Massaging the official message

Mushahid Hussain is just doing his job. He stands out because he is a former journalist defending a government that is hounding the press.

Pakistan's Information Minister Mushahid Hussain Syed has two personas: one journalistic which cultivates easy camaraderie with the press in Pakistan, the other political which bows to the culture of defending the government, right or wrong. If a journalist is wronged by his government, he will let him know privately the wrong happened because his advice was rejected, then issue a strong official statement justifying the action.

This split personality has hurt Mushahid both ways. It has caused disenchantment among the journalist community, and it has undermined his status within the party in power. In April when the Jang Group of newspapers were under attack from Nawaz Sharif government (see Himal March 1999), he sent out secret messages saying he had advised against the action. Later it was revealed that he was very much part of the crackdown.

In the aftermath of the 'arrest' of Najam Sethi, chief editor of The Friday Times weekly, he has repeated the routine. In Hong Kong, he privately let on to his critics that he was not involved, but officially defended the arrest and secret confinement of Sethi on charges of "collaborating with India". That's the expertise Mushahid has developed in a government where he has had to fight the other Sharif loyalists to get to the top and remain there.

High-water mark

Mushahid Hussain Syed was a journalist once, and a very well regarded one. Unlike Hussain Haqqani, another journalist recently harassed by the government, who gained fame as a correspondent of The Far Eastern Economic Review and was an ill-concealed proxy of General Zia's, Mushahid was not politically aligned. His high-water mark as a journalist came in 1983, as editor of Islamabad's The Muslim, when his was the best reporting on General Zia's military assault on the
province of Sindh. He was not the arm-chair editor writing editorials. He travelled and reported on the spot.

It was while editing The Muslim that he was ousted from his job in 1988 for "collaborating with India" in helping well-known Indian journalist Kuldip Nayar interview Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan's nuclear bomb. After the interview appeared in British papers, then prime minister Mohammed Khan Junejo pressured the management at The Muslim to fire Mushahid.

He then worked as a freelancer until 1993 when he joined the media cell of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML). This was after President Ghulam Ishaq Khan dismissed the government of Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party returned to power in the subsequent elections. In 1996, President Farooq Leghari dismissed the Bhutto government and Nawaz Sharif swept to power with an overwhelming majority in the Lower House of the Parliament in 1997. Mushahid Hussain was made senator and subsequently information minister.

Mushahid comes from a respected Shia family of Lahore. A graduate of international relations from Boston University, he taught international affairs in the mid-1970s at Lahore's Punjab University. Considered a leftist and a known critic of the US, he challenged Washington's global policy as neo-imperialism. He was also an opponent of India's "hegemonic designs" in South Asia, supported Pakistan's nuclear ambitions and advocated the testing of a nuclear device in response to India's 1974 Pokhran test.

As a journalist, Mushahid did adhere to an ideology—the ideology of anti-Americanism. He was inclined to support anyone who challenged America's hegemony. When Pakistan's then chief of army staff General Mirza Aslam Beg, announced his theory of "strategic defiance" (of the US) on the eve of the Gulf war in 1990, he supported it. And after General Beg set up his FRIENDS organisation upon retirement, Mushahid joined it, taking out processions in favour of testing Pakistan's nuclear device.

His left-wing orientation however dissipated with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Following the revolution in Iran, a Shia-majority country, Mushahid became a great admirer of Ayatollah Khomeini. The Iranian revolution inspired all Muslims but it affected the anti-American and Shia Mushahid deeply. He became an Islamist. But being an Islamist in Pakistan is a rather complicated affair. And being in the Muslim League, which has a support base consisting largely of orthodox Sunni left-overs from the Zia era, complicates it further.

During the 1990-93 government of Nawaz Sharif, Mushahid was an important means of communication between Islamabad and Teheran. But Pakistan's relations with Iran began to sour in 1994 with the two countries supporting opposing forces in Afghanistan. The rise of the Taliban and their support from Islamabad, along with the ongoing Shia-Sunni mayhem in Punjab, brought the two on to a collision course. The Muslim League veered further right, and Mushahid came under pressure. His Iran connection soon became suspect, forcing him to keep a low profile. That remained the case until he became minister in 1997.

Among the faithful

During his second tenure, Sharif has gradually tamed all the institutions that could challenge him. He ousted President Farooq Leghari, who had dismissed the PPP government and time-barred the accountability law to bring him to power. He amended the 8th Amendment in the constitution to become the appointer of chief of the army staff, then proceeded to get rid of the army chief Jehangir Karamat. And when it was felt that the chief justice would hear cases against the prime minister, a rebellion was engineered within the judiciary and the chief justice removed. Before this, the Supreme Court was assaulted by the Muslim Leaguers to prevent the bench from hearing cases against Sharif.

The BBC news footage of the incident at the Supreme Court showed Mushahid among the faithfuls barging into the Supreme Court to put his loyalty to the prime minister on record. Others were far more aggressive and were indicted for insulting the court. For his part, Mushahid, as information minister, defended each step of the government as fulfillment of the democratic ideal.

Meanwhile, as Nawaz Sharif moved close to Washington, Musha-hid's pre-1993 rhetoric was trimmed accordingly to defend the relationship. His anti-India stance was likewise modified when Nawaz Sharif moved to normalise relations with India. Nawaz Sharif's ambivalence provided space for Mushahid to function easily. His line now was "Pakistani decisions are made in Pakistan", implying that in the past this was not the case. When in May 1998 Pakistan exploded its nuclear device, Mushahid Hussain's old dream was realised.

There is nothing unusual in the behaviour of Mushahid Hussain. That's the way information ministers are supposed to behave in this part of the world. They 'create' the image of the government, and control the damage to this image when the government goes wayward.

The press in Pakistan is right-wing and dotes on Nawaz Sharif—the Urdu section more than the English one—and as such, Mushahid's job is not a particularly tough one. His only problem is that the government, ill-advised by the prime minis-ter's inner coterie, keeps on whipping a willing horse and gives itself a bad name at home and abroad.

Thus you have the ridiculous phenomenon of column-writers singing panegyrics on Sharif on the editorial pages, complete with mug-shots to register with a non-reading prime minister, while the news pages carry stories about journalists being roughed up by the regime's secret agencies.

Why should Mushahid be picked on? After all, he is only a party man, contesting turf with many other Muslim Leaguers close to the prime minister. He is not even in the inner sanctum and there are many who would like to see him trip up in his work. He is doing his job much the same way as BJP information minister did when Hindu fanatics were killing Christians in India.

Perhaps he stands out a bit more in the double-speak jungle of Pakistan because he is articulate and himself comes from the community of journalists that is being hounded by the government he speaks for.

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