December Issue 2003

By | Editorial | Opinion | Published 17 years ago

The Musharraf government’s honeymoon with the press corps seems to be over. Members of the journalists’ fraternity are increasingly being intimidated, threatened and, in some instances, even being subjected to violence to coerce them into toeing the line. In a chilling incident last month, an ‘errant’ reporter’s car was set on fire and a burning log of wood thrown into his apartment building.

At a recent post-Iftar press briefing in Islamabad, the man at the helm lashed out against the “enfants terrible” of journalism, among them Newsline. He maintained that they read like Indian publications, from cover to cover, and needed to be “sorted out”- said like a true general.

The first salvo was fired only days later, when Newsline was bumped off all PIA flights, until further orders — no explanations offered. Additionally, government advertisements booked for Newsline‘s December issue were pulled out at the eleventh hour- once again, without assigning any reason. Who signed the edict remains a mystery (or does it?), but the writing on the wall is clear: the army is off-limits to the press. And anyone who dares to trespass, runs the risk of being branded a ‘foreign agent’ (read: traitor), working against the country’s national interests.

The parameters within which a free press can operate are being narrowed down yet again, in the name of patriotism and national interest.

The moot point is, who defines the terms national interest and patriotism? Does a critical assessment of the impact of the Kargil operation on Indo-Pak relations, or the government’s blow-hot, blow-cold policy towards the jihadis, go against national interests? Is questioning the army’s growing business interests, or its penchant for prime property, indicative of a lack of patriotic fervour? If the army has chosen to install itself in the driving seat, it must face the glare of the spotlight. After all, politicians have been subjected to intense scrutiny and criticism for poor governance, corruption and human rights violations — and not just by the media, but the army’s own accountability cell. Surely the army does not expect to be revered like a sacred cow? Or does it?

The general professes to be the progressive, liberal head of a democratic state. And the first prerequisite of a democratic dispensation is a free, vibrant media that is allowed to play its watchdog role, without fear or favour. But generals aside, even politicians unfortunately have yet to understand and appreciate the merits of an unfettered press. Newsline has suffered the worst of times in times of ‘democrats’ like Ms. Bhutto and Mr. Nawaz Sharif. At the zenith of its power, the MQM attacked “the westernised Newsline women” virulently at public meetings, for exposing their misdemeanours in the publication. And then the wheels of fortune turned, and the MQM found itself out in the cold. Ironically it was Newsline that came to their rescue — with a scathingly critical story on the army crackdown against the party.

If today’s kings and kingmakers were to ponder the prospect of becoming tomorrow’s underdogs, they might be able to come to terms with the media’s watchdog role.

For, at the end of the day, governments will come and go, but the press is here to stay.

Rehana Hakim is one of the core team of journalists that helped start Newsline. She has been the editor-in-chief since 1996.