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Thursday, September 21, 2023

The media movers and shakers of Pakistani politics

Pakistan's print and electronic media are held hostage to the whims and business interests of three leading media houses. Two of these media houses are owned by the Seth families who have their fingers in different industries and trade concerns also.

In 2023, while the politicians and the civil-military bureaucracy continue to be at each other’s throats, there is a dark horse in this scramble for power which, as they say in the cricket terminology, is playing on both sides of the wicket. This often-underestimated player in the Game of Thrones is none other than Pakistan’s print and electronic media. There is a third contender, though – the so-called social media that is challenging the dominance of the traditional media conglomerates that have played the role of power manipulators since 1947.

The first failed coup d’état in Pakistan was masterminded by the so-called Pakistan Times Gang. The Rawalpindi Conspiracy was an attempted coup d’état against the government of Liaquat Ali Khan, the first Prime Minister of Pakistan, in 1951. It included Faiz Ahmed Faiz, editor-in-chief of the Pakistan Times, and Sajjad Zaheer, another journalist who was on the editorial board of the Pakistan Times. Faiz and Zaheer were both avowed communists. Ostensibly, the Rawalpindi Conspiracy, as it was known, later on, was led by Major-General Akbar Khan, and supported by a cabal of 11 disgruntled army officers. However, we know that Akbar Khan was used as a   cover by the Soviet-sponsored Communist Party of Pakistan – Faiz and Zaheer were the actual brains behind the conspiracy.

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Understanding the matter better

According to writer Hasan Zaheer, there were three main causes of the Rawalpindi conspiracy: 1) General discontent of Pakistani army officers with the performance of PM Liaquat Ali Khan’s government; 2) The continuing presence of British officers in the Pakistan army, and; 3) Discontent with the government’s handling of the first Kashmir war with India. However, the reasons cited by Hasan Zaheer were also a cover for roping in General Tariq and his army associates. The real purpose was to pave the way for the emergence of a pro-Soviet government in Pakistan. Pakistan, under the Liaquat regime, was veering toward the U.S.

The Pakistan Times Gang, though exposed in the wake of the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case, continued to play a dominant role throughout Ayub, Yahya, and Zulfiqar Bhutto’s rule. It played the shots under the umbrella of Ayub’s infamous National Press Trust which was retained by the Yahya and Bhutto governments till laid to rest somewhere in the early 1990s by PM Muhammad Khan Junejo.

Presently, Pakistan’s print and electronic media are held hostage to the whims and business interests of three leading media houses. Two of these media houses are owned by the Seth families who have their fingers in different industries and trade concerns also. The Haroons, owning the Dawn group, trace back their ancestry to the time when Sheikh Mujib Ur Rehman was on the payroll of Haroon’s insurance company. The Lakhanis, owning the Express Tribune group, also run many commercial enterprises. The Jang-Geo group is a power broker in its own right. It runs a dedicated intelligence unit to hobnob with the other power brokers in the country. Then there is a new entrant-the Sama news network, owned by the famous wheeler and dealer and land grabber Aleem Khan.

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On the front page of every Dawn newspaper is written: “Founded by Quaid-e Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah”. Dawn newspaper is the portal to an intriguing cobweb of media houses, human networking, and business interests that have deeply influenced Pakistan since 1947. Quaid e Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah launched the Dawn newspaper in Delhi on 26 October 1941, intending to establish it as the party organ of the All-India Muslim League. The issue of Jinnah’s founding and subsequent ownership of the Dawn is no less murky and controversial than his ownership of the Jinnah House in Lahore cantonment – a structure that came into the limelight on 9 May 2023 when arsonists attacked and set it on fire.

It is not clear who physically owned the Dawn in 1941 when the newspaper was launched, Jinnah or Seth Yusuf Haroon. The archival records however suggest that in 1950, for a brief period, the “owners” discontinued Dawn over ownership issues and restarted it as HeraldAltaf Husain, its first editor, edited Dawn till 1965. He was followed by Jamil Ansari (1965-1966).  Yusuf Haroon became editor in 1966.

