Taming the Pakistani Press: Democracy Under Threat

Bidanda M. Chengappa, Senior Fellow, IDSA


Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's attempts to tame a section of the Press over the past year for news reportage on several issues project a poor image of the government to the people. The arrest of Najam Sethi, the editor of The Friday Times in May was the latest in a series of attacks against the Press in Pakistan.1 It has created controversy and sparked a stand-off between the Fourth Estate, spearheaded by the All Pakistan Newspapers Society, and the government. The arrest has evoked widespread condemnation from the media, Opposition leaders, including former President Farooq Leghari, former Premier Benazir Bhutto and the fundamentalist leader Qazi Hussain Ahmed of the Jamaat-i-Islami.

The government's adversarial relationship with the media, viewed in a broader perspective, shows an emerging pattern designed to destroy democracy in Pakistan. The fact that the government initially neutralised the power of the judiciary, then tried to contain opposition by introducing the Sharia Bill in Parliament and, finally, tried to suppress the Press, only reinforces this line of thinking. These institutions are critical for the functioning of any democracy and provide the checks and balances against any concentration of power by a few elected leaders. While the Press acts as a watchdog and exposes the government's acts of omission and commission to the citizens, the judiciary, as a constitutional authority, has the power to review legislation, and the Opposition is a counter-balance to the elected government through the act of criticism and bringing in various motions against the government in the legislature .

This paper attempts to analyse the danger to democracy posed by the government's strong-arm tactics against the Fourth Estate in Pakistan. It explains how the government has sought to muzzle the print media as part of a broader campaign to neutralise other democratic institutions like the judiciary and the Opposition. It outlines a profile of the Pakistani Press and briefly touches upon Sharif's relationship with it. Finally, the paper focusses on how the regime put the "black" Press laws into place and the protests which followed thereafter.

Traditionally, a free Press is the first victim of an authoritarian government masquerading as a democratic one. However, in this case, the judiciary was the first victim, followed by the Opposition and, finally, the Press. Perhaps, muzzling the media at the initial stages would have attracted obvious attention and was, therefore, preserved for the last phase of the campaign. The Sharif regime, in the name of democracy, has only practised autocracy. Clearly, autocracy and a free Press are mutually repellent as the two cannot coexist.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was a creation of the political establishment during the Zia regime symbolised by the Army and the extra-state institution, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The former DGI, Lt General Ghulam Jillani, introduced Nawaz Sharif into politics during 1981. Subsequently, Brigadier Imtiaz, then with the political wing of the ISI, enabled Sharif to form the Islamic Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI) in 1988. When elections were due in October 1990, then Chief of Army Staff Mirza Aslam Beg worked against Benazir Bhutto and propped up Nawaz Sharif as an alternative on whom the army could exert considerable influence. In the process, Sharif received his early political training under President Zia, similar to Zulfiquar Ali Bhutto getting his political grooming from his mentor, President Ayub Khan. To that extent, both these elected leaders were schooled under military dictators and functioned like civilian dictators.

Sharif Distorts Democracy

The story begins with the XIII Constitutional Amendment which abolished the president's powers to dismiss an elected government in April 1997. Thereafter, the XIV Constitutional Amendment in April 1977 curtailed party members from defying their party leader's decisions. A few months later, a three-cornered triangular tussle between Prime Minister Sharif, President Farooq Leghari and Chief Justice Sajjad Ali Shah followed. The president and the chief justice were on the same side against the prime minister and expected Chief of Army Staff General Jehangir Karamat to support them against Sharif. However, Karamat remained neutral on the matter which involved a Supreme Court hearing on the ISI case which was filed by Air Marshal (Retd) Ashgar Khan against Prime Minister Sharif for accepting money from the ISI in the October 1990 elections. The difference of opinion started when the government desired an in-camera trial rather than a public hearing which the chief justice was seeking.

