Pakistan moved toward its second democratic transition of power in its 71-year-old history on Friday as Nasirul Mulk, a retired judge, was sworn in as caretaker prime minister for two months to preside over national elections on July 25. He was jointly nominated by the governing party, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) and the opposition. In a country where generals have directly ruled for 31 years, this would qualify as a cause for celebration. Instead, Pakistanis see the return of “tutelary democracy,” as the military disempowers politicians who stray from its positions on foreign policy and national security, supports a new king’s party and punishes the press for providing fair coverage to its perceived opponents.
The current season of troubles began in April 2016 after the Panama Papers had named then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s three children as having purchased luxury properties in London using offshore companies. Mr. Sharif’s name did not appear in the papers. Opposition politicians, including Imran Khan, the former cricket star, whose Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf Party is seen as the military’s favorite, took the case to the Supreme Court.
Tensions between the civilian government and the military establishment escalated in October 2016 after Mr. Sharif began asserting himself on foreign policy and national security, which the military considers its domain. In April 2017, the Supreme Court of Pakistan set up a team to investigate the allegations against Mr. Sharif and his family arising out of the Panama Papers.
Surprisingly, the investigative team included officials from Pakistan’s spy agencies — Inter-Services Intelligence and Military Intelligence. Three months later, the Supreme Court disqualified Mr. Sharif from holding public office on account of a misdeclaration. The court ruled that Mr. Sharif had not been “honest” and “truthful” — necessary conditions to hold public office, according to the Constitution of Pakistan. He resigned as prime minister.
Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, a minister from his party, was appointed in his place. Mr. Sharif and his family members are being tried for corruption in a lower court. Mr. Sharif understands the ways of tutelary democracy well because his party was the military favorite in the 1980s, when Gen. Muhammad Zia-ulHaq promoted him. The relations between Mr. Sharif and the military worsened after the publication of a report in Dawn, the oldest and most respected newspaper in Pakistan, in October 2016. The newspaper revealed that Mr. Sharif, and his younger brother and aide Shahbaz Sharif, had warned the military leadership of Pakistan’s growing international isolation because of its continued support of militant groups. Mr. Sharif had already refused to extend the retiring army chief’s term in office. The generals were livid that the rebuke was leaked to the media.
The military whipped up hysteria over the report, which appeared in Dawn, implying that Mr. Sharif’s government was toeing the line of adversarial foreign powers and demanded that the source of the leak be named. Social media users and television personalities known for their proximity to the intelligence services vilified Mr. Sharif’s government; Dawn; its editor, Zaffar Abbas; and the writer Cyril Almeida. Numerous young army officers, whose colleagues were killed fighting the Taliban on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, believed the rhetoric about the treacherous civilian leadership and journalists. They confronted the military leadership and demanded that they act against what they felt were treasonous civilians. Mr. Sharif’s government was forced to order an inquiry. Federal ministers, Mr. Abbas and Mr. Almeida were questioned. The journalists refused to reveal their sources. Subsequently, a new army chief was named and a tenuous calm followed.
But the military hadn’t forgotten or forgiven Mr. Sharif. The investigation by a team that included intelligence officers into the Panama Papers allegations paved the way for Mr. Sharif’s ouster. Despite losing his job and being barred from contesting elections, Mr. Sharif remained popular and exercised power through Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, the prime minister he got appointed, and through his younger brother, who heads his party. Two months before the elections, a concerted campaign by the military establishment seems underway to engineer the political process to ensure that Mr. Sharif can’t even exercise power vicariously and is relegated to history.
In the past few weeks, there has been a series of defections from Mr. Sharif’s party to Mr. Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf. Officials from the intelligence services have been making threatening calls to journalists objecting to accurate reporting of Mr. Sharif and his family’s corruption trial. Journalists at one newspaper told me that they had received phone calls objecting to their reporting on the defense counsel’s pointing out of inaccuracies and gaps in the testimony of Wajid Zia, a top officer of the country’s Federal Investigation Agency and the prosecution’s star witness against the Sharifs.
The military has also been unhappy about the peaceful, widespread protests by young Pashtuns and their articulate questions about disappearances, extrajudicial killings and mistreatment of their people during counterinsurgency operations in northwestern Pakistan along the border with Afghanistan. The media was told to completely black out the Pashtun movement.
Jang Group, Pakistan’s largest media group, which runs several newspapers and Geo Television, the leading news network, took a defiant posture for months. Intelligence operatives got cable operators to force the network off air in most parts of the country. The network’s ratings and advertising revenue fell, and it was unable to pay its staff for three months. Eventually, the network capitulated and settled on the military’s terms. Dawn remained the lone voice of defiance and independent journalism.
Pakistan’s military is one of the biggest real estate developers in the country, and it owns or runs some of the most upmarket residential areas in all major urban centers. The circulation of Dawn is being impeded in those areas where a large number of its readers may reside. News agents are being warned against distributing the paper in rural Pakistan as well. Real estate giants such as the military-controlled Defense Housing Authority have withheld advertisements from Dawn as a punitive measure. On Wednesday, Hameed Haroon, the chief executive of Dawn and the president of the All Pakistan Newspapers Society, spoke about the “blatant attacks on the freedoms of expression” by the state institutions: “We will not be a party to the upturning of the Article 19 of the Constitution. And we will not be a party to the killing of the freedom of expression in the country.”
But Mr. Haroon’s newspaper is being choked to force it to its knees or die. That would be a tragedy as it is about the only media organization in Pakistan where editorial decisions are made by journalists and not by the owners. I edited the paper from 2006 to 2010. Zaffar Abbas, my friend and successor, survived two murderous attacks earlier in his career and more recently received death threats. He has continued publishing the paper without flinching. But the emerging scenario seems scarier. An unfair and disputed election would unleash turbulence that Pakistan could well do without. The Pakistani people have suffered terribly in the past two decades of pitiless terrorism and war. They deserve to be governed by representatives elected in a free and fair election. And they deserve a robust press — one that raises necessary questions.
Dawn remains the lone voice of defiance and independent journalism. But it’s being forced to its knees.
ABBAS NASIR, is a columnist and former editor of Dawn, the leading English language newspaper in Pakistan.