Dawn Head, Hameed Haroon, in Conversation with Stephen Sackur

Exposed through Hard Talk

Welcome to Hard Talk. I am Stephen Sackur. In just a few days’ time, Pakistanis will go to the polls to elect a new government. Democracy rather than military dictatorship is becoming a habit or is it accusations flying inside the country of military meddling’ intimidation of critical media voices and tacit support for friendly politicians. Well, my guest today is one of Pakistan’s most influential media figures HAMEED HAROON, Boss of the Dawn Media group. Is Pakistan’s democracy in danger?
Stephen Sackur: Hameed Haroon Welcome to Hard Talk
Hameed Haroon: Thankyou!

SS: You’re in London but back home in Pakistan there is a great deal of noise energy vibrancy to the last couple of weeks of campaigning in the Pakistani elections and yet you say that democracy in your country is threatened. It is in grave danger. Why?
HH: I think Steve the fact of the matter is that democracy without representative government or responsible government is not really a democracy and if on the path to democracy or on the path to mopping up a militancy or on the path of trying to create a new social architecture in Pakistan. If you are going to play around the institutions of democracy, you are going to do grave damage to its possibility under a new political dispensation.

SS: But you’re pointing a finger at the Pakistani military. In a recent Op-ed in the Washington Post, you wrote this “There is an unprecedented assault by the Pakistani military on the freedom of the press now. “Now Pakistan has got a very difficult sometimes toxic history of relations between the military and the media. You seriously suggesting that right now I made all the noise and vibrancy of an election campaign there is an unprecedented assault on the free media?
HH: This has been about two years in the making but in the last three months the intensification is major. I think that in the last three months all attempts are being made to mop up a critical media, independent media. The largest focus of the attack are the three oldest media groups the three oldest newspaper the Jang News (combine), the Nawai Waqt and Dawn.

SS: which is, of course, your group.
HH: That’s right.

SS: Yeah but Dawn is still publishing, Dawn is still able to give an independent voice to coverage of the election. Again this notion of yours that something truly critical to the future of democracy is happenings seems to fly in the face of the evidence on the ground and I’m reminded of that phrase in the English language of “Never make the perfect the enemy of the good.” Maybe things aren’t perfect in Pakistan’s democracy today but if they are better than they have been at points in the past maybe that’s worth celebrating.
HH: I think that it would be wrong to say that things are better than they’ve been in the past. I think one could dangerously assume that things are not as bad as it might be but on the inside, I think an independent press if we had a quiet acquiesce and press like East Asian countries do or like many Middle Eastern countries do it might not be such a great loss but despite everything else and despite the battering that Park Sands press has taken over the last few decades I think it is a vibrant press and we have almost an obligation to try and keep a vibrant press active not only for people in Pakistan but for across those in South Asia and that part of the Asian concert.

SS: You also surely have an obligation not to exaggerate so let’s get to specifics what are you saying is happening and you say the last few months have been critical, what has been happening in recent months that in your opinion is so very dangerous to the Freedom of expression in the Free Press.
HH: I think that for the first time and in this capacity I think I represent not only Dawn but the 400 newspapers and magazines of the whole Pakistan newspaper society which I am president of. It is my task as the president of the All Blacks, our newspaper society to represent the threats and dangers and I mean.

SS: You know I need to get the specifics otherwise you will stand accused at home not least be the military who are very angry that you have been raising such a stink here you’ll be accused of misrepresentation so give me the facts what are the specifics?
HH: I think the first part of it has to do with the interruption of massive intervention in the distribution system of the newspapers and of blocking television broadcasts in Pakistan.

SS: So Dawn obviously has a distribution throughout the country, are you saying that Your newspaper cannot now be read by the people who want to read it across the country?
HH: In large parts of the country it can be read and in equally large parts it cannot be read. In certain cities like Larkana, till 24 hours ago they haven’t seen Dawn for two and a half months. I think that blockading television broadcast.