Prime Minister Sharif kicked off his campaign against democracy with a constitutional crisis involving the president, the judiciary and the elected government over the elevation of some judges to the Supreme Court. Such a situation arose due to differences between the chief justice and the prime minister. In the process, the president resigned from office and thereafter brother judges deposed the chief justice. The entire exercise enabled Sharif to strengthen his power in the political structure.

Prime Minister Sharif, after circumscribing the power of the judiciary then attempted to Islamise the Constitution, again with the sole purpose of concentrating power in his hands. The rationale for Islamisation had purely political rather than religious motives which could be summed up as follows: (a) to undermine the Opposition's programmes against his regime; (b) safeguard his own hold on political power; (c) appease the fundamentalist elements in the polity. I.A. Rehman writes in the Newsline, "The revised Constitution (XV Amendment) Bill, pushed through the National Assembly with an indecent display of muscle power, is no less offensive a measure than its original version The government's refusal to include in the bill a provision about the protection of fundamental rights reveals its sinister intent."2

Prime Minister Sharif's decision to disqualify Opposition leader Benazir Bhutto on corruption charges is another development which has serious implications for the future of democracy in Pakistan. Essentially, the move would weaken the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) which is the largest Opposition party, and a potential rival to the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (PML), and create conditions for single party rule in the country.

Significantly, Sharif has managed to gain control over the army, a traditional power centre in Pakistan, as evident from the former Chief of Army Staff General Jehangir Karamat tendering his resignation due to remarks regarding the quality of national governance. It should be noted that the other view in the country is that Karamat was dismissed from service. Thus, the truth about his resignation or dismissal remains a matter of speculation. However, Sharif in the process has installed General Pervez Musharaff, a chief of his choice which shows his power to manage the military. Importantly, the prime minister has clipped the wings of the military and emerged the numero uno in the political decision making hierarchy.

Profile of the Pakistani Press

Pakistan has four types of media: the electronic media, official print media, independent print media and Western media. The electronic media which comprises both radio and television, besides the official print media are state-owned and, therefore, low on credibility. Only the independent print media and Western media pose a problem to the government. The independent print media tends to be fairly anti-establishment in its professional approach to news reporting which embarasses the government from time to time.

Mushahid Hussain, a former editor of The Muslim and now the minister of information in the Nawaz Sharif government, has written about the Press in his book Pakistan: Problems of Governance. To quote: "In examining trends in the Pakistani Press in the last few years, a couple of basic facts need to be kept in mind. There is, at one level a linkage between freedom of the Press and restoration of democracy. At another level, particularly given the linkage between struggle for a free Press and struggle for democracy, the journalistic community is highly political and has played an active role in the political process. The trends in the Pakistani Press need to be examined in three broad contexts: the media under martial law, the media under democracy and changes of various kinds in the media."3

The Press has been a fearless professional community from the day the country came into existence when there was no military rule. The first setback to the Pakistani Press was under martial law when Mian Iftikharuddin's Progressive Newspapers Ltd was illegally taken over by Field Marshal Ayub Khan in the early 1960s. Prior to the takeover, Faiz Ahmed Faiz edited The Pakistan Times, a newspaper belonging to this group. The martial law regime then formed the National Press Trust and The Pakistan Times thereafter became an official organ of the establishment. Among the oldest English dailies, the Dawn was initially edited by Altaf Hussain and symbolises responsible journalism. The paper is perceived as a respectable publication without political affiliations and is intellectually stimulating with a variety of views on various issues and subjects. The newspaper is one of the largest circulated dailies with multiple editions and has proved to be a major opinion shaper for the intelligentsia.

In a sense, the Zia regime witnessed both repression and growth of the Press in the country. Initially, the military regime encouraged a liberal Press which was fed on anti-Bhutto stories for a while when Zia projected Bhutto as a negative person, responsible for committing various crimes. To that extent, the military dictator used the Press purely to "colour" or influence public opinion through the mass media. Thereafter, when the Press grew weary of such fare and would refuse to go along with the establishment, the repression started to take shape.