Despite not being part of the National Press Trust, created by Ayub Khan to throttle the press, Dawn remained a pliant newspaper throughout the Ayub Martial Law and the hybrid rule that remained in vogue till April 1969. Ayub’s Martial Law was lifted in 1962. During this period, except for the friendly sparring with Ayub Khan’s regime, Yusuf Haroon remained on the right side of the military dictator. Yusuf Haroon’s dubious relationship with the Martial Law regime becomes evident when we find that he became the chief editor of the Dawn newspaper in April 1966 after long-time editor Altaf Hussain decided to join Ayub Khan’s cabinet.

This “independent-looking” business tycoon cum media baron who had lived peacefully all along Ayub’s Martial Law, however, could not pull along with General Yahya Khan who replaced Ayub Khan in April 1969. Yusuf left Pakistan in a hurry to avoid arrest in 1969. He later decided to settle in New York and remained there after the Yahya Khan government fell in December 1971. Yusuf died on February 12, 2011, after a protracted illness, at the age of 95 in New York.

How the Haroon-Saigol-Lakhani Empire Manages Pakistan’s political scene

In 2017, when Pakistan was set on fire by an audio-visual leaks scandal, Dawn News CEO Hameed Haroon, his media house under criticism for Nawaz Sharif-sponsored Dawn Leaks, met with the US Consulate David Hale in Karachi to seek American influence in quashing the scandal This was done while Cyril Almeida, the Dawn correspondent accused of slandering the army at the behest of a mysterious “strategic media cell”, purportedly headed by Maryam Nawaz Sharif, had almost been `exonerated by a toothless joint investigation team.

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All these media barons keep batteries of spin doctors on their payroll. Writing about Spin Doctors, Ardeshir Cowasjee, a regular contributor to the Dawn newspaper, wrote:

Spin doctor, in the language of the lexicon, is  “A senior political spokesperson employed to promote a favorable interpretation of events” to the press and the people. He is a politician’s flak. Not an easy job, as he has to be endowed with a highly retentive memory and the capacity to lie consistently and unashamedly whilst keeping a straight face.

Cowasjee identified two prominent spin doctors in Pakistan- Husain Haqqani and Mushahid Hussain. Writing about the two, Cowasjee further remarked:

In the foreground, during the past decade have been our two spinners, Mushahid Hussain and Hussain Haqqani. In the beginning, Mushahid was ostensibly batting for the opponents as the editor of The Muslim whilst Hussain was spinning in the Zia-Nawaz team. In 1988, Haqqani became Punjab Chief Minister Nawaz Sharif’s spin doctor, with the rank of a provincial minister, a flag-flyer, spinning against Benazir and her government. In 1989 he was sent to Karachi to negotiate with Altaf Bhai on behalf of Nawaz Sharif who was getting ready to move to Islamabad.

When Jatoi became caretaker PM, Hussain Haqqani was appointed his press adviser and when Nawaz Sharif took over, he went to him in the same position. In 1992, when Nawaz Sharif decided to get rid of him (for whatever reasons) rather than sacking him, he prudently appointed him our high commissioner to Sri Lanka, from which post he resigned when Nawaz Sharif’s government was dismissed.

Benazir Bhutto, on taking over in 1993, realized that Hussain’s services might help her on her way and took him on as her press adviser. In July 1994 she made him information secretary, in which post he remained until June 1995, when Benazir Bhutto decided that it was time for him to go.

Summing his impressions about Haqqani and Mushahid, Cowasjee wrote:

The secretaries feel that the longevity of the party in power is synonymous with the interests of the state. Now, clever Mushahid Hussain is flying the flag and moves around with a posse of twelve. He, too, no doubt in “the interests of the public service”, will spend our money to keep Nawaz Sharif and his Chaudhrys healthy, wealthy, and wise. Such ministries in the West went out with Hitler’s Third Reich. It is time we eliminated ours.

Poor Cowasjee would be turning in his grave fretting about how Pakistan today has plunged even deeper into intellectual prostitution.


Saleem Akhtar Malik is a Pakistan Army veteran who writes on national and international affairs, defense, military history, and military technology. He Tweets at @saleemakhtar53. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.