SS: Who is blocking it?
HH: Well if we were to believe the CPJ, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the reporters on frontier and if we were to believe the international press institute then they clearly indicate the military is blocking it and the reason for this assumption I think is that the state institutions are acting with impunity clearly in Nawaz Sharif’s government. It wasn’t Nawaz Sharif that was blocking it. In the Priminstership that followed subsequently of Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, It wasn’t the government

SS: As the phrase goes, some sort of dark state?
HH: I am talking of a deep state and talking of mistakes in military strategy. I don’t think the military has decided that it has a task to demolish democratic institutions forever. I think there is a mistaken strategy I think it is poorly conceived it’s on the eve of the elections. It’s so widespread. It’s not a single incident.

SS: Let me quote you if I may because you’re making these charges on hard talk. Let me quote you the words of Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor who says, he’s the spokesman for the army. He says they have never tried to dictate or still less intimidate any media group or journalist and the military is determined not to be dragged into politics.
HH: Of course I think that Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor was a bright man would have difficulty explaining his role at the press conference where he put up pictures in front of all of the journalists of social activists, of other journalists and anchors from television and declared that they were enemies of the state. It was almost an incitement to aggression and cohesion against his people.

SS: Some bloggers and some journalists have been threatened, some have been detained?
HH: Abducted

SS: Well you can call it abducted if you like. There was the famous case of Gul Bukhari, who disappeared for a short while, which many call abduction. Let us just be clear Are you saying that elements in the Armed forces, the under command are going out and abducting journalists threatening their lives.
HH: I am saying that in the eyes of the public there is a perception and in the eyes of the human rights and international press organizations and the human rights organizations in Pakistan, there is a strong perception that because of the impunity with which these abductions take place and the fact that there is no accounting for it not holding anybody responsible or picking up anybody is a consequence they go on without comment. We have appealed to international bodies, We have appealed to Pakistan government, to the Supreme Court, to the Chief of Army Staff and to the Caretaker Prime Minister and surely if you were not involved you would at least look into the matter and give some report about why these are happening on such a perpetual basis. For the last three months of freedom network which compiles incidents from eight press clubs in Pakistan shows a massive intensification.

SS: Spring this close to home have your own journalists in the Dawn Media group been intimidated or threatened. Have they actually experienced this?
HH: I think there has been a level of attempted intimidation, when on the social media as a result of a Joint investigation team in which the military is included. When the personal phone numbers and mobile numbers and the addresses of people being investigated are put on social media this becomes an incitement for people to attack

SS: Are your Journalists living in fear?
HH: I think, not only “my” journalists but a large number of journalists from Pakistan are deeply complaining about the self-censorship they have been forced to impose on themselves.

SS: Well, that’s an interesting phrase Self-censorship, There’s one particular story that has been very important in Pakistan in recent months and that is the rise of this movement the “Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement” which has been demanding answers from the Military about alleged disappearances, extrajudicial killings in parts of the country particularly tribal areas of the country in the recent past. Now the allegations from journalists are that they have been required not least by their own media organizations not to report on the rise of this movement because the military doesn’t want this movement to get publicity. Is that happening in your media org?
HH: I think with respect to the Pashtun movement, It’s terribly clear that there are… Instructions were two ways to give them and to accept them are two different things but yes there is a high degree of complaints from large no of media houses, newspapers and television channels that the government will not.

SS: Directly answer my question when you are the boss of Dawn, you must know whether inside your organization there are journalists who are not reporting on something they feel they ought to report upon because they are being intimidated.
HH: With one qualification that Dawn has an autonomous Editorial setup and the editors take such decisions but yes there is pressure and there have been attempts by the Military to clamp down on those media who are reporting the Pashtun movement.

SS: Now I am a journalist, so of course I am inclined to always want to defend the freedom of journalists but you know I also have to consider what’s happening in Pakistan today. There is a real security problem in Pakistan. We just saw yet again in Peshawar, a suicide blast which killed a senior politician again very close to the run-up of the election. We have got the Army and the military saying itself that the election itself they believe could be targeted. Other politicians have been named as potential targets. Army has a duty to the people of your country to secure the country first and foremost. Now is it not a real possibility that the kind of things you are saying, the inflammatory language you are using is undermining the ability of the military to meet that duty?
HH: I think let me say first of all that I have tremendous admiration for the steps taken and to curb the militancy over the years by the Army but that admiration does not extend to a misconceived policy of trying to browbeat the media, of trying to intimidate the media and of trying to prevent newspapers and television from getting information across for an election. I think partial democracy

SS: My point is slightly different. My point is that the way you are using your language and the inflammatory ideas you are spreading undermines the army first of all the military’s ability to safeguard the elections without people then thinking Oh my God all these troops are around the polling stations they must be trying to fix it in some way because you have planted that seed of doubt about their neutrality into people’s heads.
HH: I think to be terribly fear fair, the media is not quite as Powerful Steve as you say, I think that it is the military that has planted the seed of doubt with respect to the execution of their policies and I think ….

