The gladiatorial contest between the government of prime minister Nawaz Sharif and the Jang Group of newspapers would be comical were it not for its deadly intent. Both sides are trying to occupy the moral high ground where none exists. Senator Saifur Rahman, the regime’s one-man demolition squad, has made an ass of himself by making demands of the newspaper conglomerate to dismiss a number of journalists and adopt policies favourable to the government.
This is pathetic, to say the least. Mir Shakilur Rahman, Jang’s chief executive, at a press conference in Karachi, played tape recorded coversation of senator Saif in which he had made certain demands of the newspaper and issued threats.
The government does not need to use such tactics. It has a comfortable majority in parliament and should be able to pass any legislation it needs, provided it is able to convince lawmakers. Its travails in the senate, where it does not have an absolute majority, should not be used to bludgeon others into acquiescence.
No government is ever completely happy with the press. Relations between the two are usually strained, more so in Pakistan where partisanship comes so easily to members of the fourth estate who are not above reproach for using blackmailing tactics. But the government can hardly be justified in resorting to the very tactics it accuses the newspaper empire of using.
Information minister Mushahid Husain, himself a former journalist, accused the Jang Group of blackmail because the government had turned down its request for a TV channel. Radio and television are strictly controlled in Pakistan and are used virtually as mouthpieces of whichever regime is in power. The Khabarnam (news broadcast) on Pakistan television can easily be called the prime minister-nama. If the prime minister is not inaugurating factories, power plants and bridges, he is shown giving out prizes to children or seen sternly lecturing errant officials to mend their ways. One would be hard pressed to find anything wrong in the ‘Islamic Republic of Pakistan.’
Only the print media are able to present an alternative perspective. The Jang Group--empire would be a more appropriate term to use--became big by playing handmaiden to every regime in Pakistan. It has seldom taken an adversarial position in the past. In fact, Jang London was launched with seed money provided by the late general Zia ul-Haq. The string of newspapers and magazines it has launched are all the result not so much of talent but of government largesse.
If the government says the Group is in default of two billion rupees in tax arrears, there may be some truth to it. In fact, most newspapers and magazines as well as businesses in Pakistan are tax cheaters. In addition, they get preferential treatment in newsprint allocation if they toe the government line. Similarly, their largest source of revenue is government advertising.
This last is incidentally not confined to Pakistan. Even in a largely free and democratic society like Canada, government advertising is used to keep some media outlets in line. The Crescent International for instance, used to get Canadian government advertising until it turned itself into the newsmagazine of the Islamic Movement in 1980. Government advertising immediately stopped. Our advertising agent told us that we were becoming ‘too serious’ about our work.
It was alright to talk about bhangra and songs, or praise the lord and pass the bacon but getting serious about issues was not. Even today, scores of rags--what pass for community papers--get substantial Canadian government advertising because they are non-serious and nonsensical. Discussing issues in-depth and giving a clear perspective exposing government wrongdoing--in this case western hypocrisy in matters of international affairs--lands one in trouble.
We did not complain. We simply got on with the job relying on Allah for help. He is the best of providers. We have not become an empire but we have acquired a global readership that is committed to sustaining us. The owners of Jang Group do not think this way. They have made their fortune by piggybacking on successive governments. Newspapers are a source of moneymaking in Pakistan. Most journalists, too, are not concerned about truth, barring a few notable exceptions.
In the seventies and early eighties, Dawn newspaper was bought in large numbers by the Pakistan government and distributed free among expatriate communities abroad through its embassies and missions. Mahmoud Haroon, owner of the Dawn Group, was at the time interior minister in general Zia’s cabinet.
Most newspapers and magazines in Pakistan cheat on their tax returns. The government is well within its right to go after these business, but in the proper manner. It is the job of the tax department to assess tax revenues and a defaulter must be given the right to challenge what is assessed against him. Freezing bank accounts, raiding newsprint warehouses and indulging in other strongarm tactics do not strengthen the government’s case even if it is based on facts.
The information minister’s proposal to set up a committee to resolve the issue with the Jang Group reflects a dangerous attitude. If the newspaper empire is guilty of tax fraud, no quarter should be given. This, however, must not be used to extract concessions or tame the Group into accepting government demands. This is what is so disturbing about the whole episode.
If the print media, despite all its faults, is brought under the government’s heel, it would be a sad day for Pakistan.
Muslimedia: Feb.1-15, 1999