February 1999 News

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The "Jang" on Corrupt Pakistan

17th February 1999
The Asian Age (with Dawn)
By: Irfan Husain

ISLAMABAD: A foreigner arriving in Pakistan for the first time and browsing through recent newspaper headlines could be excused for thinking he had landed in one huge mad-house.

Consider some recent gems, keeping in mind that residents of lunatic asylums come to think of their surroundings and the antics of their friends normal after a time. A major story these last few days has focused on Humaira and Mahmood Butt, a young couple who, being adult and of same minds, decided to get married. An average foreigner would ask what the big deal was. It has taken a High Court order to get released from police custody, and she hasn't been able to join her husband. She fears for her life, and that of her spouse. If she and Mr. Butt are lucky, they might be able to go abroad if they want to live normal lives.

Clearly, this is not a normal situation. All over the world, consenting adults are at liberty to choose their partners, and if their parents don't like it, so be it. Here, if the girl's father has clout then he can make her life a living hell, and the cops will help him arrest the young couple before they can fly over this cuckoo's nest. No, I'm afraid the average gora will have been hard time comprehending this one.

Or take the story about Hubco's accounts being frozen (yet again). Here is a major group that has invested billions in Pakistan's biggest thermal electric plant. Over the last year or so, its executives have been jailed, dragged off planes, besieged with their families and generally humiliated in every possible way. Now, just after we had been assured by the government that this unsavoury confrontation with the Independent Power Producers was over, we hear that Hubco's bank accounts have been frozen because of outstanding taxes. Well, if this method is to be used to collect taxes in future, not many ministers or MPs in this government will be able to write cheques much longer. Yes, I's afraid out bemused gora is definitely going to have trouble with this one.

But the biggest puzzler currently occupying this country's attention is the Jang-Saif confrontation. First of all, it is different for an outsider to understand why Pakistan's biggest newspaper is called War to begin with. But let's put this aside as I haven't fathomed it either. The point here is that the group has fully lived up to its masthead. All governments have problems with newspaper editors and owners. In civilised democracies, these differences are discussed over a five-course lunch and a couple of bottles of vintage wine. And even if a meeting of minds is not achieved by the time the chocolate mouse arrives, there is no police raid on the newspaper office. And newsprint stocks are never sealed, nor bank accounts ever frozen.

What is even more fascinating than Senator Saifur Rahman's vies as expressed on Mir Shakil's tape recorder is his indignation at the fact that his words have been preserved for posterity. The man was livid that he had been bugged. What did he expect when he has been playing hard ball of the most vicious kind? While I was trying to make sense of this saga the other day, I said to myself, "Hey, whoa! What's happened to my good friend Mushahid Hussain? I thought he was information minister!" I checked around, and nope, there had been no Cabinet reshuffle while I looked the other way. In the old days. I remember it was the information ministry that used to lean on newspapers, and make editors and owners see the error of their ways. Obviously, Mushahid hadn't leaned hard enough, and the big guns had to be called in.

Actually, Saif is more of a loose cannon than a top gus. He has single-handedly done more damage to this government than anybody else. And he has had some serious competition. Starting with his insane harassment of the IPPs, going on to his pointless embarrassment of Labour MP George Galloway for supporting us on Kashmir, we have his reckless confrontation with Pakistan's most powerful media group. So far, he has scared away abroad wanting to publicly take our side against India over Kashmir. Like the proverbial bull in the China shop, he has damaged the economy, harmed our foreign policy and is now determined to destroy the government's relations with the press.

What he has not been able to do despite two years and millions spent is to attain his primary objective of mailing Benazir Bhutto and Asif Zafdari. Considering the wealth of hearsay information and hard data available, the man ought to be sacked for incompetence. The fact that to date there is not a conviction on the horizon does not speak well for the efficiency of the Ehtesab Cell. After spending a fortune on obtaining documents relating to the Bhutto and Zardari accounts in Switzerland, Sai has been unable to deliver the knockout punch. Perhaps it is his frustration and feeling of failure that is leading him to seek other, softer targets.

If so, he's out of luck with Mir Shakilur Rahman. The Jang boss has given as good as he has got, using his dwindling newsprint stocks to run a series of stinging ads featuring the accountability head honcho in a less than flattering light. While all this is very exciting stuff, our imaginary gora will say, what happens next? Will sense prevail, or will the Jang get blown away? Well, judging by our track record, sense never prevails when it should. There are voices whispering that after having brought all other institutions to their knees, the Sharif government is now determined to bring the press heel. When you think about it, the one tangible benefit we have got to show for a decade of democracy is a free press. Credit for this must be divided between Junejo, Benazir Bhutto and yes, Nawaz Sharif. The latter may have advanced a very lucrative form of lifafa journalism in his earlier stint as Punjab chief minister, and then as Prime Minister, but he did not actively snatch away our hard-won freedom.

In this stint, cursed by a "heavy mandate" that has not translated into any meaningful policies, except those aimed at concentrating yet more power in his hands, he seems bent on taking self-destructive steps that threaten to unravel the entire system. We are precariously placed as it is. For him and his inner circle to cynically play with our destiny at this juncture is the very height of irresponsibility.

As a young deputy secretary in Mr. Bhutto's secretariat in the mid-Seventies, I remember an occasion when the tempestuous PM was annoyed at something that had appeared in Jang. He asked the information minister to sort our the erring newspaper. Mr. Yusuf Buch, special assistant for information, cautioned his boss, pointing out that Jang was a national institution, and that little good would come from a confrontation. On that occasion, at least, Mr. Bhutto paid heed to this good advice. Will Nawaz Sharif?

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