Media in Pakistan: Limitations & coherence

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By Manzoor Ahmed

In prevailing situation especially the incidents of attacks on journalists, the media in Pakistan cannot call its soul its own, the myth of it being independent notwithstanding. Some journalists believe that media has to operate within the space allowed to it by ISPR but the myth of free press in Pakistan is vociferously maintained. Abbas Nasir, a former editor of Pakistan’s English language daily DAWN explodes this myth. He points to hierarchy’s love jihad to snare and paralyse journalists of Pakistan. This jihad began after the death of then President and Army Chief Gen Ziaul Haq in an air crash in August 1988.
Zia kept journalists in line with a whip.In prevailing situation especially the incidents of attacks on journalists, the media in Pakistan cannot call its soul its own, the myth of it being independent notwithstanding. Some journalists believe that media has to operate within the space allowed to it by ISPR but the myth of free press in Pakistan is vociferously maintained. Abbas Nasir, a former editor of Pakistan’s English language daily DAWN explodes this myth. He points to hierarchy’s love jihad to snare and paralyse journalists of Pakistan. This jihad began after the death of then President and Army Chief Gen Ziaul Haq in an air crash in August 1988. Zia kept journalists in line with a whip.In his article ‘A treasure trove of history’, Abbas Nasir recalls the Army Chief after Zia was Gen Mirza Aslam Beg.  Now the Army launched a massive PR initiative with Brig. Riazullah, ‘a polite, persuasive communicator’ as the Chief of the ISPR. The media dubbed this initiative as “glasnost”. One may recall that Gen Beg’s first major engagement was the military exercise he called Zarb-i-Momin. The name of this exercise was a clear indication that he intended to continue the practice of exploiting people’s Islamic sentiments.  Above all, he made it clear that the exercise was aimed at India.Nasir’s article points to a hilarious side of this exercise: how the ego of embedded journalists is fed to trap them. He writes the journalists who chose to cover Zarb-i-Momin were trained and given khaki kits and rechristened war correspondents by the ISPR. “Most of the war correspondents were treated as would-be officers (addressed as Sir, dined in field officers’ messes and lodged in officers accommodation) and were in awe of the military by the time Zarb-i-Momin ended”. Thus the military earned friends for life among journalists, who saw in Gen Beg “the new dawn”, a political and solely professional soldier. While journalists were busy rehabilitating the Army (after the Army controlled country’s political life under Gen Ziaul Haq) as an apolitical institution, its intelligence agencies were busy trying to subvert the freshly restored political process.  Nasir’s article recalls that these agencies were herding together all anti-Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) forces into the Islamic Jamhori Ittehad (IJI) to stop Benazir Bhutto’s march to power. A Karachi-based bank was established to pay huge bribes to politicians including Nawaz Sharif to form the IJI. But Bhutto ultimately won the November 1988 elections hands down. The armed forces of Pakistan and President Ghulam Ishaq Khan were unwilling to transfer power to Bhutto. At last they succumbed to international pressure.  But her government was allowed to last only for about two years.The ISPR mostly focussed on professional issues during the tenures of Gen Asif Nawaz, Gen Abdul Waheed Kakar and Gen Jahangir Karamat as Army Chiefs. But it became overactive when Gen Parvez Musharraf was made the Army Chief by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. ISPR Chief was Gen Musharraf’s confident Brig. Rashid Qureshi, who at once set out to build his Chief’s image. His first achievement was the widely circulated news that Gen Musharaf refused to salute India’s Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee when he visited Lahore in 1999.  Brig. Qureshi hoped this news would make Gen Musharraf a hero in the eyes of those Pakistanis who resented Sharif’s moves to normalise relations with India. Later in the year when Gen Musharraf quietly organised the invasion of Kargil, Brig. Qureshi aggressively steered its press coverage. After his October 1999 coup against Nawaz Sharif’s elected government, the ISPR projected Gen Musharraf as a liberal reformist.  