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NAWAZ Sharif has never liked the press. He once said newspapers only cause trouble. When he was prime minister the last time (1990-93), he had a short fuse and gave the press a hard time. Numerous cases of vandalism by ruling party thugs against newspapers and journalists were reported across the country. Takbeer magazine's offices in Karachi were burnt down. A sedition case was lodged against the editor of The News in Islamabad for publishing a poem in the letters column which Sharif didn't like. And so on.
I had a particularly nasty experience in 1992-93 because, apart from the investigative stories of corruption in government, Sharif didn't warm to a weekly satirical column about him in my paper. Armed thugs were sent to rough me up but I escaped their clutches. I was advised my safety couldn't be guaranteed if some ruling party loyalists decided to bomb my office. Income tax notices flew thick and fast. Anonymous phone-callers abused my wife and threatened rape and kidnapping. My paper survived only because Sharif was booted out of power a couple of months later.
Pakistani politicians like Sharif who are originally products of martial law have a special love-hate relationship with the press. They adore it when in opposition and abhor it when in power. Their problem is that they cannot come to terms with a Pakistani press which has come to savour and guard its independence after forty years of censorship under various authoritarian regimes.
Pakistan's press is certainly freer today than ever before. But it continues to labour under the shadow of the government. One, the government controls the bread and butter of newspapers newsprint imports are banned except for the press but the government retains a tight grip over newsprint quota. Two, as the government is one of the biggest sources of advertising, the press can't afford to shrug off its main source of revenue. Three, the government can use its vast coercive apparatus to browbeat the press or muzzle it if it remains unrepentant. In the final analysis, therefore, the press in Pakistan is free only to the extent that the government in power respects the rules of democracy or the judiciary, as the custodian of fundamental rights in the last resort, is strong enough to resist encroachments on democracy. If the government is authoritarian and the judiciary weak or divided, the press is a prime target for repression.
Some of us have been shrieking murder since Sharif assaulted, divided and weakened the judiciary in 1997. With the judiciary out of the way, we reasoned, it was only a matter of time before the press would come under Sharif's heel. The worst has now come to pass. The Jang group of newspapers has become the focus of Sharif's unmitigated wrath. By lashing out at the largest media group, Sharif is sending a stern warning to the small fry.
The siege of the Jang group is unprecedentedly vicious. Its bank accounts have been frozen, newsprint godowns sealed, hawkers harassed, journalists threatened, stiff income tax notices served and sedition cases lodged against three editors. All that remains is for the group's newspapers to cease publication, its owners to be arrested and its journalists packed off. The confrontation began like this.
A column by Irshad Haqqani, Lahore Jang editor, kicked up a veritable storm in Islamabad in July 1998. Haqqani wrote advisedly about the need to revamp the government's ad-hoc decision-making system and suggested the army might have a small but positive role to play in it within the parameters of the democratic system. Islamabad reacted angrily by freezing ads to the Jang group. Then came the proverbial straw which broke the government's back. In October, army chief Gen. Jehangir Karamat suggested a National Security Council to tackle the country's mounting difficulties. The Jang group ordered a telephonic survey of public opinion: an overwhelming majority were all for the proposal. Two days later, Karamat was sacked. On the third day, Sharif stood before the national assembly and blasted those who wanted to derail democracy. And ordered senator Saif-ur Rahman, a loyalist who runs the controversial Accountability Bureau, to teach them a lesson. Jang was number one on the good senator's hitlist.
We know the rest, thanks to the charming indiscretions of the senator, who was taped by the owner-editor of the Jang group, Mir Shakilur Rehman, when he brandished the threats. Among other demands, the government wants the Jang group to fire 16 top editors and reporters. Where does the press, and in particular the Jang group, go from here?
Forward. There is no choice. Here was an Urdu newspaper whose editorial comment pages were often conspicuously tilted, as a matter of policy, in favour of the government. Indeed, a number of highly paid hacks blindly loyal to Sharif were put on its payrolls expressly to keep Islamabad happy. Yet it fell foul of an autocratic regime when it tried to steer a marginally less devoted path. Imagine what might happen to a more outspoken paper (like mine) if the Jang group were to bite the dust.
Saif-ur Rahman claims he is only going after tax dodgers, not impinging on press freedom. This is a hollow, self-righteous claim. The biggest tax dodger and loan defaulter is the senator's boss, followed by scores of fellow compatriots in the national assembly, including industrial robber-barons and feudal landlords who have scooted away with Rs 200 billion in public money, without as much as a scratch on their backs. The press is in for a rough time. It would do well to remember a fact of life. Governments are fated to come and go but the press is destined to go on forever.
( The author is editor of 'The Friday Times', a Lahore-based weekly )