"I see the journalist's role as both reporter and crusader. In a civilization that seems to be regressing into new holocausts, we must seek and speak the truth, for we are the voice of voiceless millions. Having chosen this profession, we cannot be afraid to speak the truth no matter what the cost. And by speaking, I personally believe we can change the world."
- Razia Bhatti (IWMF Courage in Journalism award ceremony, 1994)
Razia Bhatti has been described as a crusader, a torch-bearer, and a symbol of courage. In 1996, the Pakistan Press Foundation called her untimely death at the age of 52 an "end of a golden chapter of journalism in Pakistan." For those who attempted to silence Pakistani press, Razia Bhatti was undoubtedly a force to be reckoned with during her almost thirty-year long journalistic career. Despite constant harassments and threats to her safety, she wrote bravely on issues ranging from women’s rights to political corruption. She nurtured two of Pakistan’s leading English language publications, as editor of the Herald for 12 years and then of Newsline for another eight. In 1994, less than just two years before her death, Razia Bhatti was a recipient of the “Courage in Journalism” award from the New York based International Women's Media Foundation.
Razia Bhatti first entered professional journalism in 1967 when she joined The Illustrated Weekly of Pakistan after completing her Master's degree in English and Journalism from Karachi University. The lifestyles magazine she joined was later renamed Herald and turned into a monthly publication reporting on current events and political issues. In 1970, Razia Bhatti became the assistant editor of Herald and then became editor in 1976.
Shortly, thereafter, General Zia-ul-Haq took over the country in a military coup. A period of repression and censorship followed as Zia used religious fundamentalist rhetoric to strengthen his grip on power. Not one to be easily intimidated, Razia continued her valiant reporting. "General Zia once got so infuriated that he waved a copy of her article at a press conference and said he would not tolerate such journalism," recalls Beena Sarwar in her article, “Razia Bhatti and Najma Babar: Two Champions of Independent Journalism in Pakistan.”
Since early in her history, Pakistan has had the misfortune of being run, democratically or undemocratically, by corrupt or self seeking politicians and feudals. Little economic progress has been made and the literacy rate remains among the lowest in the world. The result has been an atmosphere where corruption, bigotry, and intimidation of press and human rights activists are the norm. To speak up against injustice and the ruling elites in such an environment is no small achievement. Razia Bhatti did just that.
When pressured to curb her writing and support the policies of General Zia's regime, Razia resigned from the magazine on an ethical stance. Most of her team of journalists resigned with her and together they established a new current affairs magazine called Newsline. In July 1989, the first issue of Newsline was published with an editor’s note written by Razia which began, “Forty-two years down the road from independence, this nation seems to have bartered away the promise of its birth. To a whole generation of Pakistanis, fear, violence, authoritarianism and deceit represent the norm, for they have known no other.”
Newsline which started on a meager budget, under Razia Bhatti’s editorial ship, soon became a competitor to other well known English language publications like the Herald itself. Newsline covered a wide range of stories including drug trade, corruption by politicians and financial institutions, religious persecution, and abuse of women’s rights.
In December 1994, Newsline published a story about then prime minister Benazir Bhutto’s inaction in stopping the rampant riots, killings, and looting which became daily occurrences, terrorizing the population of Karachi, one of Pakistan’s largest cities. Benazir responded to this criticism by banning Newsline from all Pakistan International Airline flights. This action of the government did little to quiet the Newsline journalists and in the months that followed, Razia and her staff continued reporting on the flaws of Benazir’s government including its foreign policy, the methods government used to finally respond to the Karachi violence, its stringent policies designed to weaken the press, and the taxation system which allowed the richest of the population to get away with paying little or no tax while the average working public carried almost the entire burden of taxation.
Even after she received international recognition, the Pakistani politicians did not stop harassing her when she exposed their misuses of power. In August 1995, police raided Razia Bhatti’s home in the early morning hours demanding her appearance at the police station regarding a criminal case filed against her. The case was brought about by then Sindh Governor, Kamal Azfar, in retaliation for a story published about him in Newsline. The news of the raid on Razia’s house resulted in protests from journalists and human rights activists from across the country, following which Kamal Azfar retreated and completely withdrew all charges against Razia and the journalist who wrote the story.
Through her integrity and dedication, Razia Bhatti contributed much to the Pakistani society. She furthered the cause of women's rights by proving that a woman is as capable of earning a respected spot in serious journalism as the toughest of her male counterparts. She also reinforced the importance of free press and journalistic integrity in a country where honesty and free speech are often overrun by corruption and fundamentalist ideals. The examples she left us through her writing, serve as inspiration to speak up against repression and question the leaders whose actions do not follow their rhetoric and who use public service position for personal gain.
Razia's willingness to question powerful government officials without fear is the reason that respected Pakistani philosopher and author, Eqbal Ahmad, wrote in his tribute to Razia Bhatti, "She was always in official disfavor. She understood better than most of us, that the relationship between power and the press must necessarily be adversarial if the latter is to fulfill its professional and moral obligation to the public." It is a lesson which much of the world’s press has yet to learn.
In the first issue of Newsline Razia Bhatti wrote, “The press in Pakistan shares the guilt of this nation’s state. It has been silent when it should have spoken, dishonest when it should have been forthright, succumbed when it should have stood fast.” Had she been alive to witness the state of the world today, one wonders what Razia Bhatti would have to say about the role of the press, not just in Pakistan, but in the largest of the Western nations. The volatile state of world politics today demands that the press of every free nation, in the East and West, must carry out its duty and hold accountable the elected and non-elected leaders and remind them again and again that the people of their nations want to live and prosper in peace.
In her efforts to speak to the conscience of those she reprimanded in her articles, Razia did not merely rebuke, she also reminded them of their abilities and laudable qualities. In the same Newsline editorial as mentioned above, Razia continued, “Yes, like this nation, the press retains the strength to rise above its weakness… We can see reality yet refuse to abandon hope.” Perhaps it is this hope which drove her to work passionately for the remainder of her years and which still guides the principles of the magazine she helped form.
Of his first impression of Razia Bhatti, Eqbal Ahmad wrote, "She will crash, I had thought then, or else she will help transform journalism in Pakistan. She did both." Razia Bhatti used her pen to fight oppression and this constant battle eventually took its toll on her. She died of a brain hemorrhage in 1996 leaving behind a husband, two children, and thousands of admirers.
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