Mushahid Hussain Syed on the media (or Mushahid Hussain Syed on Mushahid Hussain Syed in the media)

Here’s an interesting article by Mushahid Hussain Syed on the role of the media in Pakistan in supporting dictatorship. The interesting thing is that people like Mushahid Hussain are so self-aware of the role that they played. Note his description of how and why The Muslim (a paper which he was later made the editor of) was founded in Lahore in 1979…

Given this context, The Muslim launched by Agha Murtaza Poya in May 1979 was the “new kid on the block” and it had the added advantage of being the first independent daily from Islamabad. It is no accident that The Muslim was launched a month after the hanging of ZAB since it helped create a “tolerant” image of the military regime.

Anyway, after you read Mushahid Hussain’s own article, read this account of his role in the Indo-Pak nuclear crisis of 1987:

The eminent Indian Journalist, Kuldip Nayar, (later Indian High Commissioner in London and now Rajya Sabha M.P.) was on one of his periodical professional visits to Pakistan. He managed to get an interview with Pak nuclear scientist Abdul Qadir Khan, (then reputed as “father of Pakistani bomb” but recently ousted from his pet Kahuta uranium enrichment project inexplicably). Nayar’s interview, as it transpired later, had been arranged through a renowned Pakistani journalist and the then editor of the prestigious daily Muslim, Mushahid Hussain (who later became Information Minister in the Nawaz Sharif Cabinet, was incarcerated together with his mentor after General Musharraf’s infamous October 12 coup of 1999, and was released sometime back). There were strong indications that the interview, which proved quite explosive, was not without the consent of the then President Zia ul Haq. But apparently it was without the knowledge of prime minister Junejo who felt terribly hurt.

Abdul Qadir Khan’s naration was a veiled nuclear threat primarily meant for India at the peak of the simmering border crisis, virtually declaring that Pakistan had absolutely succeeded in making the bomb. By some kink or eddie, the publication of the interview was delayed by a few weeks. Meanwhile the war clouds hovering on Indo-Pak horizons had passed and the crisis had been defused following the strenuous efforts of the prime ministers of the two countries. But hell broke out when it first appeared in London Observer and was immediately picked up by the Pak and Indian media besides the world press. It was the first ever announcement of Pakistan’s claims to having achieved nuclear capability.

“The message, obviously meant for ‘belligerent’ India, instantly reached America instead. It created a flutter in the dovecotes of the US administration”, as the then correspondent of Voice of America (VOA) in Islamabad mentioned to me in a chat. It was indeed the beginning of America’s public display of displeasure with the Zia administration on the nuclear issue, which eventually culminated in the stoppage of aid by President Bush (father of the present US President) on the ground of his inability to certify to the Congress Pakistan’s nuclear virginity as required under the prevalent US laws.

Domestically in Pakistan there was a hilarious sidelight. The episode provoked a fierce controversy and Abdul Qadir Khan’s authority to “spill the beans” was widely questioned – and that too to an Indian journalist! It was blasphemy for Pakistani journalists. They raised a shindy over it since all of them had been consistently refused opportunity to meet the country’s most prominent nuclear scientist, A. Q. Khan, who lived virtually in a fortress ringed by armed security men and aided by a number of ferocious alsatians in a posh locality of Islamabad. The episode sharpened the mounting rivalries between President Zia and PM Junejo who felt slighted at the facilitation of Khan’s disclosures behind his back by Zia. Junejo had to be content with getting Mushahid Hussain eased out of the editorship of the Muslim daily (now said to be defunct). Professional jealousies of some Pak journalists played no mean a part in Mushahid’s exit!


Mushahid Hussain Sayed August 18, 2006
The Friday Times, Lahore

In a discussion with Benazir Bhutto soon after her return in 1986, I mentioned to her that the key to understanding Pakistan’s power structure was to comprehend the profile of the Pakistan Establishment. This Establishment comprises anywhere from 500 to 1000 individuals, some related to each other through family or marriage, from amongst the military brass, the top bureaucracy, superior judiciary, intelligence outfits. Its wings are flanked by feudal lords, industrial magnates and media barons.

The media barons play a key role in providing “legitimacy” to the state’s ideology and its policies, while working to promote variants of the ‘officially certified truth’. In any case, the media in Pakistan is dependent on the state for support, sustenance and, sometimes, survival. Historically, Pakistan’s media barons divided up the country into four different fiefdoms. Dawn, run by the Haroons, dominated the English press from Karachi, Jang, run by Mir Khalilur Rehman, dominated Karachi, Nawa-e-Waqt, founded by Hamid Nizami and run by Majid Nizami since 1962, dominated Lahore while the state had a string of Urdu and English publications under the auspices of the National Press Trust.

Given this context, The Muslim launched by Agha Murtaza Poya in May 1979 was the “new kid on the block” and it had the added advantage of being the first independent daily from Islamabad. It is no accident that The Muslim was launched a month after the hanging of ZAB since it helped create a “tolerant” image of the military regime. Similarly, the Jang was launched in Lahore in 1981 at a time when the military regime was seeking to normalize relations with India and it helped to counter the Nawa-e-Waqt’s more strident, anti-India rhetoric.

