Editor quits, columnists dropped: Pakistan Army ‘has choked all dissent’

Today, the Marxist editor is at the centre of another controversy involving the establishment after resigning as editor of the Lahore-based English language newspaper Daily Times.

Written by Nirupama Subramanian | Chandigarh | Updated: November 29, 2015 9:29 am
pakistan-army On November 26, the paper carried a column by Taqi, a Florida-based Pakistani doctor, who is an unforgiving critic of the Pakistan military.

In the 1970s, when the Pakistan Army barrelled into Balochistan to bring the restive province under control, Rashed Rehman was among a handful of youngsters from a few elite families in Lahore who joined the rebel forces and fought against the military. Today, the Marxist editor is at the centre of another controversy involving the establishment after resigning as editor of the Lahore-based English language newspaper Daily Times.

Rehman quit 10 days ago, citing “irreconcilable differences with the management” after a four-year battle to retain two trenchant leftist, anti-military columnists, and a parallel struggle to get his staff their salary dues, backed up since 2012. But the resignation came to light only on Friday when Mohammed Taqi, one of the columnists, tweeted that his weekly column had been stopped as “such pieces are constantly being put under scrutiny” and that Rehman “has resigned too”.

On November 26, the paper carried a column by Taqi, a Florida-based Pakistani doctor, who is an unforgiving critic of the Pakistan military. Writing about the Pakistan Army chief’s visit to Washington, Taqi wrote that he may have “managed to promise the US some pie in the sky (on) the Afghan issue and talks with the Taliban”.

Taqi told The Indian Express he had received a call from the newspaper’s op-ed editor on Friday that “due to scrutiny of my content they cannot carry the column”.

Taqi claimed that the paper had long been under pressure from the military establishment to stop the weekly column. “I am just surprised that my editor Rashed Rehman could sustain it for six years,” he said.

On Thursday, the day the column was published, sources said Rehman got a call from a member of the family that owns the paper to shut down Taqi’s weekly column and another by Mir Mohammed Ali Talpur, a Baloch and Rehman’s four-decade old associate. Rehman wrote to a few friends next day that “the struggle to keep the flag flying has been going on for years. Irreconcilable differences with management have forced me to resign”.

Rehman did not answer phone calls on Saturday or respond to messages or emails from The Indian Express. However, the op-ed editor of Daily Times, Ream Wasay, answered on his behalf to say that “Mr Rashed Rehman did not resign due to the closure of (the) columns; he handed in his notice before the entire episode occurred…he wishes not to discuss the matter further as he is on notice till February 19, 2016”.

Yet, sources said that the closure of the columns has reiterated what is now an open secret: the military now fully controls the levers of power in Pakistan, and those who challenge the growing cult of Army chief General Raheel Sharif do so at their own risk.

A Marxist in a country where the conservative Nawaz Sharif is sometimes described as a liberal, Rehman had been editor of the newspaper since 2009 — it is owned by the late Salman Taseer’s family.

Before Rehman, Najam Sethi, a comrade of Rehman in the London Group — the name for the group of Punjabi students in the UK who threw themselves into the Baloch struggle — was the editor of the paper. Rehman’s son, Taimur, is among the founders of the anti-establishment Lal band.

Taseer, an industrialist-businessman who began the newspaper in the 1990s as a liberal voice in post-Zia Pakistan, was gunned down by his police bodyguard in 2011 for supporting a woman who had been accused of blasphemy. He was then the Governor of Punjab province, and was close to the Pakistan People’s Party.

“My understanding with DT editors was that I would have full independence and it was honoured except on a couple of occasions,” said Taqi. His criticism of the Army, he said, had made it difficult for him to return home to Pakistan to meet relatives — he is from Peshawar where his father was a career Urdu journalist.

Taqi, who has been writing since 2009, said he would probably not be alive today had he been in Pakistan. “The Gen Raheel Sharif phenomenon is relatively new. His junta has really choked all dissent. They have gone into overdrive not just to project Raheel Sharif as the messiah but also to take down those who say he is a false prophet,” Taqi told The Indian Express.

