U.S. Ambassador Forces Newspaper to Censor Known U.S. Critic in Pakistan
By Ahmed Quraishi
Finally, the Americans take their revenge. Dr. Mazari single-handedly threw cold water on Washington’s plan last year to send a rabidly anti-Pakistani US army general as defense attaché to Islamabad. The Pakistani government quietly accepted the appointment. But Dr. Mazari broke the story and aborted the plan. When the new pro-US elected government seized power, Mr. Zardari’s special assistant Husain Haqqani’s first order of business was to fire Dr. Mazari from her official post. And now the US ambassador succeeds in blocking her column. Welcome to the Banana Republic of Pakistan where soon US ambassadors will have the right appoint presidents and prime ministers. Some say they already do.
United States Ambassador Anne W. Patterson intervened with one of the largest newspaper groups in Pakistan to force it to block today a decade-old weekly column by a prominent academic and critic of US policies.
Dr. Shireen Mazari, the former director of the Islamabad Institute of Strategic Studies and a mordant critic of US blunders in Pakistan and the region, was stunned when her column failed to appear in today’s edition of the newspaper. This happened after the US ambassador sent a ‘private’ letter to the management of The News International, one of the largest English-language dailies of Pakistan.
This is a new high for American influence inside Pakistan.
Never before did a US ambassador manage to force such a change in a newspaper’s policy. For those who are new to Pakistan, this is equivalent to having Maureen Dowd or Tom Friedman’s column knocked off the pages of the New York Times because Dick Cheney does not like their criticism.
Unlike Ms. Patterson in Pakistan, her colleague in London, ambassador Louis Susman, could never dream of achieving a similar feat by, say, convincing The Times of London to block a column by David Aaronovitch. Or the US ambassador in Moscow, John Beylre, Jr., who could never even think of forcing Komsomolskaya Pravda to do anything remotely similar. They have Vladimir Putin in Russian who knows how to protect his country’s interest.
Only in Pakistan, where American meddling has reached alarming proportions and risks turning this second largest Muslim country and the world’s seventh declared nuclear-armed nation into another version of Latin America’s banana republics where Washington has been known to change governments at will.
The US achieved a feat last year when it forced the country’s military establishment under a weak and insecure Pervez Musharraf to strike a ‘deal’ to forgive the questionable illegal wealth and other criminal cases against several Pakistani political figures in order to help them come to power in exchange for supporting US policies in Pakistan.
Another major break for Washington is Pakistan’s acquiescence in the construction in Islamabad of what will soon become the largest US embassy in the world. Recently, members of privately armed US militias have been spotted in Islamabad, in some cases roughing up Pakistani citizens, without Pakistani government daring to take action.
But blocking Dr. Mazari’s column is a new high for American influence in Pakistani affairs.
She especially earned the ire of the Americans last year when she single handedly threw cold water on US plans to post a notoriously anti-Pakistan US army general to Islamabad. It was March 2008 when the new pro-US government in Islamabad allowed Washington to post Major General Jay W. Hood as the Chief, Office of the Defence Representative in Islamabad.
But Dr. Mazari broke the news of the appointment through her column, creating an uproar and forcing the Pakistani government to reject the appointment.
Dr. Mazari held a press conference today at the Islamabad head office of Pakistan Justice Movement, or PTI, a political party headed by cricket star Imran Khan where she is a senior official handling foreign policy issues.
Ambassador Anne Patterson is reported to have sent a letter to the management of the newspaper protesting at Dr. Mazari’s writings, especially on the question of the presence of Blackwater and other private American militias on Pakistani soil. Interestingly, Ms. Patterson said she did not want to see her letter published in the newspaper and insisted it be kept private. It is also not clear if Ms. Patterson actually threatened legal action or other form of protest or pressure if the newspaper continued to publish Dr. Mazari’s columns.
The newspaper editorial team is said to be ready to publish the blocked column later, possibly with some editing. Frankly, no one can blame a newspaper for protecting its interest when the very government of Pakistan seems incapable of protecting the national interest. Had Pakistan had a truly nationalistic government in Islamabad, one that inspired confidence, I can imagine that any newspaper would have politely deflected undue pressure from a foreign diplomat.
But the very fact that the column failed to run marks a victory for the US embassy and a fresh sign of the growing US influence and meddling in Pakistan’s internal matters.
It is not clear if Ms. Patterson sought the permission of the Pakistan Foreign Office before directly contacting a Pakistani newspaper to exert pressure.
This is the fourth attempt by the US Embassy to silence Dr. Mazari, whose incisive political commentary based on her close brush with power corridors in Islamabad over the years has given the Americans and the Brits a constant headache. Her columns are fodder for those who advocate a more nationalistic and Pakistan-centric approach in dealing with Washington instead of the current approach where the United States is reaping strategic benefits at the expense of Pakistan’s interests and stability.
In 2006, the US ambassador at the time, Ryan Crocker, is reported to have warned Pakistan’s foreign secretary Mr. Riaz Khokar, that he will consider Dr. Mazari’s writings to be reflective of official Pakistani thinking because Dr. Mazari was heading a think tank financed by the Foreign Office. The US diplomat demanded Dr. Mazari, according to her, be removed from office or told to stop criticizing US policies.
The foreign secretary resisted the pressure and Dr. Mazari continued her policy discourse. The interesting thing is that the first order of business for the present pro-US government in Islamabad after seizing power last year was to fire Dr. Mazari.
Her ousting was engineered by Mr. Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington who is widely known in Pakistan as a staunch American apologist. Many jokingly call him ‘America’s ambassador to the Pakistani embassy in Washington.’ So it was no surprise that Dr. Mazari was fired as soon Mr. Haqqani’s government came to power.
I personally faced a similar situation when a US diplomat telephoned me in November 2007 to accuse me of spreading anti-Americanism on the state-run PTV. My crime was to start a series of talk shows discussing how our ally the US turned Afghanistan into a hub for anti-Pakistan forces in the region. The US diplomat, used a cheap trick to intimidate me when she asked, ‘Does Musharraf know what you’re doing?’
My answer was, ‘Does President Bush know when US media frequently runs anti-Pakistan articles?’
Dr. Mazari is not disheartened by this episode. ‘They might have knocked me off this time,’ she told me today after her press conference, ‘but the last round will be mine. The Americans can’t gag me in my own country.’ And that is exactly what the newspaper, The News International, has assured her of.