Initially, Mr. Poya was seen by his more experienced contemporaries as an “upstart” in journalism because he was an “outsider”. Mr. Poya was a great boss to work for, because he allowed a democratic debate within The Muslim and he let the Editor grow without trying to stifle anyone’s style. In the face of strong arguments or resistance, he would relent. Once, I remember, we had a big debate because he sent an unsigned article which I scuttled because as I told him “it is against the policy of The Muslim”! Ultimately, we compromised and decided to publish it as a letter to the editor.

Another more serious debate took place during the run up to the 1984 Referendum of General Zia. Mr. Poya was quite unpredictable and the most creative conspiracy theorist East of Suez! One fine evening after the referendum had been announced, Mr. Poya called me together with Mr. Farhad Zaidi, an experienced journalist with integrity (father of two good journalists, Ali Zaidi and Hassan Zaidi) and suddenly announced that “I have decided to support the referendum”. He justified it on the grounds that, in his view, General Zia was resisting the American pressure on the Afghan and nuclear issues by seeking popular legitimacy, and, therefore, needed support which we should provide. I argued that this would be impossible because such a U-turn would go against all that The Muslim had stood for.

After an animated discussion, he said “why don’t we meet after Iftar late at night”. During the recess, I told Farhad Zaidi that in such an eventuality, “I would tender my resignation because I won’t be able to justify The Muslim change of line”. To my pleasant surprise, Farhad Zaidi, who headed the management as Chief Executive, said he too would resign. I told him that this was more of a policy matter not a management issue but in his own soft spoken way, he said: “I also feel as strongly as you do on this issue”. When we conveyed our decision to Mr. Poya, he backed off.

Other media barons like Mir Khalilur Rehman and Majid Nizami had a more hands-on approach to running their newspapers. Despite being rivals, both had similarities: self-made, driven, spartan in their life-style and frugal in their tastes, with both driving their papers as their primary passion. Both were ideological in their own different ways. For instance, Jang viewed Urdu as the basis of Pakistani nationalism while Nawa-e-Waqt saw Islam and Iqbal as the pillars of Pakistani nationalism. Both reflected the world view of their respective power base and I jokingly used to say that the Nawa-e-Waqt world view emanates from ‘within the ten mile radius of GPO Lahore combining Islamia College, Iqbal and Islamic Ideology’. I have no doubt if Bhutto had been born and brought up within this ten mile radius, he probably wouldn’t have been hanged. Both publishers were also thorough professionals. Majid Nizami sometimes writes the Nawa-e-Waqt editorial and its satirical columns. I remember accompanying Mir Khalilur Rehman on a trip with Mr. Junejo to the United States in 1986. At an unimportant function, I saw Mir Khalilur Rehman personally taking notes and I asked Mir Sahib, “why bother” and he replied: “we never know the PM can say some thing important and Jang may then miss it”.

During the same visit, we were invited to the White House at a grand dinner hosted by President Ronald Reagan in honour of Prime Minister Muhammad Khan Junejo. I was dressed in a rented tuxedo (for $ 25!) while Mir Sahib wore his sherwani. We saw Reagan at a distance and I grasped Mir Sahib’s arm and said: “let’s have a chat with him”, to which Mir Sahib, in all innocence, responded: “but we haven’t been introduced”. I said that “as journalists, we don’t need any introductions” and soon we were chatting with the American President in the relaxed ambience of the White House on topics ranging from horse riding on Reagan’s ranch to the Afghan war. Reagan was an absolute charmer.

Among the media barons, the most radical was Agha Murtaza Poya, always willing to experience with an ‘out-of-the- box’ approach. In April 1984, the military regime initiated what was the first track-2 dialogue with India and requested The Muslim to host it. The ground rules were clear: no money from the Information Ministry’s ‘secret funds’, I would decide the Pakistani and Indian speakers and all of the Indians invited would be granted visas.

Some of the biggest names in Indian journalism came for a two day long debate on South Asian security at the Islamabad Marriott. The debate was free-wheeling, with Pakistani participants ranging from Aitzaz Ahsan to Mazhar Ali Khan while the Indian contingent included Khushwant Singh, Kuldip Nayar, Dr. Bhabani Sen Gupta, Pran Chopra and Prem Bhatia.

There was mutual suspicion between the two opposites: Mrs Gandhi was said to be a politician ‘who acts like a general’ while General Zia was often said to be a general ‘who behaves like a politician’. Relations with India had taken a nose-dive amidst Mrs. Gandhi’s allegations of Pakistani alleged support to the Khalistan Movement and General Zia was keen to repair the damage. There was also talk of an Indian pre-emptive strike. After the Seminar, General Zia was jubilant: “we have now built a lobby in the Indian intelligentsia and you have bought us time”. Six months later, Mrs. Gandhi was dead.


One response to “Mushahid Hussain Syed on the media (or Mushahid Hussain Syed on Mushahid Hussain Syed in the media)

  1. stuka

    “After the Seminar, General Zia was jubilant: “we have now built a lobby in the Indian intelligentsia and you have bought us time”. Six months later, Mrs. Gandhi was dead.”

    HHA. This is so typical of Zia.

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