The Press was under total censorship and scores of newspaper staffers were arrested while their publications were banned in the country. In 1978, a movement launched by Minhaj Barna proved to be a highpoint of the Press standing up to the power of the state. Among the revered names in Pakistani journalism is that of Salamat Ali who, while reporting for the Far Eastern Economic Review in 1980 on the situation in Baluchistan, was convicted and arrested by the government. Similarly, the late Mazhar Ali Khan who edited the weekly Viewpoint was arrested in 1979 for politically objectionable writings in his magazine.

The fact that under the Zia regime the English Press also expanded its constituency with the birth of new publications may have less political connotations and more of a business rationale. The Karachi-based Jang group launched The News, an English daily from Lahore, and around the same time, the Rawalpindi-based Nawa-i-Waqt group also started The Nation, another English daily from Lahore. Perhaps one of the reasons for the rise of the English Press was because President Zia, who was a Punjabi Mohajir, like the bulk of the bureaucracy, discouraged Urdu as a tacit policy. This implied that Punjabi was encouraged but could not be promoted appropriately since it lacks a script and, therefore, is written in Persian. In the post-1971 period, after the secession of East Pakistan or the creation of Bangladesh, the people of Pakistan developed a greater awareness about their ethnic consciousness and in the process tended to assert their ethnic identities in the country. While the minority communities like the Hindus and Sikhs wrote Punjabi in the Devanagari and Gurumukhi scripts respectively, the government could not possibily promote these versions due to their distinctive Indian origins. Perhaps on account of such a dilemma, Punjabi could not really flourish without a proper script. As a result, the only alternative was for an English Press to fill the vacuum and cater to the burgeoning intelligentsia in the country.

I.A. Rehman in Newsline magazine of September 1998 states, "Successive governments have extolled the role of the Press as an essential pillar of democracy and upheld its independence in their rhetoric, but in reality, each one of them has looked upon the Press as a body of recalcitrant subjects that are under-developed, irresponsible and given to vulgarity. Every government has tried to strap the Press under laws, codes and mechanisms which are ostensibly designed to promote healthy journalism and protect national interest, but which are aimed at making the media conform to the whims of authority and serve its narrow interests."4

A peculiarity of the Pakistani Press is that though the Urdu print media has much larger circulation figures than its English counterpart, the latter has a disproportionately greater impact on government decision making. This explains why only the editors or managements of the English Press and not their Urdu counterparts have been the object of unfavourable government attention for the past year. This is because the ruling elite is Western-educated and English-speaking and, therefore Prime Minister Sharif finds the English print media segment more worrisome than the Urdu publications.

Mushahid Hussain, commenting on the media impact on governance, lists a few instances of how newspapers affected government decision making.5 These include:

— Resignation of Ch Anwar Aziz as minister for local government during the Junejo period.

— Cancellation of the deal to buy frigates by the Pakistan Navy for approximately US$1.2 billion.

— Stories of drug barons living in hospitals under false pretexts.

— Release of Rasul Bux Palejo.

— Campaign against corruption under Benazir Bhutto.

— Influencing opinion on foreign policy issues.

Sharif and the Press

A writer commenting in The Pakistan Times of December 8, 1998, on the relationship between the Sharif and the Press, states, "It is sad to hear the authorities' growing anxiety to bring the Press into line. The fear has been rife after the taming of the presidency and the Parliament and the assault on the judiciary. To many, the question since then was not whether but when and how."6

During Sharif's second prime ministerial tenure, the Pakistani Press took a critical stance on several issues like the Karachi problem, the post-nuclear blast economic crisis, the Kalabagh dam project, the army chief's removal from office, the XV Constitutional Amendment to impose Islamic rule and governor's rule in Sindh. A news agency report commenting on Sharif's relationship with the Press, states that the year 1998 had started it when Prime Minister Sharif had just brought about the ouster of President Leghari and Chief Justice Sajjad Ali Shah. It was said then that the Press would be his next target because it was critical of the prime minister on the day he was having a confrontation with the president and the chief justice. The Press was also critical of the choice of Rafiq Tarar as the new president.7

While such criticism in the media revolved around impersonal issues involving the nature of governance that a prime minister is expected to take in his stride, news reportage on his family's alleged corruption was clearly not acceptable. This started with the national Press giving extensive coverage to the revelations made by the London-based news publication, The Observer, about the Sharif family's alleged corruption which was attributed to a senior Federal Investigative Agency official.

