During his resignation speech, former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf touted his country's flourishing independent media as one of his accomplishments. But although Musharraf initially expanded media freedoms, he tried to squelch them near the end of his rule. The Christian Science Monitor’s Shahan Mufti describes Musharraf’s mixed media legacy.
BOB GARFIELD: On October 12th, 1999, Pervez Musharraf, the head of Pakistan's Army, seized power from Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. [CLIP]: [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: With all the normal institutions of political life disbanded, the television station was really the only venue left for a State of the Nation address. Two days after imposing an emergency, Pakistan's self-appointed chief executive was ready to talk to his public. What everyone wanted to know was how and for how long the Army intends to rule. [END CLIP] BOB GARFIELD: It turns out Musharraf's rule lasted until this week, when he resigned amid charges of corruption and threats of impeachment sparked in part by his crackdown on Pakistan's judiciary last year.
Throughout his nearly nine years in power, Musharraf forged a complicated relationship with his country's media. He was a dictator who, paradoxically, expanded media freedoms at the beginning of his rule, only to try unsuccessfully at the end to squelch the independent media he had helped create.
But in his resignation speech on Monday, he claimed Pakistan's press freedom as one of his triumphs. [CLIP]: [PRESIDENT MUSHARRAF SPEAKING URDU]
INTERPRETER FOR PRESIDENT MUSHARRAF: I'm also pleased to say that I'm leaving a vibrant media. I'm pleased to say that. And I hope that with this independence the media has functioned with, this - the media will enjoy the same level of freedom and independence. [END CLIP] BOB GARFIELD: So what is Musharraf's media legacy? The Christian Science Monitor's Shahan Mufti is based in Islamabad. Shahan, welcome back to the show. SHAHAN MUFTI: Thank you, Bob. It's a pleasure. BOB GARFIELD: Musharraf came to power in 1999, in a bloodless military coup, but a coup nonetheless, and almost immediately began expanding the opportunities for broadcast media. Was this because he had some sort of democratic tendencies, or because he was trying to create a cult of personality in the broadcast media, or some combination of the two, or some third reason altogether?
SHAHAN MUFTI: The fact is that even Musharraf's most vehement opponents admit to the fact that Pervez Musharraf, in some way, paved the way for a media boom. The democratic nineties, they weren't great times for the press, and journalists were being dragged out of their beds at night, and journalists were being fired from their positions for covering the wrong stories about the wrong readers.
So there's little doubt, and even within journalist circles, about what Musharraf had done. The reasons for it though are debated. Some people definitely thought that Pervez Musharraf was a leader for the 21st century, and he understood the importance of having his voice, his face out there. Some journalists say that he was obsessed with his own image. And he was. There's a lot of pictures of him out there, fixing his hair and he had gray wisps of hair — BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHING] SHAHAN MUFTI: — around — on top of each, on each temple. BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] And he even wore a different outfit, depending on who the audience was. SHAHAN MUFTI: You could never be sure what Pervez Musharraf would show up in, his choice to wear army fatigues or a suit, depending on his audience, and even depending on what political stand he was taking. So he had a good understanding, better than possibly any other Pakistani leader ever had to have, on how to deal with image and the media. BOB GARFIELD: I want to ask you about culpability. It seems to me that there was something of a deal with the devil going on here. The media, in exchange for its expanded freedoms, seemed to cultivate Musharraf's cult of personality, or at least create an environment in which a cult of personality could flourish. SHAHAN MUFTI: Well, domestically Musharraf was one who, like I said — he could put himself out there. So Pakistanis sitting in their living rooms would get to meet Pervez Musharraf's family. And no media outlet [LAUGHS] would say no to sitting in the President's living room talking about his family escaping Delhi during the partition of India. I mean, really, it was — it would be hard [LAUGHS] for any media channel to say no to that. BOB GARFIELD: So in the face of the restrictions that he tried to impose under emergency rule, I guess the press became political allies of the judiciary who had themselves been repressed by Musharraf. Was it awkward to watch this kind of advocacy journalism going on, even if it was in the name of press freedom? SHAHAN MUFTI: It was odd. You'd see the insignias with the symbols of private television channels, alongside political opposition parties on political opposition parties’ posters. So you would see the face of the opposition leader, like Benazir Bhutto or Nawaz Sharif. And next to them you'd see these insignias for private news channels.
One of them, actually, the Geo Television, that insignia which is a blue, orange and white one, became almost a badge of resistance to Musharraf because that was one channel that suffered the most when Musharraf cracked down on the media. BOB GARFIELD: So has the press begun any kind of self-examination into what extent they had been facilitators or enablers in his dictatorship? SHAHAN MUFTI: I don't think that the press is at that point yet. There's still a lot of patting on the back and celebration. What the press is doing though is there's public service messages on some of the channels which are trying to frame a new sort of paradigm for themselves in which they're saying that just because we may have helped the opposition parties or — well, the government now — to get rid of Pervez Musharraf and eject him from the political scene, it does not mean that we have any alliance there. BOB GARFIELD: Shahan, there's one interesting footnote to this story, and that is Musharraf's own resignation speech in which he credited himself for opening up the media. Was there any acknowledgement at all of the irony of that, that, you know, he had created this Frankenstein's monster which ultimately helped destroy him? SHAHAN MUFTI: Toward the end of his rule he obviously recognized what the media was doing. But he used that as a defense, to show that he was, at the end of it, a democrat at heart. He always said that he had created the media, which was hostile to him; yet, he still tolerated them.
He had helped create this monster that took him down, in the end. In one of his last things he said after he had announced his resignation, he talked about how he hoped that the media that he had helped create would continue. BOB GARFIELD: Well Shahan, once again, thank you so much. SHAHAN MUFTI: It was a pleasure, Bob. BOB GARFIELD: Shahan Mufti is a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, based in Islamabad. He spoke to us from Lahore.