Why Pakistan’s breakdown arouses so much interest

Paul Workman, South Asia Bureau Chief

ISLAMABAD — I had to get a visa extension in order to stay in Pakistan longer than the two weeks journalists are normally allowed, so I made my way from one office to another, finally ending up at a white stucco building in suburban Islamabad. I sat down with all my paperwork, and handed it to a young man who had a friendly face and a good reach of English.

“There are so many journalists here,” he said. “Our country is in a lot of trouble.”

It’s a long time since I’ve covered a story that sustained the headlines for as many days as the crisis in Pakistan. Night after night, there seemed an insatiable demand to know what was going on, to the exhaustion of correspondents filing for a North American deadline.

So what’s the answer? Why would Pakistan’s breakdown arouse so much interest, even passion?

For one thing, the sight of thousands of lawyers in their black suits and white shirts, battling with police, was a startling image for North Americans, who generally hold lawyers in lower esteem than journalists. But in Pakistan, it was the lawyers who took up the front line of resistance, and in many ways, it was reminiscent of the struggle for democracy in Eastern Europe, and touched a nerve.

It was equally startling for North Americans to hear that independent TV stations had been taken off the air. This is 2007, the information revolution is upon us, and yet Pakistan’s military ruler simply pulled the plug on the most important and critical source of news available. TV junkies in the west don’t like or understand how anybody could do that. (One of the stations had a transvestite hosting a political interview show, which shows how far Pakistan has come.)

Even satellite signals were blocked and the sale of satellite dishes banned, and you can imagine how few people in Pakistan could afford to put a satellite dish on their roof. But that’s how far the military went to seal the country off. At our hotel, some days you could get the BBC and CNN, other days the signal was gone. We used it as a barometer for Musharraf’s state of mind.

Inside Musharraf’s mind

The irony is that General Musharraf, President Musharraf, considers himself a democrat and is obviously deeply insulted when anybody dares to call him a dictator. Yes, we’re talking about the same man who suspended the constitution, fired the country’s chief justice, threw thousands of people in jail, and loved to boast that one of his great achievements was liberalizing the media.

“Í have no ego, or personal ambitions to guard,” he told his first new conference, a week after imposing a state of emergency. I thought that would be great as a “quote of the week,” that you see in American news magazines.

Or this one, given to the BBC:

“Did I go mad? Or suddenly my personality changed. Am I Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?”

At the same news conference, Musharraf seemed defiantly self-assured, considering that most of the leaders of the democratic world had taken a crack at him. It was startling to hear him say with such seriously-held conviction: “I did not violate the constitution, and the law of this land. I tried to correct the situation.”

No, he merely suspended the constitution, or put it in “abeyance” as the official order read.

At least Musharraf seems to have given up the pretense that he needed emergency law to fight terrorism in Pakistan. Few people inside or outside the country believed such a transparent, incredulous claim anyway. He wanted to purge the country’s supreme court of those who challenged, or “obstructed” his right to rule, and nothing, or anybody was going to stop him, not even a last-minute warning from his friends in Washington.

“I had to correct the source of the problem, and the source of the problem happened to be some elements of the judiciary.”

For a tough army commando, the general seems to have a thin skin, and is not above portraying himself as a victim, caught between “a rock and a hard surface.” (By the way, in his largely self-serving autobiography, Musharraf used the same phrase to justify some of his previous actions.) I get the impression this is a man who desperately wants the world to believe and respect him, and can’t understand why people would possibly think otherwise.

Fierce media under martial law

For a country under emergency law, the media have been ferociously critical of Musharraf. Editorials in the newspapers have been consistently fierce and disapproving. One of the local independent TV channels that is now back on the air, carries a logo in the top right corner that reads “Emergency” with the number of days since it was imposed.

And almost every day, there’s a demonstration by journalists somewhere in the country protesting against a new “code of conduct” that Musharraf insists all news outlets must adhere to.

One of the people protesting was a young Pakistani-Canadian journalist, pictured full-face in a local newspaper wearing a black gag over her mouth. Her conviction is impressive and I wondered what her parents back home were thinking.

Her editor perhaps put it best. “I’m very proud to say, we have the most fearless media right now in the world,”

A brighter future?

Musharraf is a military leader the west coddled and tolerated because it was looking for a good guy to help beat the Taliban and find Osama bin Laden. We wanted him to win. And that made him vitally important to Canadians because of the military mission next door in Afghanistan. There is still a belief that Musharraf possesses the power to stabilize the region, if he wants.

Yet in the last five years, the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan has remained an open crossing point for Islamic fighters. Osama bin Laden is probably hiding out in Pakistan, along with the Taliban’s Mullah Omar, as they continue their war against the “infidel” forces of NATO. The situation is not getting much better.

So, with his declaration of emergency rule, patience with General Musharraf may be running out. The Americans have been very careful not to undermine his authority, but there are signs of discontent, and for the first time, people are talking and writing openly about his resignation, or eventual downfall.

In fact, the latest issue of Newsweek magazine to hit the stands here has a banner headline that any other dictator might happily quash, and then burn every copy he could find.

“After Musharraf,” it reads. “Why the future might look bright for Pakistan.”

Source: CTV News

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Posted in Attacks on Civilians, Civil liberties and human rights, Developing Countries, Dipomacy, Freedom of speech, George W. Bush, History, International Relations, Legal, Media, Military, Oppression, Pakistan, Politics, United States

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