Saturday, 9 March 2013

Remembering the Frontier Post

by S.A Hussain

I write this column to mourn the brutal murder of the Frontier Post, an English language Pakistani newspaper published from Peshawar. It was not the economic hard times that are the usual reasons for a paper’s closure, but the unruly religious zealots that caused its demise. In a country where most newspapers stay clear of the explosive and controversial socio-religious issues, the Frontier Post was a class act. I was a frequent contributor to its op-ed pages for over three years.

The Frontier Post was established about fifteen years ago by a most unlikely person from the tribal hinterland of Pakistan’s northwest frontier. Rahmat Shah Afridi was a marginally educated, self-made man who despite being steeped in age-old conservative tribal traditions, pursued an enlightened liberal policy on religious and social issues and minority rights. The paper attracted young idealistic writers who took on the government, the religious lobby, the feudal landowners and just about any group who dared to impose its will on the hapless masses. Over time it became a mainstream national paper and started publishing from Lahore as well.

In the mid-nineties the management started an Internet edition which attracted audience from many continents. It welcomed dissenting views and its Readers Forum was the liveliest of any such forum in the English press. It was perhaps the only paper that published articles and letters from Hindu nationalists and others whose views were diagrammatically opposed to those of most Pakistanis.

A chance meeting with the editor-publisher in 1998 started my association with the Frontier Post. He asked me to write for the paper but said he could not afford to pay me. I agreed to write in exchange for an occasional lunch at a roadside chapli kebab shop. Surprised at the unusual barter proposal but realizing our respective humble backgrounds, he readily agreed. On the pages of the Frontier Post I felt privileged to be in the company of the likes of Ahmad Bashir, Afrasiab Khattak and Abid Ullah Jan.

In the late nineties the Frontier Post threw its support behind the Awami National Party (ANP) for changing the name of North West Frontier Province to Pukhtunkhwa. The issue got really hot when the ultranationalist ANP, in a naked display of arrogance, held pro-Pukhtunkhwa rallies in Hindko speaking Hazara where people were against the name change. The paper, despite its strident support of ANP, published my not-too-timid and not-too-polite op-ed pieces against the name change. While some of my Pashtun nationalist friends parted company with me, the paper, despite pressure from ANP stalwarts to ban my writings on the subject, stuck to its policy of accommodating opposing views.

The paper’s unrelenting crusade against the official corruption particularly against the government of Nawaz Sharif did not win it many friends in Islamabad or in Peshawar, the provincial capital. Nawaz Sharif’s efforts to undermine judiciary and the parliament and his cynical efforts to convert the country to Islam, ala Zia-ul-Haq, was stridently criticized in print as well as in cartoons. A brilliant cartoon drawn by Muhammad Zahoor showed Nawaz Sharif drawing a Rafiq Tarar style beard on the face of Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah.

As revenues from government advertisements dried up, the paper fell on hard times. To add insult to injury the editor-publisher Rahmat Shah Afridi was arrested for the possession of narcotics during the last year of Nawaz Sharif’s short lived government. To many observers Rahmat Shah was framed by having narcotics planted in his car. He remains behind bars and the case is unwinding ever so slowly through the legal maze of Pakistani courts. But despite financial difficulties a dedicated core group of reporters, writers and editors kept the paper alive even though they received little or no salary. Through all the turmoil the paper remained a voice of reason amidst the cacophony of monotonous ramblings of the majority of the English press.

The ignominious end came rather suddenly when the paper inadvertently published a letter in its Readers Forum sent by a certain Ben D. Zac by e-mail. The writer in a clear intent to insult and incite called the prophet an imposter and a murderous Nazi, questioned his morals and dismissed the Qura’n as fraud.

The reaction was swift and furious. A mob, egged on by the religious parties, descended on the offices of the paper and as the police watched helplessly from the sidelines, torched it. Under pressure from Mullahs, the government arrested seven members of the newspaper staff under the controversial Blasphemy law that prohibits making derogatory statements against Islam, its scripture and its prophets. It was for all intent and purposes the end of the paper. Though the staff has been released on bail they still face prosecution under the Blasphemy law.

To their credit the English language press in Pakistan has stood by the Frontier Post. While they condemned the contents of the letter, they supported the paper’s contention that it was a horrible but an honest mistake. Soon after the publication of the infamous letter the paper rendered an unqualified apology but the religious parties did not relent. The Frontier Post had always been a thorn in their side and they were not about to allow its revival even though the paper never espoused any anti-religious views. But then to many people of that persuasion there is no difference between being against the mullahs and being anti-Islamic.

On its part the military government of Pervez Musharraf has treaded a fine line between promoting free speech and placating the ever-powerful religious parties in Pakistan. The government knows and has stated publicly that the Blasphemy Law is inherently unfair to the religious minorities but given the street power of the religious parties it finds it hard to repeal it.

The Frontier Post was a unique institution. Coming out of a conservative corner of Pakistan, it trailblazed a path that many of the old staid papers did not dare follow. In the process it became a champion for the rights of women, minorities and the disfranchised masses. It is sad that a courageous voice had to suffer such an inglorious death at the hands of a mob of religious zealots.

-originally published as Frontier Post: A Eulogy published 6-12-01 by Pakistanlink. Republished with permission of the publishers
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