Prior to the action against Sethi, some other senior Pakistani journalists were targetted by the establishment. These include Imtiaz Alam, the editor of The News, whose car was smashed by plainclothes policemen. Another case pertains to the arrest of Hussain Haqqani . All these scribes had one thing in common in that they gave interviews to the BBC on corruption charges against Prime Minister Sharif. This refers to charges of corruption made against the prime minister which the Press and the Opposition have been screaming about for the past year. To quote, " But what has hurt the Prime Minister the most is the stories about his family's alleged corrupt deals".8

Sharif Uses "Black" Press Laws

The post-Zia interim government abolished the Press and Publications Ordinance (PPO), known as the "black" laws, in October 1988. As prime minister during her first tenure in 1988, Benazir Bhutto implemented the Registration of Printing Press and Publications Ordinance (RPPO) to replace former President Ayub Khan's 1963 PPO.

During the latter part of 1998, the Sharif regime in a master-stroke to tame the Press implemented the dreaded 1963 PPO in Punjab. Apparently, the government, by design, allowed the RPPO to lapse in 1997 with a view to replace it with the 1963 PPO. The RPPO lapsed in July 1997 and the print media functioned without a regulatory law and the idea was floated of instituting a Press Council without representatives from the journalistic community. However, journalists protested against the proposed Press Council which in their collective opinion would become a reprimanding agency to facilitate government action against publications and scribes. The Fourth Estate was only prepared to accept a body modelled on the lines of the Press Council of India.9

According to a writer in The Friday Times, "Technically, the revival of the PPO empowers the present government to penalise publications,their editors and owners for carrying any material critical of the government. Political observers are agreed that the government intends to use this ordinance against independent newspapers."10 Under this ordinance, the government can cancel the registration of any newspaper. Nawaz Sharif, after laying the legal ground in conjunction with the bureaucracy, got ready to take on the Press which had been needling him from time to time.

The government, while mooting proposals for a Press Council, was not conceptually clear on the composition. I.A. Rehman states, " Which of the Press Council proposals now constitutes the official brief - the one discussed in the sixties, the one debated in the seventies, or the one drawn up by the Benazir Bhutto government, or the one presented in the present government's package last year? None of these proposals conformed to the essentials of the Press autonomy or to the models developed abroad. One point of agreement, though is clear—the working journalists are to be kept out of the deal."11

The Press Protests

The crisis between the media and the government manifested publicly when journalists representing all the national and regional publications, besides international news agencies as well as broadcast services, staged a walkout from a prime ministerial Press conference in February 1999. The scribes walked out from the function to register their collective protest against the Sharif regime's hostile attitude towards the journalistic community. The government had victimised the Jang group and regisitered sedition cases against the Amn and Parcham publications for publishing an advertisement of the Khidmat-e-Khalq Foundation, a subsidiary of the Muttahida Quami Movement.12

The Opposition members of the standing committee of the Senate on Information and Media Development had also decided to boycott government sponsored functions. In a letter addressed to Information Minister Mushahid Hussain, the deputy leader of the Opposition, Senator Raza Rabbani, spelt out specific actions by the government against the Press and stated that the Opposition had decided to boycott all functions of the Ministry of Information and Media Development as long as the government continued its repressive measures against the media.13

The letter included a dozen governmental acts of intimidation against the Press which include: raids on the offices of the Herald and Newsline, victimisation of the Jang group, registration of sedition cases against the editors of Jang, Amn and Parcham, threats to prominent journalists, discrimination in government advertisments against the Jang group, raids on the residences of Idrees Bakhtiar of the BBC, attacks on the offices of the Khyber Mail and Peshwar publications and a baton charge on journalists in Rawalpindi and Islamabad.

