Woman of Substance
“Life is like a candle in your hand with which you walk in the wind.”
Razia Bhatti’s sudden death is a reminder of the fragility of life that this (roughly translated) couplet from Mir Anis underlines. Although her death has left an unfillable vacuum in Pakistani journalism, her life and career will always be remembered as setting the finest example of fearless and objective journalism. Razia possessed the three essential c’s of journalist excellence: courage, commitment and credibility.
As someone associated with Newsline from its very inception, I had come to know Razia both as an outstanding professional and a caring friend. Her greatest qualities were her willingness to take on challenges with perseverance and tenacity. Newsline became the embodiment of these qualities, breaking new ground in Pakistani journalism by its fiercely independent character, its blazing investigative stories and its exposé of issues and coverage of areas where no one had ventured before.
Whether it was the role of intelligence agencies in the country’s politics, the military’s long shadow in the post-Zia democratic transition, the power of the narco-barons, corruption in high places, the decline of educational standards, human rights abuses, persecution of minorities – Razia dared where others feared to tread.
As a warrior in the pursuit of truth, Razia was uncompromising in upholding for the democratic principles of the right to know and the right to publish. Deeply conscious of the enormous responsibility press freedom places on an editor, she set rigorous standards for her writers and her team. Once in 1991, I had sent her a long piece on the uneasy relationship between the country’s so-called power troika. She telephoned to question me about my account of a meeting where I could not name my source.
It was important for Razia to be satisfied who my source was and be convinced about why I could not name him. This provides only a tiny glimpse into Razia’s professional demand for substantiation of whatever her contributors wrote. On another occasion, Razia rightly objected to the use of the term ‘informed source,’ saying this was far too vague to pass the credibility test. In constantly reminding her writers to strive for objectivity, Razia was ever conscious that words had consequences.
She believed every misused word could forever haunt a writer’s reputation. The consensual style which made Razia such an inspiring team leader is best exemplified by the way she consulted her staff, and occasionally myself based in Islamabad, about whether a particular issue was worthy of running as a cover story. Many a time we would chat late into the night debating whether a certain political development or social issue should be put on the cover.
It was her extraordinary ability to sense the mood of the nation that enabled her to tackle what is a difficult task for a month: be in sync with the issues of the day. Of course Razia herself set the agenda choosing to focus on issues that had never been objectively or comprehensively dealt with before by the print media. She believed that unlike newspapers, a monthly had the time and space to probe beneath the surface and lift us above the crush of the day’s events to draw lessons and to prescribe solutions.
It was her crusading spirit as a political and social reformer that led her time and again to run exposes that earned Newsline the reputation of becoming an unsparing critic of injustice, abuse of power and oppressive social practices.
But this also put Razia at great risk. Whether the threats came from minions of the state or grassroots organisations with fascist tendencies, Razia remained undaunted and undeterred. Her courage – and it was a quiet courage for she made no fuss of such threats – was to become legendary.
On many occasions I her friends, including myself, urged measures to ensure her physical security. But Razia would shrug off such suggestions with the quiet manner of a woman so driven by her convictions that everything else seemed unimportant, almost trivial.
Yet this tenaciously tough professional was gentle – almost shy – as a person. Razia shunned publicity, as also the razzle dazzle world of Pakistan’s power elite. Her discomfort with the country’s VIP culture kept her away from power dinners and the rich and famous. A very private person, she was warm and effusive with her friends and her team, but distant if correct when perforce she had to rub shoulders with celebrities, political and otherwise.
I remember when Razia came to New York in October 1994 to receive the courage in journalism award from the international women’s media foundation. She became the first Pakistani to be honoured for her “extraordinary qualities in pursuing work under dangerous circumstances.” It was a glittering occasion with all the razzmatazz associated with the top media personalities in America. But while media stars like Barbara Walters, Dan Rather Judy Woodruff and Barbara Cochran mixed with guests in a small reception room adjoining the banquet room where the award ceremony was to start in a few minutes, Razia sat quietly in a corner quickly reading her handwritten notes for the speech she was to make.
Later when she walked up to the stage to receive the award amidst thunderous applause, I felt that what Razia had projected of Pakistan in that one moment was worth more than what years of PR work could achieve. Razia had done Pakistan proud.
But modest and self-effacing as she was, she stepped down from the stage exchanging a smile with me as if to signal that this was just another day in her life. This in fact, is what made Razia so special: her humility, even when scaling the heights of her profession and being recognised for this.
While Razia has left us, she will always live in our memory and in the country’s memory, as an emblem of press freedom and a role model for an entire generation of journalists who looked up to Razia fo the courage of her convictions, her professional integrity and her unparalleled contribution to the establishment of a tradition of journalistic excellence.
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