SS: When you see and we understand from the Pakistani election commission that they have called for literally hundreds and thousands of serving and retired security force personnel to be on duty at polling stations around the country on Election Day July 25th. Are you saying to me that will fill you with fear?
HH: No I am not saying that. I think that will be a good step to prevent the polling process from going wrong but I am speaking of the atmosphere of pre-poll rigging which has taken place where the selection of candidates, the decapitation of political party heads and the instituting of cases and investigations against politicians at different levels. I am not against the accountability process. I am not for corruption in the political system but I am against the selective application of this.

SS: And now you have put it down there let’s get to the real nub of this in many ways as certainly the military might see it that way you’ve just talked about what you see is a decapitation strategy that you say and have been saying for the last couple of years has been pursued by the Pakistani military in politics particularly targeting Nawaz Sharif who of course was the prime minister then fell afoul of a raft of allegations about alleged corruption involving properties owned in LA owned in London which he hadn’t declared it forced his resignation and since then he’s even been convicted of a crime. Now you and your media group it seems to have chosen to be deeply sympathetic to Mr Nawaz Sharif. Why have you done that?
HH: I think perhaps you mistake a different phenomenon the first one is We have clearly put across whatever evidence is available on the corruption of politicians including Nawaz Sharif and other parties to the extent that it can be justified or it can be backed up with the material in our possession. The problem is not there. I think it is the selective method by which these politicians have been eliminated. I think a fairer playing field, a more level playing field might have been better.

SS: But you’ve always if I may say so and look back at the record you always seem you have had a bit of a hotline to Nawaz Sharif’s people and his interest for example going back to 2016 you were the media group who got hold of the leaked report saying that Nawaz Sharif as prime minister had demanded that military take action, better more effective action against terror groups inside the country, Something which deeply embarrassed the military, they were angry about it, they wanted to know where you got the leak from and ever since then there‘s been this sort of battle going on between you and the military primarily over Nawaz Sharif. I just wonder whether there’s wise for a journalist to get into that?
HH: I think that we had to be very clear and I have to state very clearly that the report in Dawn leaks was never leaked to Dawn. This Dawn leak was a title that was made up by their prosecutors of Dawn. I think that we…

SS: Why published the leaked material? What is leaked is perhaps a little bit immaterial. Hat the point. The point I am getting to is that you posted here as the defenders of journalistic integrity independence and impartiality in Pakistan and yet too many in Pakistan, not least in the military. You are not seen as entirely independent neutral and impartial because over the last couple of years you are basically seen to have been increasingly giving a platform to one particular political player Nawaz Sharif who have run into an awful lot of trouble because of allegations of corruption?
HH: I was speaking particularly about the fact that there was no leak from the Nawaz Sharif or his party. In fact, the news about which dawn printed in the so-called Dawn leaks saga about the conversation with respect to two meetings was available at different points in Pakistan and internationally. In fact that material was procured internationally, its verification process

SS: Don’t get too hung up on the technicalities of how this all panned out but the bottom line is this and I come back to it you the self-proclaimed independent impartial neutral media group covering Pakistani politics are now seen to be supportive and sympathetic of Nawaz Sharif, his daughter who is now, it has to be said convicted criminals.
HH: I think what is more important is that there’s an element of orchestration in that.

SS: Who’s orchestrating and where is your evidence for it?
HH: I think that if you go to the social media if you look at the trolls on the social media if you look at the attacks on Dawn, you might get some idea that there is a very large presence by the ISPR or the Inter-Services Public Relations on the social media.

SS: You mean Pakistani intelligence?
HH: Absolutely

SS: Going after you because of? 
HH: Not going after us so much as going after anybody that they feel stands in their way. I think it’s important to say that although it’s not a contest we are hardly contenders for a straight bar. I think basically there’s a civil-military narrative which went wrong and Dawn was the messenger and a large part of that is shooting the messenger.