According to an observer, "The Jang group is perhaps targetted not just because of its size but also because it must be believed to be possible of being twisted every which way. It is obviously being pressed to offer full support to the government on all key issues—such as for now, presumably, the XV Amendment or the action in Sindh. Then, as the chief editor revealed at a Press conference, they want a number of persons on the staff to be dismissed or put to pasture. And the replacement of them to be made in consultation with the authorities! Even Zia-ul Haq must now seem a devotee of Press freedom by comparison."14

As part of the Sharif regime's campaign to curb the Press, the government stopped releasing advertisements to the first English daily of Islamabad, The Muslim, in order to "kill" the publication. Likewise, the Urdu daily, Jang, and its sister publication, The News, an English daily, too, were harassed with its newsprint quota cut and accounts frozen. The government told the newspapers to sack journalists on the staff and hire new ones in consultation with the authorities. And the government accused Maleeha Lodhi, editor of The News on charges of treason.

Concluding Observations

The Najam Sethi incident is the latest development in the campaign waged by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif since 1997 to destroy the pillars of democracy of which the Fourth Estate forms a crucial component. The conflictual relationship between the media and the government, therefore, needs to be seen in the larger political environment prevalent in Pakistan. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's rule from the time he was elected to office only proves his authoritarian style of governance, aimed at concentrating power in his hands. These acts include the dismissal of Chief Justice Sajjad Ali Shah, attempts to Islamise the Constitution, the resignation of the army chief, the disqualification of Opposition leader Benazir Bhutto from politics and the draconian measures against the free Press. While these developments may not appear to have any logical linkages with each other, the only commonality among them is the objective to neutralise power centres in order to dilute democracy.

Democracy, in general understanding, assumes that citizens can hold government officials accountable for what they do and can expel them from office when their policies do not meet with public approval. And governments are able to gauge public opinion through the views expressed in the Press which, therefore, should be freely allowed to air these, howsoever unpalatable. However, in the case of Pakistan under Nawaz Sharif, the repression of democracy by the government appears to have one common objective : to sustain the Sharif regime at all costs and avoid transparency or accountability on the part of the government. This shows a strong trend towards autocratic rule and amounts to the rise of a civilian dictatorship in the country.

Jahangir Badar a prominent PPP member, in the context of the raid on the Jang group's office, said, " The action reflected a dictatorial mindset of Nawaz Sharif who was following in the policies of his idol—dictator—Ziaul Haq."15 Echoing a similar view, Kalim Bahadur states, "Prime Minister Sharif has been accused of concentrating autocratic powers with himself. He has been called a democratic dictator."16

Therefore, the Pakistan government's strong-arm tactics against Najam Sethi speak volumes about the deterioration of democracy in that country. In his speech, Sethi stated that his observations were not new and had already got expression in the print media for the past 20 years.17 Apparently, the Pakistani establishment sought to exploit the anti-Indian sentiment which is prevalent in pockets in the country to act against Sethi for his utterances. However, even the intelligentsia has not accepted the official line on Sethi about his public pronouncements "endangering the sovereignty of Pakistan" and his lack of patriotism.

The writings in the Pakistani English Press since last year which prophesised the shape of things to come have eventually proved to be fairly accurate. The regime's latest move against the Fourth Estate will only strenghten its resolve to fight the establishment. The Press has an important role to play in a democracy and the freedom of the Press is an index of the freedom of expression that the ordinary citizen enjoys in the country. However, the government's actions to curtail the power of the Press have put Pakistan's decade-long democracy in the throes of a crisis.


1. The Pioneer, May 10, 1999.

2. I.A. Rehman, "Democracy or Autocracy ?" Newsline, October 1998, pp. 24 -27.

3. Mushahid Hussain and Akmal Hussain eds., Pakistan: Problems of Governance, (New Delhi: Konark Publishers, 1993) pp 60

4. I.A. Rehman, "The Noose Tightens?" Newsline, September 1998, pp. 80.

5. Hussain and Hussain eds., n. 3, p. 59.

6. Aziz Siddiqui, "Is Nawaz Sharif Also Going to Enslave the Pakistani Press?" Pakistan Times, December 8, 1998.

7. United News Of India: dateline Islamabad, December 20, 1998 (year ender) "Pak Press".

8. Ibid.

9. n. 7.