Talpur said he had once been told to stop writing about Balochistan in October 2013 and had then stopped writing for the paper because “I write only about Balochistan”. “I had restarted writing for the Daily Times at the end of June this year. This time, it lasted only five months. I am persona non grata,” he said.

In his last column on November 22, Talpur wrote about how the Pakistan military was taking over Gwadar, the port city in Balochistan, and disempowering the local people in order to facilitate and secure the China-Pakistan economic corridor.

A rare Baloch voice to get a platform in the national mainstream media, Talpur wrote about a system of “residence passes” that had been put in place in Gwadar and compared it with the apartheid-era dompass in South Africa.

“Militarising Gwadar and imposing apartheid measures is not something random but is part if a systematic policy to ensure that the Baloch are thoroughly disenfranchised in every way and pushed into a corner from which they find themselves unable to resist whatever indignities and injustices are heaped upon them,” he wrote.

Talpur told The Indian Express that “slowly all who express dissent are being stopped from speaking and writing. This is not the only way, they resort to harsher measures when dissenters do not relent. But I will continue to write about Balochistan, as I always have”.

Taqi said it was part of a pattern towards the “the completion of the ‘Pakistan project’ in which “a Punjabi, Sunni male identity represents nationalism and those from smaller nationalities and minority sects are treated as others”.

Taqi’s last column criticised the Army for getting a virtual “free pass” for “dispersing the hornets into the neighbour’s yard” through an anti-Taliban operation at home. He wrote that “a more stringent view is that such dispersal is by design”, and argued that what was actually required was a military crackdown on such an influx into hapless Afghanistan.

Earlier, previewing the Army chief’s Washington visit, he quoted the US Department of Defence to make the point that the General had invited himself to Washington, and recalled that the last one to do so over the heads of the civilian government was Field Marshal Ayub Khan, who later took over as the military ruler of Pakistan.

Mehmal Sarfaraz, a former Oped Editor at the newspaper, said the paper and Pakistani readers would be poorer after this. “Rehman is a bold editor who has always published brave writers,” said Sarfaraz, who left in 2012 and now freelances with the South Asian Free Media Association.

“Scrapping the columns of Dr Taqi and Talpur is a huge loss for Pakistani readers. Both of them never minced their words and were not afraid to take on the powers that be,” she said. Taqi said that the key difference between when he started writing and now was that the “Pakistan People’s Party somehow allowed the dissenters to continue”. “Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League government has abdicated even more than the PPP,” he alleged.

While one-off dissent might still be possible through the media, he said, “sustained columns are impossible”. “First the army choked the television media and now it’s the print’s turn. English papers were a relatively safe harbour for dissenters but the chokehold is complete now,” he said.

The television media, famous for challenging then President Gen Pervez Musharraf and contributing to his downfall, has generally toed the military line since the life-threatening attack on the well-known anchor Hamid Mir, and another TV personality Raza Rumi.

The Daily Times has been particularly vulnerable since Taseer’s killing and the 2011 kidnapping of his son Shahbaz, reportedly by the Taliban. He has not been traced yet.

In 2014 the paper published an apology to Tariq Ashrafi, one of the founding members of the extremist militant group Sipah-e-Sahaba after one of its columnists wrote that he was fanning hate against Ahmadis. The columnist, too, had to apologise in the newspaper. Daily Times insiders said the apology was published at the insistence of Salman’s other son Shehryar.

“After their double loss, the family was trying to get on the side of the government and establishment,” said a former staffer. Always a small operation, the newspaper has had no money for three or four years to even pay its staffers, despite being a lean organisation, said the former staffer, adding that many have quit since.

“Rehman was under a lot of pressure, working without proper staff, hardly any reporters, he did a lot of editing himself. He commissioned a lot of people, and they wrote for him because of his goodwill, without being paid a single rupee,” said the ex-employee. Taqi and Talpur also wrote “pro bono”.