In an interview with ABC television from the Camp David presidential retreat, Bush expressed confidence that Musharraf would heed pressure to end emergency rule and voiced optimism that Islamabad's nuclear arsenal was safe. "Are we happy with the emergency rule? No, we're not. Do we, do I understand how important he is in fighting extremists and radicals? I do. And do I believe that he's going to end up getting Pakistan back on the road to democracy? I certainly hope so," Bush said. "He has said he's going to take off his uniform, he's said there will be polls. He released prisoners, and so far I've found him to be a man of his word," said Bush. Bush also said that Musharraf "hasn't crossed the line" where he would lose Washington's support, and added, "I don't think that he will cross any lines. I think he truly is somebody who believes in democracy." An article in Washington Post quoted US Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph R Biden Jr as saying, "What exactly would it take for the president to conclude Musharraf has crossed the line? Suspend the constitution? Impose emergency law? Beat and jail his political opponents and human rights activists?"
But on the other hand the situation in Pakistan is still critical. According to a newspaper comment: There was no earthly reason for the Karachi police to go berserk and assault a journalists' protest rally on Tuesday, causing injuries to senior journalists, and earning bad marks for the caretaker government of Sindh. The journalists had begun their protest in front of the Press Club to express their outrage at the fresh curbs placed on the media, shutting down two major TV channels and prescribing tough punishments for what would normally pass as independent reporting. Not only were the protestors thrashed - that included the president of the Karachi Press Club - by the police, 150 were arrested and bundled roughly to jail. Later in the day, the journalists had to be released, calling in question the policy of attacking them savagely in the first place.
The protest was countrywide. In Lahore, the journalists' procession, organised by the All Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, was allowed to stage its rally. Speeches were made, placards were displayed, but the police stayed in front of the rally and did nothing to provoke violence, with the result that nothing untoward happened. This was in line with the statement of the caretaker Federal Information Minister Nisar Memon who promised that issues with the media would be resolved through negotiation. But what happened in Karachi will hardly be conducive to any negotiation. The government of Justice (retd) Abdul Qadir Halepota should take action against those police officers responsible for the violence; otherwise it will be suspected of being merely a front for the former rulers who favoured the use force against its opponents.
Rallies against the draconian treatment of the media took place in Islamabad, Peshawar and Quetta, but were without incident, showing once again that it is the government that is inconsistent in its reaction to the free media in Pakistan. General Pervez Musharraf has often said that his policies have run aground because of bad implementation. But the truth is that many policies, as interpreted by the bureaucracy, were wrong to begin with. The violence in Karachi had two mediators: the ministers who could hardly have gotten their bearings since they got selected, and the senior bureaucrats who thought that the new incumbents would love a bit of thrashing to show that the rules had changed. The caretakers should in fact take a close look at the damage the outgoing governments have done to the cause of democracy and make efforts to correct some of the wrongs done to the nation. The release of political prisoners is a step in the right direction, but keeping the prominent politicians - Aitzaz Ahsan and Imran Khan - and lawyers - Munir Malik and Ali Ahmad Kurd - under arrest could actually offset the effects of good policy.
A close look at the laws that have forced the journalists to come out on the roads and get beaten up may be salutary. The new PEMRA ordinance, at a glance, reveals the folly. The regulations disallow private news channels and newspapers to "ridicule" the "head of state, members of the armed forces, or executive, legislative or judicial organs of the state". If the individuals representing the channels or newspapers do not comply, they could face up to three years in prison and Rs10 million in fines. The government has also demanded the sacking of "hostile" journalists as a prerequisite for allowing the two "offending" channels back on air. The government in Islamabad not only took the two channels off the country's cable networks, it requested the government in Dubai to switch off the satellite broadcasting of their programmes. By being thus driven from the air, one channel alone has suffered losses of a million dollars a day after the closure and lost $150 million when it failed to broadcast commentary on the current Pakistan-India cricket series.
General Musharraf has clamped Emergency on the country and has crippled the institutions of the state with his PCO - which is lethal enough for the future of the country - but by banning the channels and imposing more disabilities on the press in general, he has threatened the livelihood of thousands of young men and women. The expansion of the media on his watch has led to billions of rupees of investment in the sector that has in turn led to the employment of additional mediapersons. The journalists' community is today many times larger than what it was in 1999. It is going to be very hard to cut the ground from under the feet of this dynamic high-profile community. While politicians may arouse a mixed reaction internationally, solidarity with the national media cuts across national frontiers.
The situation today is that, instead of the national media presenting a positive "alternative" view of the government, there is solidarity being expressed by the global media with what is being viewed as a suppressed community in Pakistan. The caretakers should take note of this situation and immediately put a stop to any violence they plan against valid protest. The issue will finally go before the next elected government - if the January 8 date is met - and will be resolved by it. In the interim, General Musharraf should lift his draconian regulations. The caretakers should strongly recommend it, otherwise the elections will be de-legitimised.