Sharif, Media and Democracy

01 Jun, 1999    ·   194

D. Suba Chandran says that Sharif needs to realize that dictatorship, whether through military rule or shrouded under democracy, has never succeeded or will ever succeed in Pakistan

Najam Sethi, the Chief Editor of the Friday Times was arrested recently by the Pakistan government, for his alleged links with the Indian Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). However the real reason is perceived to be his involvement in the British Broadcasting Corporation’s (BBC) documentary that detailed the financial acquisitions of Nawaz Sharif and his family members. Besides Sethi, a lot of independent journalists have already been harassed or threatened for their role in the mentioned BBC documentary.



Sethi’s arrest is not just an isolated attack on journalists and media, but part of a larger ongoing struggle between the media and the Nawaz Sharif government, which commenced with its attack on Jang, one of the three leading newspaper groups in the country. Mir Shakil-ur Rahman, the owner of the Jang group and Rehmat Shah Afridi,the editor-in-chief of Frontier Post, were arrested and harassed for their continuos criticism of the government and the PML leaders for corruption and ,aldministration The real reason however is quite apparent. Why should the PML government turn against the press, especially when it claimed during its election campaign in February 1997, that it would work towards a free press? During the campaign it even went ahead and promised to abolish the Ministry of Information.



Given the level of corruption and lack of transparency of the state machinery in Pakistan , the need for an independent and free press is essential. With only two national political parties, the PML and Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) – and especially after the comprehensive defeat of the PPP in the last elections, the press has been providing a third option as the “fourth pillar” by being an effective opposition. Thirdly the government needs an independent pres, given the security environment existing in Pakistan at present. Pakistan is surrounded by a nuclear India against which it has waged three wars and a fundamentalist Afghanistan capable of “talibanising” civil society in Paksitan. Fourthly, with important foreign policy decisions like the signing of the CTBT, the government needs a free press to communicate with the people and obtail theor support. The state-controlled press can well carry out all these tasks but whether it will impress upon the people as a credible medium is rather highly speculative. Thus it is in the interest of the government that the press remains free.



However Nawaz Sharif seems to have made different calculations. His incomplete terms in office earlier and cognizance of the feudal nature of the society as a whole and that of the party he is heading, have all resulted in him concluding that possession of absolute power is the only way to remain in power. This is quite discernable as ever since he became Prime Minister, Sharif has been consolidating his position through various political and legislative means.



First, he coerced the then President Farooq Ahmed Leghari to resign and his efforts resulted in Rafiq Tarar being elected as the President of Pakistan; this ensured that he will never again be dismissed by the President. Second, he dismissed the then Chief of Army Staff, Major General Karamat and appointed Pervaiz Musharaf in his place, superceding two other military official, thus stamping his authority over the Army and eliminating his second probable threat. Third, he focussed on eliminating the main opposition party the PPP. Starting from the appointment of the “Ehtesab Bureau” to the promulgation of the Anti-Terrorism (Amendment) Ordinance 1999, the main objective of Sharif, which to a great extent he has succeeded, has been to totally demolish the PPP. Fourth, through the 15th Amendment (Shariah Act), he has wrested the initiative from the fundamentalist parties and consolidated his position: incidentally, the 15th amendment has more to do with increasing the powers of the Prime Minister than with Islam. Thus Sharif, having fortified his position on all accounts, has finally turned to the media, which currently is his only severe critic. Inside his own party he never allowed any dissentions and those who disagreed with him either resigned or were forced to toe his line, especially after the 14th Amendment. Today, Sharif is the most powerful Prime Minister that Pakistan has ever had.



Enjoying such a complete majority at the legislature, if only Sharif had chosen to strengthen the democratic institutions of Pakistan , it would have ultimately strengthened his position and his party’s. Earlier, Zulfikar Bhutto made the same mistake, as after becoming the first elected Prime Minister with enormous people support following the breakup of Pakistan , instead of setting the pace for democratization, he went about acquiring more powers, silencing the opposition and oppressing the media. In fact, the number of media persons detained during Zulfikar’s period far exceeded that of the previous military regimes.



Sharif needs to realize that dictatorship whether through military rule or shrouded under democracy, never succeeded in the past or will ever in the future. Only that realization will help prevent history repeating itself.