In October 2016, media reports claimed that Cyril Almeida, a journalist, had been barred from leaving the country. Mr Almeida had reported that the Nawaz Sharif Administration in Islamabad had ‘informed the military leadership of a growing international isolation of Pakistan and sought consensus on several key actions by the state’, a reference to the Pakistan’s recognised use of terrorist groups based in Pakistan to strike at targets in India and Afghanistan (see here, here and here, for instance). The travel imposition on Mr Almeida was widely objected to by the Pakistani media and the travel ban was eventually lifted. Any hopes that an ill-advised attack on the freedom of the Pakistani press had ended were, unfortunately, misplaced.
Having witnessed an attack on their national standing, irascible Army leaders were in no mood to take things lying down. They demanded an inquiry be initiated to determine Mr Almeida’s source in the government. The Prime Minister’s spokesman stated that, ‘[The] Investigation into controversial story is in the final stage and it will be shared with media in a couple of days. Who was responsible for the leakage of sensitive information to the Dawn reporter will be known soon’, adding that the ‘investigation is still underway’. The Prime Minister, Mr Nawaz Sharif, soon sacked Information Minister Pervaiz Rashid.
That was, apparently, insufficient to placate an increasingly vociferous Army. So, on 29 April, Mr Sharif sacked his trusted Special Assistant on foreign affairs, Tariq Fatemi, when the inquiry panel constituted to “fix responsibility” found him guilty of leaking the information about the meeting to Mr Almeida. That, too, was deemed insufficient, however, with Major-General Asif Ghafoor, the Director-General of the Inter-Services Public Relations, tweeting, ‘Notification on Dawn Leak is incomplete and not in line with recommendations by the Inquiry Board. Notification is rejected’, on 29 April. It speaks volumes that a serving member of the Pakistani Army general staff could judge the democratically-elected Prime Minister’s efforts and publicly declare them to be insufficient. It is improbable, also, that General Ghafoor would have done so without the tacit approval of the Chief of Army Staff, General Qamar Javed Bajwa. The fact that General Ghafoor has not been disciplined in any way by his superiors or by Parliament only furthers that perception. That being the case, the tweet in all likelihood represents an attack on the office of the Prime Minister by the Chief of the Army, hardly a signal example of democracy in action.
The Prime Minister is, undoubtedly, all too aware of the danger in rebuking General Ghafoor. Since independence in 1947, Pakistan has spent around two-thirds of its existence under military rule. The Army staged coups in 1958, 1977 and 1999, the last by General Musharraf when he ousted none other than Prime Minister Sharif who, after being imprisoned, was offered sanctuary in Saudi Arabia. General Musharraf was responsible for initiating the Kargil debacle with India. It is unlikely, then, that Nawaz Sharif would wish to upset the fragile relationship that the civilian government shares with the military.
The Army, for its part, is no doubt aware that Mr Sharif has come under the media spotlight after his name cropped up in relation to the so-called Panama Papers, which allegedly showed that his family members, he or both held foreign bank accounts. This has caused him a good deal of political embarrassment. It had been widely anticipated that the accession of General Bajwa to his present position would see the military limit or soften its stance on Pakistani politics. The fact that the Army leaders felt they could pressure the Prime Minister and dictate how he should act would seem to indicate that that is definitely not the case.
At a press briefing on 9 May, the military’s information office declared that the recommendations of the inquiry panel ‘duly approved by the Prime Minster, have been implemented, which has settled the Dawn leaks issue.’ The tweet posted by General Ghafoor, it added, ‘… stands withdrawn and has become infructuous.’ Despite what might, at first glance, appear to be a reconciliation of sorts, the entire episode appears to have been engineered to consolidate the perception that the elected government remains in power only because the Army permits it and that, even while in power, is answerable to the Army, which keeps watch to ensure the government does not transgress well-defined boundaries.
The accession of General Bajwa has made little, if any, difference to the status quo in Pakistan.