Haroon at CPJ's 2011 award ceremony. (Barbara Nitke)
Haroon at CPJ's 2011 award ceremony. (Barbara Nitke)

Remembering Ayesha Haroon, editor who embraced facts

The highly respected Pakistani editor Ayesha Haroon first came to CPJ’s New York office in July 2011, along with her husband, Faisal Bari, and Absar Alam, both of whom work for the Open Society Foundations. We talked about ways to confront the dangerous conditions facing Pakistani journalists. It was a bad year: Seven journalists would be killed before 2011 concluded, making Pakistan the deadliest nation in the world for the press. The year before, eight had died.

It was a great discussion, genuinely exciting, as we talked through possible ideas. Ayesha was a quiet presence at first, but as ideas started flowing, she served as a reality checker for the rest of us. We all knew there are no quick solutions to the problems for journalists in Pakistan, so we looked for practical projects that would tackle them in the mid- or long-term. The meeting ended, the email trails followed, a plan evolved. In the months after, my family lost my 97-year-old mother, and I received gracious notes from the people who had been at that first meeting.

When we met again a few months later, Ayesha was more subdued. But she told me some great stories of her time at The Frontier Post and later at The Nation and The News, where she promoted fact-based reporting. She was frank in her assessment of Pakistani journalism and the propensity for senior journalists to rely on favored sources to deliver analysis rather than dig for facts. It was an uphill battle, she said, to get younger reporters to go to sources for hard facts, rather than resort to their speed dials to plug in quick quotes. She said, candidly, that she wasn’t sure that she had been that successful.

We met a few more times, but it became clear that she was not winning the battle against the cancer that would eventually take her life. I messaged for advice and perspective about Pakistan, but responses to emails slowed. There was no more mention from her of her illness, but from mutual friends I learned that she was having trouble.

On Saturday, Ayesha died in New York. She was 46.

Now, I’m reading remembrances from friends much closer to her, people familiar with her admirable career. And I just read her last column on March 2012 for The News, detailing the painful personal details of how her family coped with her failing health. But after a lengthy description of the fear and pain and stress that had been filling her life for months on end, her last paragraph was not a maudlin farewell but a set of recommendations on how medical practices should be improved in Pakistan.

She gave the same sort of practical, fact-based advice that she offered when I first met her more than a year and a half ago. It’s fitting that she would end her career doing exactly the same thing.

Beena Sarwar, who knew Ayesha well, has written a full remembrance of this remarkable woman. RIP Ayesha Haroon: clear-sighted courage, grace and laughter appeared in Monday’s edition of The News.