road. Since March 29 when Azhar Munir started his protest, the coronavirus scare and Lahore’s partial lockdown has reduced traffic. As elsewhere, the normally frenzied, bustling Simla Pahari locality with its bakeries, mobile phone shops and pharmacies is at a standstill and quieter.

If those who want to clamp down on political dissent have their way, this quiet would also blanket the media, prevent it from providing a platform to a variety of views and opinions. “If we allow this to happen now, it will be a lesson to all the others to buckle down”. And that is why Azhar Munir has set up his hunger camp.

It is his individual protest against the ongoing media censorship and suppression in Pakistan, “worse than what we witnessed in Zia or Musharraf years”. It is his stand against the narrative that those who point out flaws in the socio-political situation are “traitors” or “enemies of the state.” “In fact, they are doing the state a favour by saying what is wrong and what needs to be fixed,” he said.

On Saturday, senior Jang Group journalists, editor Jang Suhail Warraich and Geo Lahore bureau chief Raees Ansari visited him on behalf of the group to thank him and request him to call off his hunger strike.

Predictably, he refused. “Na mein ne ye bhook hartal Mir Shakil ke kehne pe shuru ki, na mein un ke kehne pe khatam karoonga” – I didn’t start it on his say-so, and nor will I end it because he’s asking.

This is also his response to others who periodically visit him to persuade him to wind up his hunger camp, including policemen and those claiming to represent NAB and intelligence agencies. He tells them there only two ways to get him to stop: They will have to physically remove him, or by releasing Mir Shakilur Rahman. “I will end my hunger strike then. Not before."

Beena Sarwar blogs at Journeys to Democracy. She is Editor Aman Ki Asha and curator South Asia Peace Action Network, Sapan @southasiapeace. Twitter @beenasarwar.