Memogate and the media
By: Irfan Husain
I WONDER sometimes when the great and the good of Islamabad find the time to do their normal work, considering they are appearing before – or preparing briefs for – parliamentary committees and courts almost daily.
Hardly a day passes without breathless reports in the newspapers and television networks on the comings and goings of politicians, lawyers, generals and civil servants before sundry benches of the superior courts and various inquiry committees.
Indeed, these functionaries are today`s media stars, together with their inquisitors.
So focused are we on the non-stop political drama unfolding before us virtually around the clock that we forget that state institutions were created for purposes other than public entertainment.
Parliament should not be in the perpetual grip of one crisis after another. And the superior courts should not have to deal constantly with political and constitutional matters. They should be hearing legal appeals instead of letting them pile up as they consider matters that are more political than judicial.
An example of this intense politicisation was the faxed appeal of a Canadian citizen of Pakistani origin sent to the Supreme Court. This person claimed that due to the infamous memo sent by Mansoor Ijaz to Adm Mullen, he and his family – many of whom serve in the Pakistan armed forces – felt they were in danger.
Actually, the way Mansoor Ijaz, an American of Pakistani origin and with a highly dubious track record, has been able to bring the whole country to a standstill is a reflection on the weakness of our institutions. The entire `memogate` scandal throws a spotlight on the suspicions underlying military-civilian relations, as well as the troubled ties between Pakistan and the US.
In the aftermath of the American raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, most Pakistanis thought some heads would roll to deflect the nation`s anger at their defenders. But it seems that military necks are tougher than civilian ones.
In the event, the army successfully made Zardari`s government the scapegoats.
According to a brief affidavit filed by the Ministry of Defence before the Supreme Court in the ongoing `memogate` hearings, the government has no operational control over the army or the ISI.
This is an admission most elected governments would have been embarrassed to make, but it is no more than a factual statement of the relationship between civilians and the military. We provide the cash, but exercise no control over what our armed forces and intelligence agencies do.
It is this complete lack of accountability that gives rise to all the fears and suspicions about the army`s true intentions in political circles.
In the case of the `memogate` furore, Gen Pasha has accepted the authenticity of Mansoor Ijaz`s version of events in his affidavit to the Supreme Court.
He has perhaps not appreciated the irony of believing the very person who has repeatedly called for the Americans to dismantle a part of the ISI, an agency he has publicly accused of being behind jihadi attacks against American troops in Afghanistan. The army leadership is understandably upset about the existence of the Mansoor Ijaz memo, and if the country`s top political leadership was indeed behind the initiative, this would be a major scandal.
However, there is no evidence yet to prove that the whole matter is anything more than a figment of Mansoor Ijaz`s imagination, and a part of his bid to achieve fame as an international trouble-shooter.
What has been overlooked in the whole controversy is a WikiLeaks cable in which Gen Kayani is quoted as saying to the US ambassador in Islamabad that he might “reluctantly” consider putting pressure on Zardari to resign.
If anything, the March 2009 WikiLeaks source is far more reliable than anything Mansoor Ijaz could possibly say or write. Thus far, no suo moto notices have been issued over this indiscrete comment made to a foreign diplomat.
To his credit, Nawaz Sharif has repeatedly stated his firm opposition to any military coup.
But by playing up the infamous memo in and out of court, he has ensured that Zardari`s government is left twisting in the wind. It may be self-serving, cut-throat politics, but it isn`t the kind of statesmanship our country needs at this critical juncture.
Another example of how fevered Pakistan`s political discourse has become is the media`s reaction to Asif Zardari`s recent illness, and his departure to Dubai for treatment. Pundits of every stripe began speculating on the `real reason` for his exit.
Bizarre theories about the president`s desire to escape the fallout from the Supreme Court`s hearings of the `memogate` case did the rounds in TV chat shows. Some commentators were convinced that Zardari had fled for good. Others thought he would wait in Dubai to see which way the wind was blowing.
But when he returned, not a single one of these talking heads, columnists or editors admitted they had been totally wrong.
Without claiming any special insight, I had refrained from speculating simply because I don`t think Zardari is a quitter.
Whatever his many other faults, he has thus far shown a lot of guts in confronting his enemies. When Benazir Bhutto was so tragically murdered, he could have opted to take the safe option and stayed abroad.
Traditionally, power in democracies is distributed between the executive, the judiciary and the legislature. In Pakistan, the army has always been very powerful. Now, we can add the media to this short list of players.
Over the last few years, some private TV channels have added fuel to the smallest spark to turn it into a blazing inferno.
They could have used their influence as a force for good. Sadly, many of them gone over to the dark side, and Pakistan is the weaker for it.