Our "Zamir"
by Beena Sarwar

'Zamir' in Urdu means 'conscience', and that is what Zamir Niazi, that great chronicler of media freedoms and censorships, was to so many of us - our conscience. His death on June 11, 2020 is a huge blow to those struggling for freedom and justice in Pakistan.

His frail, white-clad figure belied the steel within, and the formidable will power that kept him going long past doctors' predictions. Till the last, he was working, perched at the edge of his bed, over-sized glasses dominating his thin, broad-browed face framed by long hair, surrounded by books, papers and other references, a telephone set handy by his side.

Uncharacteristically for a man of his generation, he had no hesitation in picking up that telephone to call a younger colleague in appreciation of a recently published article, to share outrage at yet another violation of media freedom and ask what the journalists' community was doing about it. Each successive blow to media freedom in Pakistan saddened him, but you could almost see the gleam in his eyes as he rose to the challenges these restrictions posed, even as you strained to hear his soft voice over the phone.

Or he would call to seek information - usually, references for something he had read or heard about. A meticulous indexer, he sought the original source. He never took such help for granted, often ringing again later to voice his thanks.

Zamir Niazi was a symbol of the fight for a free media and freedom of _expression. A voracious reader, he was totally un-acquisitive in the material sense -- except when it came to his passion, books and journals. His trailblazing first book, 'Press in Chains', 1986, published by the Karachi Press Club, ran to several editions. The Zia regime still enforced press censorship in a crude and heavy-handed way - very different from the more subtle, hidden constraints and pressures of the present day dominated by what Zamir Sahib deridingly called 'presstitutes' controlled by the corporate sector and self-censorship.

'Press under Seige' (1992) and 'The Web of Censorship' (1994) firmly established him as a one-man institution on media rights and responsibilities. He was awarded the HRCP's Nisar Osmani Award for Courage in Journalism, 1997, named for another outstanding and courageous journalist, who like him was a man of not just words, but deeds.

When the government banned six newspapers at one go in 1995, Zamir Niazi demonstrated the moral fibre that few possess, by returning his prestigious Pride of Performance award along with its accompanying Rs 50,000, to then President Farooq Leghari. His letter to Leghari was unrelenting in its condemnation:

"Never in the bleak history of Pakistan, not even under the tyrants who have ruled over us, have six newspapers been banned by the stroke of a single pen, using the cover of the draconian Maintenance of Public Order Ordinance 1960. This was done by the government of the state you head, without it having assigned any justifiable specific reason. An appeal against an order passed under the MPO Ordinance lies only (with) the government. This is tantamount to appealing to Nero for relief against a death sentence handed down by Nero," he wrote in a letter to the President.

When Nawaz Sharif's government persecuted the Jang group in 1998, ostensibly over tax returns but actually because of plans to launch a television news channel, Zamir Niazi, despite ill health, was there at the demonstrations.

The nuclear explosions of 1998 pushed him into editing 'Zameen ka Nauha' (Elegy for the Earth), an Urdu anthology of anti-nuclear poems and essays, published on the second anniversary of Pakistan's tests (Scherezade, Karachi, 2000).

Even when ill-health made him almost house-bound, he never complained. "We must meet," he good-humouredly told my father, "but us old people now have to be carried around everywhere!"

Always happy to receive visitors, he was an entertaining host, with his incisive analyses of the present political situation, laced with gentle humour. "Arey, how could you go to my city alone, you should have taken me along in your suitcase," he joked after I returned from attending the World Social Forum in Bombay. It turned out that his mother had just passed away there - typically, he conveyed the information without sentimentality.

Young at heart and forward-looking, he lived in the present and for the future, taking on in his last years a project that a younger person would have quailed at - censorship worldwide, through the ages. His anger at the destruction of precious records in Iraq catalysed him into even more feverish activity towards completing the book, to be titled, 'Books in Chains, Libraries in Flames' -- a culmination of his life's works that he knew was a race against time.

Zamir Niazi lost that race, but someone should pick up the material he so painstakingly collected, and complete it. That would be a fitting tribute to our Zamir.

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