10. Amir Mir, "Government Seeks to Muzzle Free Press", The Friday Times, November 13-19, 1998, p. 3.

11. n. 4, p. 81.

12. The Hindustan Times, February 3, 1999.

13. Ibid.

14. Siddiqui, n. 6.

15. The News, December 16, 1998.

16. Kalim Bahadur, Democracy in Pakistan: Crises and Conflicts (New Delhi: Har-Anand Publications, 1998) p. 177.

17. Najam Sethi in his lecture which this writer attended in New Delhi on April 30, 1999, stated that Pakistan faces an acute crisis of state and society which has six dimensions. These include: (a) ideology and identity; (b) law, Constitution and political system; (c) economy; (d) foreign policy; (e) civil society; (f) national security. To further elaborate:

(a) Ideology and identity: He said that Pakistanis are unable to collectively agree who they are as a nation and where they want to go. There is a conflict between regional and national identities which gives rise to this problem. Evidently, this refers to the prevalence of strong regional identities namely Punjabi, Sindhi, Mohajir and Pathan which has prevented the emergence of a national identity in the country.

According to Sethi, Pakistan's ideological problem revolves around whether the country should adopt a moderate Muslim model or an extremist Islamist model. He said, commenting on the problem of ideology, "Whose vision or version do we follow?" This ambiguity in ideological orientation does not indicate whether the nation should perceive itself either as a South Asian state given geographical reality or West Asian state owing to religious commonality. The fact that there is no agreement between fundamentalist religio-political parties on ideology only adds to the complexity of the problem.

(b) Law, Constitution and political system: He pointed out that two sets of laws were competing with each other in the country, namely, the Anglo-Saxon law which the country inherited as a colonial legacy and Islamic law which was foisted upon the citizens after the creation of Pakistan. The coexistence of these two sets of laws creates contradictions on issues like interest free banking or riba, the status of women and minorities, human rights judgements. Sethi said that the Constitution was distorted by dictators, lawyers and politicians who changed it from time to time.

The other grave problem was that law makers do not obey the law themselves, he added. Sethi pointed out that the crisis in the political system manifests with the "rapid political disenchantment by the public". He opined that democracy in Pakistan was present only in "form but not substance". Elaborating on the issue, he said, that the country goes through the " rituals of democracy" without a soul.

(c) Economy: The economic dimension of the crisis was fairly severe, according to Sethi. He said "believe me" the national economy is totally "bankrupt" and this in turn translates into problems of production and distribution in the country. The country is totally dependent on foreign economic aid for its survival, he added.

(d) Foreign policy : Sethi stated that Pakistan's foreign policy has failed and today the country is friendless in the region. The international community has blackmailed and blackballed the country. The problem is that its foreign policy is not in tune with domestic policy. While foreign policy should support domestic policy, in the case of Pakistan, foreign policy dictates domestic policy. After 50 years of existence, the former chief of army staff has said that the nation faces threats from Iran and Afghanistan.

(e) Civil society: This problem manifests in the deterioration of the law and order situation, the progressively low turn-out in the polls over the past five years and the crumbling administrative system. In turn, this reflects in social problems like mental disorders, rapes, kidnappings and sectarianism. There is a breakdown between state and society, he pointed out.

(f) National security: According to Sethi, Pakistan is a "state" nation and not a nation state like other countries. This is evident from the power centres being confined to the army, the bureacuracy and extra-state institutions in the polity. It creates constitutional problems and does not encourage democracy to flourish in the country. Moreover, in the absence of a vibrant democracy there is scope for a "rogue" regime to hold the reins of power. This naturally poses a danger to the country as the regime could easily go to war with other countries.