LAHORE: When policemen suddenly grabbed and started beating him mercilessly, for several moments, Zaheer Mahmood Siddiqui did not comprehend what was going on.The Dawn newspaper reporter, who retired on May 15 this year, was not being thrashed on a public street: it was on the premises of the Punjab Civil Secretariat and at the attackers were policemen in uniform and in civvies, deployed to guard the civil secretariat. Sharing his experience of reporting terrorism, flooding, earthquake, fire and politics in his farewell meetings, he says profoundly that a reporter’s life is always full of unexpected things.“And these unseen, unpredictable things make the reporting the most charming thing on the earth,” he says. “But not all the things,” he cautions, when he talks about the one, what he says, of the most horrible things of his life.No news-person wants to be the news. Instead, they want to write and discuss the news. November 30, 2004, was just like another day when Siddiqui stepped out of his modest home on Multan Road at 10am and went to the civil secretariat hoping to get some powerful stories, which could feed his newspaper Dawn’s pages and fire some bombshell on the government delinquent officers. By 11am, he himself became the news. “Security officials at the Punjab Civil Secretariat beat me up when I was entering the premises,” he has vivid memories. According to him, security officials stopped him and another reporter Anwar Husain Sumra of an English daily at the main entrance to the secretariat.“Two constables in uniform and 10 other men in civvies seized me abruptly and beat me up severely.” They dragged him to the office of DSP security Yar Muhammad Dogar. The DSP instead of rescuing him, ordered his staff to again beat him and his orders were followed without any second thought.“Before I asked them the reason for beating me, the officials threatened him with consequences for having published a news story on the extortion of money from visitors by the security officials at the secretariat during Ramazan.Later, he was brought to then additional secretary welfare (and also additional secretary admin of the S&GAD) Arif Anwar Baloch for further action. The officer conveyed to him that he was treated this way for breaching the ban on his entrance to the secretariat. The officer, however, showed remorse over his beating and asked Mr Siddiqui to submit an application against the police highhandedness.The other accompanying reporter, Anwar Sumra, conveyed the incident to the chief secretary office.“The chief secretary was kind enough to initiate an inquiry into the incident,” says Mr Sumra.The dilemma arose when S&GAD additional secretary (welfare), the probe officer, said the entry of the Dawn staffer was banned by the chief secretary for having published a news story on the extortion of money from visitors by the policemen at the secretariat during Ramazan.“Even before the probe began, the inquiry officer reminded me that the civil secretariat is not a public place and the competent authority can stop anybody from entering the premises on security grounds.”“Journalists are not security threats,” Mr Siddiqui retorted and boycotted the probe.He neither did take medical aid from a public hospital nor moved the police for action.“When I approached the Kotwali police station, they knew who was the other party; they refused to take action, and instead advised me to wait for the outcome of the probe.”Mr Siddiqui pressed the government to change the inquiry officer but to no avail.“The beating happened in front of the DSP and several other staffers. It should have been an open and shut case. No. Instead, the probe focus was ‘how dare I breach the ban on the entrance to the premises.”His institution Dawn newspaper stood by him and gave fair coverage to the story.“We were really sad at the thrashing of our colleagues,” said Intekhab Hanif, his colleague.The then governing body of the Lahore Press Club condemned the incident and said banning the entry of a journalist to the civil secretariat was no less than the attack on the press freedom.The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan joined the chorus.Then HRCP chairperson Tahir Mahmood Khan and secretary general Hina Jilani said: “It is obvious the administration officials have been instructed, from the very highest level, to stamp out any attempt to report on the misdoings of the authorities and use maximum force to do so. This makes a mockery of the repeated claims of freedom of expression.”The HRCP said: “More shocking still are the reports, quoting a senior official at the Secretariat, that the chief secretary himself had ordered a ban on Siddiqui’s entry.”The present chief secretary office says that they are neither aware of any such incidence which happened 15 years ago. It says now no journalist is on the banned list.DGPR Director General Aslam Dogar says that no government office can ban the entry of a journalist. “They should follow office discipline and timing. Like, a journalist cannot simply walk into an office where an in-camera meeting is being held, or officials are engaged in a meeting. In that case, they should wait or seek guidance from the support staff.”“Under the information act, we try to provide every information, that is required to journalists,” he said.Lahore Press Club’s former governing body member Muhsen Ali says the incident of Zaheer Siddiqui sahib was tantamount to attacking freedom of the press, belying the tall claims made by the government for maintaining good relations with the press.“But such incidence never happened at the civil secretariat afterwards just because of our strong reaction,” he says. The beating of journalists does occur in Pakistan routinely. The most recent is the detention of journalists on May 29 in Islamabad during the clash of PPP workers and the Islamabad police. According to the Pakistan Press Foundation, 171 journalists have been detained, tortured and beaten in custody of state and non-state actors from 2002 to 2019.In 2004, there was no specific law that protected journalists at work.According to the information obtained from the PID under the information act, a draft of Journalists Safety, Security and Protection Bill, 2018, is under discussion that allows aid to the families of journalists and media houses employees who are killed while on duty and also ensures the investigation of crime or threats against journalists. Mr Siddiqui took months to recover.“This is for the first time, I was abused physically. My family was all loving and caring; my schoolteachers were caring and loving, and my college days at the Government College Lahore were all fun,” he says.The incident left him in unbelievable shock for months.A psychiatrist at the Fountains House and a psychologist at the Mental Hospital (now Government Hospital for Psychiatric Diseases) helped him return to normalcy.He apprentices the younger lot to deal with such eventualities with care.“If you’ve published a hostile story regarding an official, don’t dare visit the very next day. Wait for a few days until the official in question has their anger managed. Or you will become a story like me.”This story was written as part of the Pakistan Press Foundation Fellowship.