But the international community treated him as a pariah until the 9/11 terror attacks in New York and Washington when the US took his help to fight Al Qaeda.Post-9/11 saw in Pakistan the transition to quasi military-civilian rule. The new ISPR Chief now was Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas.  Nasir writes that Gen. Abbas excelled at the job delinking the Army from most of the decisions Gen Musharraf took to perpetuate himself in power. This means that the ISPR under Abbas was trying to make the common Pakistanis believe that the Army had nothing to with Gen Musharraf’s decision to hold a referendum to legitimate his usurped position as a President to launch a benami political party, Quaid Muslim League, gathering the turncoats mainly from deposed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif led Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) and those monitored by the Nationals Accountability Bureau (NAB). Musharraf also tried to hold party-based elections to create an illusion of restoration of democracy because of the pressure exerted by his European financers in the war on global terrorism, and to preside over a government of turncoat politicians.(The author is geo-political analysts and the contents of the article are his own views and not necessarily be agreed by the newspaper. Editor)
Maj. Gen Abbas modified his ways when Gen Kayani took over from Gen Musharraf. Nasir writes that Maj. Gen Abbas made sure that senior journalists of Pakistan had access to Gen Kayani and saw him in a favourable light, so much so that most of the scribes ignored all behind-the-scenes political nurturing and string pulling of Gen. Kayani’s Intelligence Chief, Lt. Gen Ahmad Shuja Pasha.While journalists concentrated on Gen Kayani’s seemingly apolitical goodness, ISI Chief Pasha was allegedly working against democracy. Suddenly before the 2013 general elections Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) exploded into provinces. Observers were dumbfounded by PTI’s professionally organised money-intensive massive public meetings in different parts of Pakistan. Imran called these meetings tsunami and claimed his party would sweep the 2013 elections.  A section of the media – particularly the new generation – was attracted by the so-called youthful image of Pakistan’s most loved cricket icon.  But he had more youthful image before this, yet his party could hardly get one seat in the National Assembly.  There is wide spread suspicion in Pakistan that Imran has been enjoying the Army’s backing.  The Difa-e-Pakistan Council (DPC), allegedly organised by Pasha before the 2013 elections, had declared it would keep a watch that nobody rigged the election results against the PTI. But no one could prevent PML(N)’s massive electoral victory.But no above-mentioned Director Generals (DG) of the ISPR could match Maj. Gen Asim Saleem Bajwa’s ways of handling the media. He became ISPR’s DG when Gen Raheel Sharif was Pakistan’s Army Chief. Pakistan came to be equated with Gen Sharif while the image of Prime Minister faded in the mind of the common man.  In fact the Prime Minister looked somewhat irrelevant. Nasir Abbas writes that the DG ISPR painted his boss’s image as a larger-than-life figure. As a reward, Gen. Sharif promoted him from a Maj. Gen. to a Lt. Gen.After Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification by the Supreme Court on July 28, Nawaz Sharif and PML(N) alleged that the apex court acted under the Army’s pressure. The current DG Maj. Gen. Asif Gafoor’s Ghafoor’s much talked about press conference on Rawalpindi on October 5 came as a reaction to US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s concern about the future of the government in Pakistan.  Ghafoor said the Nawaz government had brought about economic instability while the government told the Election Commission of Pakistan not to register JuD’s Milli Muslim League (MML) as a political party for its connections with terrorist outfits. The ISPR Chief said it had the right to take part in the political process.  Thus he betrayed Army’s connections with a terrorist outfit like JuD.  Ghafoor’s statement also strengthened the suspicion that the Army wanted to replace mainstream political parties with Islamist outfits.  His statement that the Army stood by Khatm-i-Nabubat (finality of Prophethood) and the Blasphemy Laws further strengthened this suspicion. He admitted that although the Rangers are under the civilian control, they work under the Army’s instructions. Nasir Abbas’s article is in fact very timely and simultaneously is an eye opener. The title of the article ‘a treasure trove of history’ is apt, as it indeed brings out how the press in Pakistan is historically manipulated by the actual powers that be.