Pakistan: US double face on media freedom and democracy

June 15, 2007

During Condoleezza Rice's visit to Panama on June 5, she described Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's decision not to renew the licence of Radio Caracas Television as his "sharpest and most acute" move yet against democracy. She urged the Organisation of American States to send its secretary general to Caracas to look into the move and deliver a full report on his findings. Rice declared: "Freedom of speech, freedom of association and freedom of conscience are not a thorn in the side of the government. Disagreeing with your government is not unpatriotic and most certainly should not be a crime in any country, especially a democracy."

Let's now go to Pakistan, where a US-backed military dictator (for which the "mainstream" media always refers to as "president", while Chavez is almost always referred to as "controversial president" ) is ruthlessly clamping down on the media.

The day Rice was sermonising on media freedom, General Pervez Musharraf introduced amendments to the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) Ordinance 2002, placing new restrictions on electronic media. The amendments empower PEMRA authorities to seize the broadcast or distribution service equipment of channels, seal their offices and suspend their licences if they operate illegally or violate PEMRA rules. The government has forced widely watched private TV channels Geo, ARY One and Aaj off air since June 4.

The new legislation authorises the authorities to make new regulations without informing parliament. Most importantly, the ordinance raises possible fines for violations from 1 million rupees to 10 million rupees (A$20,000 to $200,000). It also brings internet protocol TV, radio and mobile TV under PEMRA regulations.

The contrast between Rice's resounding denunciation of Venezuela's decision not to renew the licence of a single TV station and the mildly worded expression of support given to media freedom in Pakistan by a US State Department spokesperson on June 4 is evident. "Well, we're watching it closely ... of course", the spokesperson said. "This is an issue that the Pakistani people and the Pakistani government need to resolve within the confines of their law. I understand that there is a judicial process that is under way, and the media should be free to cover that process. It's an important element of making sure that the Pakistani people are informed of what their government is doing, so it is a situation that we're watching closely."

Why censorship?

The media censorship is a response to the growing democracy movement. Pakistan is in the grip of a mass movement that was triggered by General Musharraf's decision to remove the chief justice of Pakistan.

On March 9, Musharraf "suspended" Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry on concocted charges. Certain radical decisions made by the chief justice annoyed the military junta, which has ruled the country since 1999. Pakistan's pliant judiciary has always served the all-powerful military rulers since 1958. On assuming power, all four military rulers (in 1958, 1969, 1977 and 1999) were legitimised by the Supreme Court. Corrupt and docile, Pakistan's judiciary had no credibility left.

All of a sudden Chaudhry, appointed in 2005, surprised the whole country when he suspended the privatisation of the Pakistan Steel Mills over corruption charges, on the plea of the workers' union. This did not merely embarrass the government, but jeopardised the whole privatisation process. Chaudhry caused further surprise with his move in response to a government-sponsored real estate project. The "New Murre" housing project was an environmental catastrophe, but despite protests by civil society and environmental groups, the government refused to budge. Chaudhry took a suo motto action and ordered the shelving of the project.

Chaudhry started earning respect for his "judicial activism", taking up issues of human rights and women's rights cases, as well as offering relief to trade unions in some cases. However, he became intolerable to the military rulers when he publicly stated that Musharraf could not continue both as president and army chief beyond 2007. Musharraf had plans to get another five-year mandate through the Supreme Court, as his predecessors had done and as he himself did on assuming power.

Another sensitive issue was the disappeared activists from Baluchistan province, which has been gripped by civil war since 1999. Hundreds of nationalist activists, including journalists and poets, have disappeared. When the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan moved in the Supreme Court against these disappearances, Chaudhry accepted the plea. The regime has been trying to hush up grave human rights violations (shootings, torture, and kidnappings) in Baluchistan committed by the military to crush the Baluch insurgency.

Finally, Musharraf summoned Chaudhry to Army House and demanded his resignation. To Musharraf's shock, Chaudhry refused to resign despite threats, so an angry Musharraf suspended him. Yet again, Chaudhry surprised Pakistan and embarrassed Musharraf.

More surprises (and embarrassments for Musharraf) were to follow. The lawyers' fraternity, demanding Chaudhry's reinstatement, stood up in protest across Pakistan. As they took to the streets on March 16, the regime resorted to violence. Demonstrations were brutally baton-charged and tear-gassed while Geo TV station was attacked by state police for covering the police violence live.

Violence did not work. Political parties joined demonstrations across the ideological divide: from the religious right to the far left. As the demonstrations grew, the movement picked up a broader agenda. The demand became not merely the reinstatement of Chaudhry, but the restoration of democracy. The Bar Councils (lawyers, or advocates' associations), which have always been in the forefront of the democratic movement, started inviting Chaudhry to address them. Activists in their thousands welcomed him as he travelled to Peshwar, the capital of the North West Frontier Province.

On May 4, Chaudhry travelled to Lahore. As ordinary folk turned up in their hundreds of thousands to catch a glimpse of "Justice Chaudhry" (also the name of a Bollywood hit in the 1980s, depicting a judge fighting injustices), analysts called it a revolution in the making.

May 4 and the Karachi massacre

On May 4, Pakistan witnessed a glimpse of revolution, and the rallying point was Chaudhry. As he headed towards Lahore from the capital, Islamabad, hundreds of thousands of people lined the GT Road all the way to catch a glimpse of him. An otherwise four-hour journey took 24 hours. Such a spontaneous mass mobilisation was unprecedented since 1968, when the Ayub Khan dictatorship was toppled by the people.

A judge as a resistance symbol scared the US-sponsored military regime and it resorted to the age-old response: thug violence was employed as Chaudhry arrived in Karachi on May 12. Thirty-seven people fell to bullets, 300 were shot and injured and scores were brutally beaten up by activists from the military-backed United National Movement (MQM).

But the Karachi massacre did not scare the ordinary Pakistanis who again turned up in their hundreds of thousands as Chaudhry travelled to Abbottabad on June 2. The usually three-hour trip took 14 hours.

Unlike US-sponsored velvet/purple/cedar revolutions, Pakistan's revolution-in-the-making is indigenous, spontaneous and above all directed against a US-sponsored military dictator. As General Musharraf handed Pakistan's military bases over to US forces in the wake of 9/11, he was showered with military and economic aid. The Musharraf regime received US aid worth US$9.1 million during 1999-2001, and was granted $4.2 billion the next three years (a 45,000% increase).

To assist Bush in his "war on terror", Musharraf deployed 80,000 troops on the Afghan border. But his pro-US policies have been extremely unpopular domestically. As reward for his support, Washington not merely blessed Musharraf with financial grants, but also overlooked his election fraud (in the meantime shedding tears for Zimbabwe), violations of human rights in Baluchistan and curbs on the media.

US satraps followed suit. Sweden's social democratic Goran Persson government, for instance, invited Musharraf to Stockholm and sold him six Saab jets worth $1 billion in 2002.

However it was not merely Musharraf's pro-imperialist policies, but also the grind of daily life that drove ordinary Pakistanis to the streets. In the last seven years, privatisation has rendered half a million people jobless, while prices have shot up 100-200%. Lavish US aid has benefited either military or pro-military politicians, while life for ordinary folks has only become more miserable.

The chief justice is merely a pretext - the causes for the ongoing movement are much deeper. Though it remains to be seen whether Chaudhry will bring Musharraf down, the die has been cast. The masses humbled a mighty general back in 1968. They are likely to do it again.

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