SS: See you started this interview with the premise that Pakistan’s democracy is facing threats and dangers. But you are in a way creating those threats and dangers because you are now telling me that Pakistani intelligence agencies are meddling into Politics to the extent that they want to quote-unquote decapitate one particular important political player and one can only infer that they, therefore, have other politicians that they would like to see successful in the forthcoming elections. Is that what you believe that they have favoured candidates of course not Nawaz Sharif who you say they want to decapitate but others that they want to see in power?
HH: I think there’s a preferred face of Pakistan they had like to see.

SS: Who?
HH: The security forces and their establishment…

SS: No No No Who they favour in your opinion?
HH: I think that at this point there appears to be an attempt to favour second-level string leaders and a patch up coalition which would rule with direction from the deep state

SS: Well you are not using names but I am pretty sure from what you are saying you mean Imran Khan and his PTI party?
HH: Well there are times when Imran’s index goes up with the security state and at times other people in his party are named in every case.

SS: You are throwing out. I mean you have just said something potentially explosive in Pakistani politics that Imran’s fortunes go up and down depending on the interventions of the deep state and the intelligence services and that many political parties. Where is your evidence? You are a journalist. You know that you can’t say these things without having absolutely irrefutable evidence.
HH: I think that evidence today in Pakistan must to a certain extent be looked at through inference through the work of Human rights organizations through the works of Political commentators. I am not actually making a case against the state. I am making a case for the state to conciliate itself with the media and try and keep the normal institutions of democracy.

SS: But you are making a case against the state from the very beginning with this talk of the military trying to undermine the freedom of expression and the Free Press. Of course, you are making a case against the state and it comes back to the credibility of the entire democratic system in Pakistan. You far from trying to build it up appear to be trying to sow a very grave seed of doubt about that system.
HH: I am afraid Steve as the President of the APNS. Yeah, I am elected to represent the rights of the media, justified rights of the media. There is so much more I could go into which would perhaps be boring. As far as irrefutable evidence is concerned so many of the orders given, illegal orders for example if you ask me to produce 20 people from different cities hawkers, ordinary distributors who have been stopped from distributing Dawn and other newspapers
SS: I get that point and you have made the point about what’s happening on the ground but before we finish, we are nearly out of time. I just want you to tell me what you think is going to happen over the next few days. We have got no issue as we speak you know Nawaz Sharif hasn’t returned but he is about to return to Pakistan unclear whether he is going to be detained and then in a few days’ time we have got election itself. Everything you are saying to me suggests that you have a very bleak view of how this election is gonna pan out?
HH: I am perhaps more optimistic than you think. Yes, I am I am I always have a bleak view when important provisions of the constitution like Article 19 which guarantees Freedom of press and article 19 A which guarantees freedom of access to information.

SS: Let me put it bluntly everything you said in this conversation suggests to me that when you sit down and watch the election result come out in a few days time you will have grave doubts about its validity and its legitimacy and in particular you know we talked about Imran Khan his party won only thirty odd seats last time around, the polls suggests. They could win many more this time. They could maybe not but they could conceivably part of a coalition as governing the country and you appear to be saying to the people of your country that if that’s the case then you better have very grave doubts about the legitimacy of the next government?
HH: No I think that the polling process is bound to be reasonably fair. It is a pre-polling process and the information and the dissemination of information leading up to the electoral process which has been more than a little unfair and I think that we need to curb that something we need to change something we need to improve so that the new political dispensation freedom of press is one of the characteristics that characterizes Pakistan.

SS: A Final thought which isn’t about the unknowns about the next few days in Pakistani politics. You seem very pessimistic about the degree to which Pakistani culture and levels of tolerance and openness and sort of dialogue the degree to which they are not being improved by access of information. Every Pakistani now has a phone which can wire them immediately to a world of info. You are suggesting that levels of intolerance not just in terms of the state but in terms of communities and the people in the villages, It is not changing. Is that true?
HH: No. It is changing and its changing for the better but I think we deeply appear to be in a deep transitional phase and it’s better to respect democratic institutions during this process of change to ensure that there’s a place for it. Pakistan is not a militant state. I think Pakistan is like everybody else in the world would like to be free and if I can stand up however small or however defectively for that freedom. I feel I am doing my duty and I will try to put that forward as much as possible.