It had been barely a week since I started my two-month training at The Express Tribune – then not known as such. The newspaper hadn’t yet launched and we were a group of 30-something people, handpicked by the publisher and the editor, who would go on to become sub-editors for desks in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad.
The International Islamic University (IIU) in Islamabad had been attacked, and we were discussing the story with our editor Kamal Siddiqi. Many of us, particularly those from Islamabad, took the view that cosmetic steps such as security checkpoints sprinkled over roads helped make us safer. Kamal sahib disagreed, using the example of the lone metal detector being installed outside the Tribune office. These things can’t secure us, he said, unless we take real measures like putting terrorists and criminals behind bars.
His words stuck with me and, as time went by, I began to subscribe to that view. That is why, when the story about The Express Tribune deciding to censor itself was published in The Guardian, it came as a sad shock to me. It quoted my former editor, and an email he had sent to the staff, confirming that indeed such a decision had been taken following two gun attacks at the Tribune office and a shooting – and the deaths of 3 Express Group staffers – in Karachi. I recalled what Kamal sahib had said to us during training, so I knew how tough a decision it must have been for him and the entire editorial team at Tribune.
But it hadn’t prepared me for what I was about to see when I went back to visit friends at the Tribune office. I left Pakistan in August 2013, a few days after Tribune’s Karachi office was attacked for the first time, and was not present when the second and third attacks took place. So I was expecting some changes – a larger number of security guards, more vigilant use of metal detectors, etc. – but what I saw deeply depressed me. Having worked there for 3 years, some of the best of my life, it was like seeing my home transform into a fortified bunker.
For security reasons, I will not divulge any information about the inside layout of the office, but I will say that the openness that I most enjoyed at Tribune is no longer there. I remember when, during the earlier months when the newsroom was in total chaos, many of us would routinely barge into Kamal sahib’s office with complaints about the large, communal newsroom being too difficult a place to concentrate on work with dozens of young, loud, and active people in there. The editor refused to make it a quieter place, letting the energetic debates rage on about topics from what would be the lede on the front page to which restaurant would deliver us dinner at 1 AM.
When some of the launch team members started leaving Tribune, those of us who were left behind started to feel stressed out, worrying how we would continue to work without the friends we were so used to leaning on. Kamal sahib would then tell us that the nature of the news business is such that the newspaper will come out the next day regardless of how many people leave and how that changes the newsroom. After working there for so many years, I could see how true that was.
But the Tribune newsroom has redefined this Darwinian view of newsrooms – that newsroom has carried on, though it has changed so irreconcilably that the newspaper that comes out the next day has to tone itself down. The newsroom, and consequently the newspaper, has veered off far from the idealism that it had started off with. As a former Tribunian, one of the people who launched this fine product and helped make it the voice of the ignored, it is deeply, deeply saddening.