29 April 2007









By Wajid Shamsul Hasan


LONDON: Pakistan is in a fix. Some call it a defining moment others describe it as a cross-road or the edge of precipice. It is difficult to find any proper words to capture its pathetic plight in its profound intensity. Presently at its worst—it is at the receiving end from all sides. And the situation has come to such a pass that its commando general is desperately in search of an answer to his lethal predicaments.Duly forewarned by his well-wishers about the enormous damage media scavengers such as the ghost author of his book can do to him, General Pervez Musharraf of late, has been reportedly carrying out a blitzkrieg exercise to repair his tattered image. To appease his external---mostly ever growing number of hostile American and Western critics-- he went on record in offering his “services”—irrespective of their worth—to Israel to it help resolve the Palestine issue. Pronto came its rejection from the Israeli prime minister who responded to his offer by conveying to him in so many words—“mind your own business”.


His drastic moves to charm Afghan President Karzai too have failed and once again a war of accusations is on between the two. Reports from Delhi too are not encouraging. It is carefully watching the developments in Islamabad and it cannot rule out a change. The report by the American magazine “Newsweek” that he has thrice talked to PPP leader Benazir Bhutto begging her for an understanding and the interview of her by Sunday Times—though explicitly denied by PPP spokesman and the deal stories refuted by GPM himself irrespective of confusion caused by his half witted ministers— have definitely caused a profound crisis and desperation in the rank and file of the PML-Q. Ch. Shujaat Husain’s hobnobbing with the renegades of the Lal Masjid and Taliban of Hafsa Seminary and government’s acceptances of their conditions for easing their pressure on the otherwise bunkered city of Islamabad—though amounting to total surrender to Mulla-and-burqa blackmail---are being described a part of larger scheme of things. The inmates are being well-fed to prepare them to be fodder for their guns for creating a bigger, wider and larger law and order situation to justify the imposition of emergency, curtailing of the powers of the higher courts, suspension of human rights and postponement of elections indefinitely.


Going back to his image building exercise significance can be attached to the free-and-frank discussions that he has held recently with leading anchors of various TV channels and several prominent newspaper correspondents and columnists. Officially described as off-the-record background briefings, these have been something more than meets the eye. I would like to subscribe to the view that these “briefings” were held in desperation as a final confidence rebuilding measure to win over a media that has been rather having a raw deal at the hands of the government.


Pakistan—declared as one of the most dangerous places for journalists after Iraq and among the last of the countries that have least freedom of press—the General--described as a guy dropping from the top floor when asked how he felt in between —answered “so far so good” does not know what is in store for him when he completes his fall and hits the ground. His latest series ‘in confidence, off-the-record briefings’ with the members of the fourth estate—some of them being highly respectable while quite a few of them also known as pen-pushers of sorts—were reportedly given a guided tour by the President-General into the realm of the missing citizens, judicial crisis, talk of his “deal” with PPP, growing terrorism, shredding of the writ of the state and Lal Masjid/Hafsa Taliban Seminary scandal.


Those who sat face-to-face with the once most powerful chief executive found him to be different and worried person in search of a straw that could save him from sinking in the quagmire of self-created problems. He lacked his usual commando bravado and his self-confidence sounded under tremendous strain. He sort of pleaded woefully with his learned audience: will it serve any purpose if he re-arranged the chairs on the deck of his Titanic?


I am told not many had the courage to tell him point blank—all is lost and that the best exit strategy for him would be—not to address the nation on television to explain to them the causes that are nearing him to his fall but to go on the screen and take the entire country and its people into confidence—not by a rhetorical piece of Hitlerian demagoguery but by a right-earnest speech full of substance even if was replete with confession of  his acts of omissions and facts of his regime’s failures. He should accept that the country can not be saved by the army alone. It shall have to be a national effort in totality and a declaration of general amnesty for all political opponents from him will be in order to usher in a national government of consensus with elections as the goal. That perhaps is the only exit strategy available to him and the military.


 General Musharraf and his colleagues in Khaki must realise that army’s image was never as soiled as it is now.  As such it has lost its capacity to keep the country together. Its use of fire power in Northern Areas and Balochistan on war footing has caused death to the civilians in thousands but it too has lost its men—more than the number of troops lost by NATO in Afghanistan . The Khaki uniform does no more command any awe. Taliban-ninja turtles of Hifsa seminary and armed inmates of the Lal Masjid--those carrying acid bombs threatening unveiled women and shaved, beardless men are dreaded more and they have a writ of their own that is more effective than that of the state.


One of my friends who attended the briefing told me that the man is badly shaken and fears a fate either like that of Ayub Khan whose own-appointed army chief refused to bring out troops to assist civil authority for restoring law and order in the country at his asking or that of General Zia. He was also of the view that the General knows that before the year is out he will have to denude himself of his uniform. Commonwealth Secretary General has already made it clear, so have others who have influence on him. Anticipating that eventuality, he has decided to create three military commands so that the power of an individual corps commander is reduced much on the Indian pattern where scores of corps commanders are under a regional commander thus deflating individual powers.


Now I come to the larger issue of media freedom. Though the General never gets tired of parroting that he freed the media, the real freedom for the fourth estate remains an elusive dream. We have known what the leading newspaper group Nawai-i-Waqt had to suffer at the hands of the regime that blatantly tried to dry up and squeeze its sources of revenue, we have also been witness to the militarised ransack of a Geo private TV channel in Islamabad last month and subsequent tongue-in-cheek praise of Musharraf given media freedom by its anchor. Pemra’s (government appointed electronic media controlling authority) draconian action against Aaj TV channel for giving coverage to sacked Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftekhar Choudhry, Islamabad’s advertising clamp down on leading English newspapoer Dawn, hurdles against it in setting up its English TV channel and its latent censorship of news about Balochistan—are the issues that have brought into world focus the deplorable plight of media in Pakistan despite GPM’s tall claims.


Treatment of Aaj TV has been condemned “as a blatant attempt by the government to curtail media freedom and freedom of expression,” the Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) said in a recent statement. “It is quite evident that the government is unhappy and irritated with the openness with which Aaj has allowed various opinions to be aired.”  The New York-based “Committee To Protect Journalists” also saw the pressure on the medias as part of a larger pattern to silence critics of the government. CPJ has released a copy of a letter sent to Musharraf, in which it also referred to an accusation by the Dawn Group that the government was withholding a television broadcast license, and had stopped placing advertisements with the group because of the newspaper’s critical coverage. “The action taken by your government against Aaj and the Dawn Group, along with the attack on Geo, appear to be part of a pattern of intimidation to silence your critics,” Joel Simon, CPJ’s executive director, said in his letter.


While the print media has always survived under governmental duress, now the regime is directing all its efforts to control the electronic media since it is likely to play a major role in its down fall. It has successfully managed the print media by infiltrating its own pen pushers to disseminate its dis-information, its thrust to have its scavengers planted in the electronic media is understandable. All anchors and programmers who tend to be pliable will have to be kept under the scrutiny of the viewers and professional critics to discern their concealed orchestration of the establishment’s line. Even some of the most popular presenters some time let their “secret links” obvious by their line of questioning their guests—especially leaders like former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and Mian Nawaz Sharif—in order to rope them in into a question-trap doled out to them by their invisible and obliging patrons.


* Wajid Shamsul Hasan is Pakistan’s Ex High Commissioner at the UK


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