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Punjab Info Minister Rubbishes Censorship Complaints, Says Media Not Under Any Pressure

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The Pakistani media has, over the last week, been at the forefront of the news cycle. Not least due to the broadcasting of PMLN Vice President Maryam Nawaz’s controversial press conference — in which she claimed that Justice Arshad Malik, an Accountability Court (AC) judge, admitted to being ‘blackmailed’ into delivering a guilty verdict against Nawaz Sharif in the Al-Aziza case. 

Miranda Husain sat down with Punjab Information Minister Syed Samsam Bukhari to discuss the role of the media in Naya Pakistan as well as ongoing political tensions with the opposition. Following are excerpts:

  

Miranda Husain: The fallout of Maryam Nawaz’s press conference — and most recently — the pulling of her interview with a private television stations — has been overwhelmingly borne by the country’s media. So far, PEMRA (Pakistan Electronic Media Authority) has sent notices to 21 channels for broadcasting the presser; while three were taken off air. Is PEMRA truly independent?  

 

Samsam Bukhari: PEMRA is of course independent. Although their liaison is with the Information ministry at the federal not the provincial level. And while it is, indeed, a government body — all decisions are undertaken independently.

 

But let me tell you, I called Chairman PEMRA to ask about these developments and he told me that the issue includes, but goes beyond, the question of airing the presser. Firstly, these channels have defaulted on the dues owed to the Authority. Secondly, and perhaps more relevant here, is the fact that both the PEMRA Code of Conduct and the SC (Supreme Court) stipulate that no media outlet is at liberty to transmit live the words of a convicted individual. Meaning that the latter can report this as a simple news item or else air edited highlights. But that’s all.

 

As far as this particular video is concerned, allow me to say a couple of things. The judge has said that it’s entirely fabricated and has requested further forensics. Even before this, the PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf) government was saying that this would be an appropriate measure because the PMLN has made him a controversial figure. Therefore if Justice Arshad Malik approaches the IHC (Islamabad High Court) towards this end, then all will be well and good. Otherwise the government was ready to take the lead. But the opposition demanded that the judiciary be at the forefront. So, I think this is what’s going to happen. 

 

MH: Yet all this aside, is there a fear at the Centre that even if everything has gone by the book recent actions against the media have ultimately boosted Maryam? Because after the live audio was muted she took to Twitter to say this is what censorship and fascism look like.

 

SB: Absolutely not. In any responsible society, she should’ve been behind bars; as opposed to being free to hold press conferences. Now, I don’t want to argue with the judiciary but I don’t understand how somebody who has been convicted by the courts — albeit with a suspended sentence — is allowed to say anything about state institutions, or the government or the Prime Minister himself. It is tantamount to inciting the masses to violence. That’s not on. What she did was very close to hate speech. 

 

MH: Nawaz, a thrice elected PM, is already in jail for corruption. Meanwhile,  and Asif Ali Zardari, the PPP (Pakistan Peoples Party) co-Chairman and former President, has been arrested for money-laundering. There have been increasing murmurings among certain quarters that the best case scenario would be to have them return all looted wealth, publicly admit wrongdoing and then go off into exile on the tacit understanding that neither will return to Pakistani politics. Would this be enough?

 

SB: The thing is, anyone who has looted money from the country or done damage to the public exchequer must be held responsible; whether an individual, company or political party. In the case of Nawaz, had he provided a money trail and then been sentenced after that, he could have cause for appeal. But this didn’t happen.

 

Neither he nor Zardari are going to admit wrongdoing because they don’t want to hand over any plundered wealth to the country. They don’t want to admit that. The NAB (National Accountability Bureau) has an in-built mechanism for plea-bargaining. So, anyone confessing to stealing from the national exchequer, for example, receives a receipt from NAB to the effect that assets have returned. But this is not a path that either wish to tread. If they do go down this road, they will want to do a deal behind closed doors. Because both still want to be players in Pakistani politics. And considering it has been proved that they have committed corruption against the state, the pair should be behind bars.

 

MH: Zardari recently ‘warned’ that the Imran Khan government will fall within 4-6 months. And that Maryam and Bilawal (Zardari Bhutto) are the face of the future. Thus the grande alliance is there for all to see. The question, however, is that if the PTI regime were to fall: who would topple it? The people or hidden hands?

 

SB: First of all, the PTI government will complete its tenure. Secondly, neither the PPP nor the PMLN have reached any conclusion about that they are going to do. They are confused themselves. In fact, whatever statements they are making, whatever jalsas they are organising, appear to be fuelled by frustration and acute desperation. And may I also say, Benazir Bhutto would never have joined hands with the Noon League.

 

MH: But the PPP and PMLN did so in the past. Under the Charter of Democracy against Musharraf’s military rule. There were also reports of a backroom deal of sorts brokered by the British and Americans to facilitate Benazir’s return from exile; the PPP being one of the major beneficiaries of Musharraf’s NRO (National Reconciliation Order). All of which neatly coincided with Nawaz’s own bid to return to power. There has long been talk of a tacit understanding that Benazir would assume the premiership first; to be succeeded by the elder Sharif. 

