That a conflict was simmering between the Nawaz Sharif government and the Jang Group of Newspapers, became known to die Pakistani public only after Front-page announcements in two of the group’s dailies, Jong and The News, proclaimed that “after demolishing other pillars of the state, the government has now targeted the freedom of the press”. Jang’s decision to go open about the dispute created quite a stir and took most people by surprise, given the group’s general policy of non-confrontation.
The first quarter-page advertisement, appearing on 25 January, claimed that Saifur Rehman, head of the Accountability Bureau and close aide of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, had demanded that: the news organisation, the country’s largest, sack 16 journalists and replace them with “our people”; not print anything against the Shariat bill (the controversial 15th Constitutional Amendment); support the government on the Karachi situation; not print anything about the Sharif family’s loans, tax arrears, business and private affairs; and extend unconditional support to the government on various other issues.
The consequences of not falling into line had already been made clear by the government with the re-opening of several cases of wealth and income tax irregularities against Jang. For good measure, a case was also registered against the group for the alleged illegal selling of its newsprint quota.
It was obvious to all that by going public, the Jang group, known for its moderate and pragmatic attitude, was playing the greatest gamble of its more than half a century’s existence. For, this meant open confrontation with a prime minister whose wars of ego had resulted in the dethroning of a president, an army chief and a chief justice of the Supreme Court.
Following Jang’s disclosures, Saifur Rehman admitted that he had asked the Jang proprietor and Editor-in-Chief, Mir Shakilur Rehman, to support the government on various issues because the country needed “an atmosphere of understanding and support from all spheres of life to get the country out of the economic crisis”. But he denied having asked for the sacking of certain journalists and claimed: “It is a simple case of tax evasion of a sum as huge as 4 billion rupees and as the chairman of the Ehtesab [Accountability] Bureau, it is my responsibility to eradicate corruption wherever it is present.” (It is a different matter that both Saifur Rehman and his boss, Nawaz Sharif, themselves have been accused of not paying taxes commensurate with their fabulous wealth. If opposition Senator Aitzaz Ahsan’s famous ‘open letter’ is to be believed, the prime minister paid only 477 rupees tax in 1998, while Rehman nothing at all.)
In pursuit of the “simple case of tax evasion”, the government made full use of the state power. Jang’s bank accounts were frozen, government advertisements pulled, supply of newsprint disrupted, and the secret services and various other agencies let loose on Jang’s management as well as on senior journalists. What hurt the most was the stoppage of newsprint, which is imported under tight government control and allotted to newspapers under a quota system. The Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) ‘hijacked’ truckloads of Jang’s newsprint and, later, the customs delayed release of the paper stock in defiance of a Supreme Court order. The group was forced to temporarily close several of its weekly publications and reduce Jang and The News to mere skeletons. Meanwhile, the stateowned electronic media went on a tirade against the newspaper group.
That was the situation when Jang chief Rehman dropped a bombshell. On 28 January, he called the press in Karachi and played a recording of one of his conversations with Saifur Rehman, Information Minister Mushahid Hussain and others. The newspersons present heard Rehman demanding the dismissal of 16 journalists, including that of Maleeha Lodhi, former Pakistani ambassador to the US and editor of the Islamabad edition of The News, and if that was not possible, placing them in other positions until they could be. Rehman also suggested substitutes for these journalists; he “recommended” a speech writer of the prime minister in Lodhi’s place.
At that time, it became clear that at stake was nothing less than the hard-won freedom of expression in the country. It was no longer a lone publishing group against the government, but the Press plus Civil Society against Government. Journalist organisations joined hands in support of Jang. Meetings were held, processions taken out, and hundreds of journalists took part in hunger strikes in all major cities of the country. Political parties set aside their mutual differences to form an All Parties Press Freedom Committee and held rallies in Karachi and Islamabad. It was for the first time perhaps that workers of political parties as divergent as the Pakhtun Nationalist Awami National Party (ANP), the Islamist Jamaat-e-lslami (Jl) and the Pakistan People’s Party joined hands to stage joint rallies.
The battle of nerves finally ended with what appeared to be saner elements in the government prevailing upon the prime minister to relent. On 10 February, the Jang group announced that it had started talks with the government and hoped that “all issues would be solved soon”. It also announced that its newsprint had been released and bank accounts de-freezed. Two days later, the journalists “temporarily” closed their hunger strike camps. There were suggestions that the two sides had struck a deal, but Mir Shakilur vehemently denied any “give and take”.
For now, the match appears to have ended in a victory for the press, but there’s no saying when the next round will start and who the victors will be then.