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Musharraf And Media Freedom: Frankenstein Versus Monster

Miranda Husain
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Gen Musharraf betrayed the media. As such, this should take centre stage when his treason trial resumes. For at least one original sin should be paid for, writes Miranda Husain   

There were four of five of us in the newsroom when we heard the ruckus. Still putting the paper to bed. A tad behind schedule, if truth be told. My back to the door. Not daring to turn around. Instead, looking to the resident editor for a signal of sorts. Nothing. Except a collective intake of breath. So, this was it. The long and tentacled arm of the law had been given the orders to raid another printing press.

The news editor suddenly bursting out of his office. Muttering about the slow internet connection preventing him from watching a documentary. That static interference was the source of our fear prompted much chuckling. Albeit forced. For this was no ordinary state of emergency.

Indeed, our front-page headline — the day after the night before — had fiercely called a spade by its rightful name. Martial law. And everyone and their cat had been taken by surprise. By President-General Pervez Musharraf’s penchant for military rule being such that he imposed it twice. A veritable first for Pakistan. Yet while many a song and dance was made, musical score was somewhat lacking. Leaving only a Big Broadcast. To spread the news. That he wasn’t leaving today.

Thus this un-gentlemanly officer who liked to talk about how, with a single wave of Technicolour wand, he had conjured a free and independent media was now chanting abracadabra to make it all vanish. As if by magic. Culminating in the abrogation of the Constitution. A gross misstep that left the fourth estate fighting for its life; electronic and print alike.

 Independent channels were banned from giving live coverage of the rallies led by the recently deposed Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP). There was also the not un-small matter of talk shows being coerced into toning down criticism of the regime. Or else. And just in case any man, woman and cat still found themselves unable to resist a man in uniform — the velvet gloves were swiftly removed. All the better to unilaterally pass ordinances barring the media from publishing or broadcasting: “anything which defames or brings into ridicule the head of state, or members of the armed forces, or executive, legislative or judicial organs of the state”. A worrying scenario making it difficult to distinguish between Frankenstein and monster.

Of course, aberrations didn’t happen overnight.  I can still recall the time when that most thankless of tasks had fallen to me: subbing Letters to the Editor. Then, as now, these began with the antiquated address, Dear Sir. Staring at the cautionary email from our very own top dog, warning me to be mindful of the Defamation Ordinance (amendment) Bill 2004; seeking to hold in equal contempt publishers, editors, reporters and distributors in libel cases. Resulting in both custodial sentence and hefty fine. 

The move was seen as entirely political. To curb criticism of the armed and loaded one-man show. In a bid to push the point home, the Editor-in-Chief cautioned, were anything ‘untoward’ printed — I alone would be in the dock. That was sufficient for me to send over my edits everyday until he became understandably frustrated and suggested I use that old-fashioned thing called common sense.

It is important to remember all this now. Especially for those of us, myself (though not cats) included, who have been known to lament how much freer the media was under the country’s last military dictatorship than it has been during the first decade of uninterrupted democratic rule. Such demarcations are, after all, man-made. Partly hinging on a lack of cohesive media response. Back when moderation became decidedly unenlightened and political opponents, lawyers and civil society activists were rounded up by un-hidden hands — many journalists came under fire for not taking to the streets to agitate against this most unusual coup. But to us, jumping ship was akin to leaving the citizenry beholden to state-run television; the fourth estate remaining duty bound to safeguard against propaganda.

Now we know that those tactics don’t work. Not in the long-term. Because it matters less and less whether the suited or booted are at the helm. Reporters are still harassed, picked up or worse. From accompanying foreign correspondents to probe the so-called Quetta Shura and its activities along the Af-Pak border. To being threatened with anti-terrorism charges for carrying interviews by a pro-Al Qaeda tribal leader guilty of kidnapping Chinese nationals. Or else taking a financial hit — in terms of pulled advertising — over running a story linking the primary suspect in the Daniel Pearl murder case to the Indian Parliament attack (2001).

To be sure, news outlets don’t fare better under civilian rule. Where a TV station enjoying the most extensive outreach nationwide must ink a deal with the devil simply to have its licence restored. A dangerous precedent, naturally. But then resistance costs dear. As Pakistan’s oldest daily knows only too well; having suffered prolonged interruptions to distribution networks as well as seeing one of its (then) reporters hauled before the courts along with a former Prime Minister on treason charges, even though a certain enemy combatant had said pretty much the same thing about sending home-grown militants across the eastern front. Thereby underscoring how the fourth estate remains the fall guy when two competing institutions are at war.

More recently, the same periodical endured what the editor termed orchestrated attacks on its offices as well as incitement to murder. All because factual reporting is now sufficient to prompt physical outage and accusations of deliberately discrediting the nation abroad. No matter that the London Bridge attacker was buried here in this hard country. Mirroring the former Army chief’s own machinations against a handful of Karachi-based Urdu weeklies; including the arrest of journalists and vendors in 2005. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) intimating that the increasing spotlight on the so-called Pakistan link to the 7/7 bombings likely precipitating undue heavy handedness.

The time to pussyfoot is through. In its place must come unconditional and pro-active solidarity. Meaning that when one media house is under fire, the rest stand alongside; shoulder-to-shoulder. All for one and one for all. 

The most powerful peaceful protest being organised and staggered media blackouts. To send a message to the state that when it comes to musketeer-ing, the pen remains mightier than the sword. Even with the lid on. Sparking, as an added bonus, international ‘concern’. Sincere or genuine. It matters not. What’s important is that by taking matters into its own paws — the fourth estate will be able talk the ultimate truth to undemocratic power in its own words.

A worrying prospect for any state gripped by a nigh on pathological fixation on what the world thinks of it.

In short, these wrongs need to be redressed and an example set. A good place to start: the lingering Musharraf trial, scheduled to resume next week. For the ramifications of constitutional suspension affects each and every branch of the political set-up. And it is only right and just that the man who ‘gifted’ the country media independence — even while taking editors and owners into confidence during those infamous off-the-record briefings — be held to account. Ostensibly, for letting the cat out of the bag and throwing it among the pigeons.

At least one original sin should be paid for.

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