 

SB: That was different. It wasn’t a coalition under whose terms the PPP agreed to remain in Sindh while the PMLN held the Centre. And if Nawaz had a real chance at that time to become head of government, he undoubtedly wouldn’t have agreed to let Benazir get there first. 

 

The thing is that even when the Sharifs ran away to Jeddah, the PPP was still fighting here. Thus they got the benefit. Then Benazir was martyred and that benefit went to the PPP as well. But let me just say, from 2008-2013 I was a member of the federal cabinet (Minister of State for Information). And I went on record to warn against joining hands with the PMLN. The two parties have entirely different ways of thinking as well as manifestoes. If Nawaz was retuning to the country’s political scene — it ought to have been enough that he was in the opposition. 

 

MH: There has been much consensus over the years that this alliance benefited Musharraf the most. As disclosed by the WikiLeaks cables, Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani (the then Army chief) had negotiated an agreement whereby Zardari (whose PPP was at the Centre) and Nawaz joined hands to exonerate Pakistan’s last military dictator and accord him safe and honourable exit from the country; possibly against the national interest. It is therefore argued that Nawaz was only put on trial when he reneged on this so-called gentlemen’s agreement. 

 

SB: There are many conspiracy theories. In 2008, when the PPP came into power, the party decided — I don’t know about the PMLN — to let Musharraf complete his tenure as president. And then we would elect a new one. I am privy to this. The first cabinet comprised some PMLN ministers. And after a month or two there was some discord. Things were not comfortable and then both parties decided to impeach Musharraf; remove him from the presidency. Then the latter simply resigned. He knew he didn’t have the numbers. So I don’t know if there was a deal as such. But the reality is that he did resign.

 

MH: Why, then, did the PPP government approach Interpol in 2012 with a view to having Musharraf brought back to Pakistan to face the courts over the killing of Akbar Bugti and Benazir Bhutto? Was this just posturing for the masses?

 

SB: There are many things which are quite difficult to answer. Such as, why did Altaf Husain go? Why did Nawaz go? Regarding Musharraf, if I remember correctly, at that time neither the courts nor the government had put him on the ECL (Exit Control List). So maybe the contacting of Interpol was an afterthought.

 

MH: The PTI government has been plagued from the offset by allegations of winning an ‘engineered’ election. Similarly, rumours erupted back in April that Asad Umar was pushed out of the Finance Ministry for failing to stabilise the economy. If true, who forced his hand?

 

SB: I believe he was asked — not coerced — to leave. By the PTI itself. Not by the Army or anyone else. Asad Umar is a very, very respected party member. The Prime Minister genuinely likes him. I think the PTI decided that things would be better managed by Hafeez Sheikh [currently advisor to the PM on Finance]. Every minister has his own mind and I believe that the economic situation was not progressing in a way as envisioned by the citizenry, the business community or the party. So, it’s the personal prerogative of the chief executive to shuffle cabinet members. If this had been the Army’s doing — why would Umar be offered a new ministry? None of this was done at the military’s behest. In fact, the Army, for the first time in the country’s history, agreed to a freezing of the defence budget.

 

MH: In terms of public perception, surely such an announcement should have come from the civilian side. Meaning either the Prime Minister or Parliament? 

 

SB: I think both. Every department has to outline their budgetary demands to run their affairs for the year. When the Finance ministry told the Army that there were to be cuts to development, defence and other expenditures — the latter readily agreed. The government simply thanked the Army. I mean, just look at the situation at our borders. We need a defence budget. We need to maintain deterrence. Our Army isn’t the aggressor. We defend our borders. So, if they are willing to cut spending we should be thankful to them.  

 

MH: As someone who is against censorship, what do you think is in store for Pakistan’s media going forward?

 

SB: Yes, I’m against censorship. But I do expect the media to be responsible and credible. This means not pushing someone else’s political agenda. But having said that, most of the media and the majority of honourable journalists don’t do that. But there are quite a few who do. 

 

MH: On whose agenda? 

 

SB: Some of them have their local agenda; affiliation with different parties. If you ask me, the media’s main job is reporting the facts. Even when evaluating or commenting — this must be done impartially. A story can be pro- or anti-government. But it cannot be biased. What isn’t fair is if a programme or column is planned the day before while sitting with those who have vested interests. But those committing such practices will get busted sooner or later by fellow journalists. Because they know much better than us who are ‘affiliated’ and what their agendas are. That is, what they are writing from the heart and what they are being told to write. 

 

MH: What do you say to working journalists who decry the rapidly shrinking breathing space in democratic Pakistan? To those who contend that the media is not being just strangled only in terms of freedom of expression but also on the financial front?

 

SB: I would have to say that I disagree. When you talk of finances, this is essentially a private concern. This government is meeting its commitments regarding advertising revenue. We have started paying these. We are even clearing what was owed by the previous PMLN government. If media outlets don’t pay their journalists then that is their doing. Not ours. 

 

Pakistan is home to a free media. As an Information minister, I have never approached a journalist and told him or her to write for us or tweet for us. I can only speak for myself, but I don’t think the media is under any pressure at all. No journalist has ever come to me to complain of receiving ‘instructions’.

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