Those with fond memories of General Zia-ul-Haq, Pakistan's last true dictator, can sit back and wink. The two-skinned President-General Pervez Musharraf has crawled out of the pretensions of being a despot-democrat.
No longer would Karachi socialites have to undergo embarrassments of discussing the intricacies of "genuine democracy." Lahori 'intellectuals' too could dump the concepts of "enlightened moderation" to their rightful place – trash bins. Hapless viewers are rid of maddening talk shows on uppity TV news channels.
On 4th June, the deeply unpopular Musharraf killed a genuine reform his regime had helped blossom. New restrictions have been imposed on electronic media. Amendments were introduced to the Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) Ordinance, 2002. PEMRA can now suspend the licences of TV channels if they operate illegally or violate PEMRA rules. Under a new section, the PEMRA authorities have been authorised to make new regulations without informing parliament. The new laws also deprive the media of the right to be heard at a Council of Complaints before being punished for violations.
The ordinance raises possible fines for violations from Rs 1 million to Rs 10 million (about $400,000). It also brings Internet Protocol TV, radio and mobile TV under PEMRA regulations. The new ordinance came into force at once. In a promising start, the government suspended the transmission of two private television channels – Geo TV and Aaj TV in major parts of the country.
No one must be surprised. The media had it coming. Taking Mr. Musharraf's macho graciousness for granted, it sought to cross the limits by uninhibitedly broadcasting unprecedented public protests following the General's dismissal of an independent-minded Chief Justice early this year. His government, or let's say just him for the government hardly matters in the scheme of things, had started frowning over the increasing tendency of the press to criticise him, his policies, and worse, the army – Pakistan's holiest cow.
Noisy talk shows asked Musharraf to throw away his army uniform. He protested that the dress "has become part of my skin". (Soon enough a newspaper column appeared mischievously titled Must we now learn how to skin?) TV Channels broadcasted a fiery Superme Court seminar in which the dismissed Justice observed, "power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely."
In spite of Mr. Musharraf strongly urging "the media not to politicise a purely judicial and legal matter," the excited journalists refused to take the hint. Worse happened when Dr Ayesha Siddiqa, a military writer, recently published a book titled Military Inc – Inside Pakistan's Military Economy. Taking on the army for its corporate entanglements, the talk-of-the-town book was denied a launch, as scheduled, in an Islamabad club. Stranger things happened. The book was sold out on the first day itself – an honor not enjoyed by the General's 2006 ghost-written memoirs. Many suspect state funds were acquired to buy the entire first edition so that 'gullible' people remain unaware of the goings-on in the cantonments.
With the stifling of TV channels, print media fears it could be their turn next. They need not worry. Once a tiger has tasted blood, it won't settle for grass. Pakistanis have seen too much to be lambs again. They just need to roar, a little louder than usual, and Mr. Musharraf would scurry away – his tail tucked between his legs.