Protesters Park On Karachi's Press Club Sidewalk Waiting To Be Heard
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
In the United States, voicing a strong opinion can get you denounce on Twitter. In Pakistan, voicing a strong opinion can get you killed.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Just last month, a civil society activist was murdered. She'd been calling attention to a murky counterinsurgency campaign at the time. She was killed in Karachi, the giant city we visit next.
INSKEEP: It's a city where some people speak out in spite of the risk. They try what they can to gain the attention of the media. They go to the place where they were found by NPR's Philip Reeves.
PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Salma Lakhani is as mad as hell, and she's not going to take it anymore. That's why she's here on a sidewalk in the middle of Karachi. She's come to complain about a man.
SALMA LAKHANI: Well, I was his live-in girlfriend, and he got tired of me, and he just happened to kick me out, and he does not want to take care of me, and I am now ill.
REEVES: Lakhani's sitting cross-legged on the ground. Traffic streams past a few feet away. She's holding up a hand-written sign excoriating her former lover.
Have you been here many times?
LAKHANI: No. This is my first time. I haven't made a career out of it yet, but now I will.
REEVES: But why would you choose to come here to make this protest as opposed to making it anywhere else?
LAKHANI: Where else should I go? Why don't you suggest?
REEVES: Well, a lot of people, when they have grievances, they go on the Internet.
LAKHANI: I don't want to be hidden. I want people to see me; come and see me. I want to be on all the channels.
REEVES: Lakhani thinks this sidewalk is a good place to come and get on TV because of its location. It's outside the gates of Karachi's Press Club. Every day people gather here, like supplicants at a temple, hoping a passing journalist will stop and listen.
IMRAN ASLAM: You'll see them with their petitions in their hands, with their newspaper cuttings, with hope in their eyes.
REEVES: Imran Aslam is president of Pakistan's Geo TV network.
ASLAM: Basically it's catharsis, and it's confessional. You know, they want to be there. They want to sort of lament. The feeling is that the press and the media is the only way that their voices or their concerns can be amplified.
REEVES: Karachi's Press Club is in a faded neoclassical mansion built in the mid-19th century during British colonial rule. Behind the gates, members and their guests sit in the garden smoking and drinking tea. Club secretary A. H. Khanzada says protesters come here because this is where you'll find the city's movers and shakers.
A. H. KHANZADA: Five to six protests are being held daily at least - every day.
REEVES: People gather on this sidewalk because, for the poor and dispossessed, there aren't many other options. Pakistan's courts are massively overloaded. Government is blighted by corruption and cronyism.
SAKINA RAHIM: (Foreign language spoken).
REEVES: Sakina Rahim and her husband Mohammad have been camping out here for seven years. They came to tell the world that a feudal lord stole their land. Some journalists have stopped and listened.
RAHIM: (Foreign language spoken).
REEVES: The couple produces a pile of old newspaper clippings to prove it. Other supplicants are less successful.
BASHIR AHMAD MANGNEJO: We have been (unintelligible). Drink a cup of tea for you, please, kindly.
REEVES: Bashir Ahmad Mangnejo seems desperate to tell his story to, well, anyone. He and his colleagues worked at a state-run bank but were kicked out when it was privatized. Their trade union has had a protest tent here since 2009.
MANGNEJO: Journalists and journalism, print media, is not giving to us any space in their newspaper or printing.
REEVES: So are you saying that the journalists in the club - which is just there, right? Just right behind you - they're not coming?
MANGNEJO: No, no, no, no, no, never at all, not a single time, not a single time.
REEVES: Pakistan has hundreds of press clubs. Karachi's is the country's oldest and most prestigious with a record of standing up to power, especially past military rulers.
MAZHAR ABBAS: There's a history behind it, particularly of the Karachi journalists who have been - for years and years have been fighting for the freedom of the press. So that is why we want to keep this as an institution of dissent.
REEVES: Journalist Mazhar Abbas is a former club secretary who's won international acclaim for defending press freedom. He says the club does not allow anyone in uniform to enter.
(SOUNDBITE OF DEMONSTRATION)
KHURRUM ALI NAYYAR: (Chanting) Where are you?
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Inaudible).
NAYYAR: (Chanting) Where are you?
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Inaudible).
REEVES: Out on the sidewalk, a fresh protest is underway. This one's against government atrocities in Pakistan's largest province, Balochistan. A dirty war is going on there between the state and separatist insurgents. Many people have disappeared. Pakistan's security agencies have a record of quashing publicity on this issue. That's another reason for choosing this sidewalk, says Khurrum Ali Nayyar of the National Students Federation.
NAYYAR: Because it is the safest place where you can hold demonstrations.
REEVES: Safest place?
NAYYAR: Safest place.
REEVES: How do you mean?
NAYYAR: Because at any other place there won't be any media. And if there will not be media, it will be easy for the state to inflict the violence. They can use any methods they want.
REEVES: Pakistan's journalists are under pressure from the country's powerful intelligence agencies to play down coverage of Balochistan, so Nayyar isn't surprised that the press club people are showing little interest in today's demo.
NAYYAR: Most of them know very well that their papers, their channels, would not allow them to cover this kind of protest.
REEVES: Journalist Mazhar Abbas says his colleagues do report these protests but adds...
ABBAS: We always, always tell them, you know, we don't guarantee the coverage. We'll go and file the story, but we can't guarantee whether the story will be published next day or not.
(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORN)
REEVES: On the sidewalk, getting their story out isn't easy for anyone. Salma Lakhani's spent the entire afternoon sitting in the heat and dust and is still as mad as hell. She wants to tell the TV channels about how her former boyfriend stole her passport and threw her onto the street with no money but...
LAKHANI: Nobody has come to me. Everyone has been bullying me, like I'm a single woman. I should not be here. I should be, like, covered and act like a, you know, a docile, timid woman, a subservient woman, and that's the last thing I am.
REEVES: The secret, says sacked bank worker and sidewalk veteran Bashir Ahmand Mangnejo, is never lose hope.
MANGNEJO: If I can say the words of the Shakespeare, that you can try, try, again try, and try, and finally you can achieve your target.
REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, Karachi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.