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Subcontinental Drift: Year of the General, Part Two
In which I offer (faint) praise of Pakistan's dictator

October 18, 2000
Web posted at 3:00 p.m. Hong Kong time, 3:00 a.m. EDT

Last week, I promised to dedicate this column to a listing of the good deeds of Pervez Musharraf in the 12 months since he grabbed power. Since then I've done extensive reading of political commentary from Pakistan, I've spoken with Pakistani friends, inside and outside the country, and I've done some long, hard thinking of my own -- and still my list remains stuck on a single entry. And it's not something's he's done, but something he hasn't: he hasn't gagged the Pakistani press.

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This is no small concession. It is customary for military despots everywhere to begin their reign by clamping down on the media -- booting (or shooting) inconvenient journalists and installing puppets in their place. That Musharraf has allowed the Pakistani press to go about business as usual is very unusual indeed.

The Subcontinental Drift message board -- sound-off about the news in South Asia to TIME
Now for the caveats. The Pakistani press has always been reluctant to train its guns at the military. Quick to criticize former Prime Ministers Mohammed Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto for the venality of their regimes, the country's mainstream newspapers have shied away from investigating corruption in the barracks. Most Pakistanis will tell you that the military brass is tarnished, but few journalists dare to look too closely at the greased palms in uniform.

Like much of the country, the press was also generally welcoming of the coup that brought Musharraf to power. Few commentators shed any tears for the passing of democracy; in general, they agreed that the military might be able to clean up the mess that is Pakistani politics. You can understand, then, why the dictator could afford toward be magnanimous to the media.

But the general's mood may be changing. Just as many Pakistanis are losing their patience with Musharraf, the press is losing its inhibitions about attacking his regime. The major newspapers are beginning to hold the dictator to his promises of quick reform and are joining the international media in pointing out that he has failed to deliver. As commentators grow increasingly sharper in their criticisms, will the general remain genial -- or will he, like so many before him, decide that a free press is too much of a nuisance?

Perhaps the journalists at Dawn know the answer to that question. Recently, the venerable Karachi daily -- easily Pakistan's best -- reported that the government was planning to curb press freedom. In the time-honored traditions of junta rule, the regime dispatched a team of army inspectors to the offices of the newspaper. Nobody was arrested or roughed up, but the message from Musharraf could not have been clearer.

Hmmm. Maybe that "Good Deeds" list should have only half an entry. Unless, that is, the dictator has been helping little old ladies to cross the street...

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