South Asia

Criticism of Zardari in Pakistan hides a political game

Pakistani soldiers distribute aid
Image caption Pakistan's media repeated the point the military were helping in the crisis while the government was not

The Pakistani media's criticism of President Asif Ali Zardari over his visit to the United Kingdom has been unprecedented.

Newspapers and television news have criticised him for being absent when Pakistan was struck by the worst floods in living memory.

While the president has been out of the country, more than 1,500 people have been killed and scores of villages have been swept away.

Over four million people have been displaced. They now face hunger and disease.

In the initial days of the disaster the government failed to provide any response, and now the politicians are being heavily criticised for it.

In contrast, the media repeatedly drove home the point that, while the army's response was also inadequate given the scale of the disaster, at least the soldiers were out there.

The absent president has been criticised by the international media for his apparent indifference. But in Pakistan, the media's scorn has a deeper meaning and motive.

It hints at tensions between the country's civilian democracy and the powerful military establishment.

Personal motives

"President Zardari would have done nothing had he remained at home, but at least he could have spared the nation's feelings," popular columnist Ayaz Amir wrote on Friday.

Image caption Mr Zardari was in the UK partly to attend the launch of his son's political career

In an editorial comment on Saturday, Pakistan's Dawn newspaper said Mr Zardari had travelled to England "as a man possessed, who cares nothing for the torrents at home".

So why did he embark on the tour in the first place?

There are two explanations.

Firstly, he had personal motives.

He wanted to shine in the limelight, enjoy European summer and launch the political career of his son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari.

Secondly, he embarked on the trip to show his disregard for Pakistan's military establishment.

Campaign

Mr Zardari's supporters believe that cancelling the trip would not have helped him.

"He would have been remembered and criticised even if there were no floods in the country," said Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani on Thursday.

And indeed, the current anti-Zardari campaign in the media started before the floods hit the headlines.

The criticism began after British Prime Minister David Cameron made remarks in India on 28 July where he accused some in Pakistan of "looking both ways", exporting terror to neighbouring countries.

On 31 July, Pakistan's Geo TV reported that the chief of the ISI intelligence service, Lt Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha, had cancelled a scheduled trip to the UK because of Mr Cameron's remarks, but Mr Zardari was continuing with his planned trip.

Pakistan's ubiquitous TV news presenters began questioning President Zardari's patriotism and personal integrity.

The print media was not far behind.

While President Zardari's European tour had been "reduced to a pleasure trip" after Mr Cameron's remarks, "the army reacted in a timely and dignified manner" by cancelling the ISI chief's UK visit, an editorial comment in the Pakistan Observer newspaper said.

The News newspaper called Mr Zardari's visit a "pursuit of his own dynastic aggrandizement".

The floods only intensified this initial criticism.

Unnamed sources

Two significant developments took place on Thursday.

Image caption Bilawal Bhutto Zardari denied he was planning to address a rally

Firstly, Bilawal Bhutto denied he was planning to address the Pakistan Peoples' Party rally in Birmingham, one of the main reasons for Mr Zardari's trip.

Secondly, Prime Minister Gilani informed journalists that the ISI chief had not, in fact, scheduled a visit to the UK in the first place.

Many quarters insist Bilawal Bhutto's "cancellation" of an appearance at the Birmingham show may be the result of a rethink on the part of Mr Zardari's advisers to minimise political damage.

But what about the confusion over the story about the ISI chief's visit to the UK?

The initial report on Geo TV had come from mysterious, unnamed sources.

And even more mysteriously, the army's media wing - which normally keeps a hawkish eye on the news, correcting reports at the first possible stage - had not stepped in to clarify the report.

Friendly journalists

The ties between the military and the media are strong.

The military often use the media to protect its hold on the giant corporate empire which it has built.

In the 1980s the military did this through open censorship. Since the 1990s it has evolved subtler ways.

It controls almost all access to big stories, and has therefore been able to raise a corps of "friendly" journalists who now control most key jobs in Pakistani media due to their "contacts".

President Zardari's supporters suggest the media could have made up the story of the ISI cancelling its trip to the UK in order to spark an anti-Zardari campaign, which intensified as the scale of the flood damage became clear.

'Maximum impact'

The government, which is already under attack from all quarters - the military, the judiciary and the political groups that support Islamic militants - finds itself on a difficult wicket while dealing with the media, says a senior member of the government, who requested anonymity.

"If the government has a piece of information which they can use to puncture the balloon of unfriendly propaganda, they use it only when they are sure it will have maximum impact," he said.

Privately, politicians more or less subscribe to views expressed by Mr Cameron and say military officers are the ones "looking both ways" on the Taliban.

These politicians desperately need a normalisation of relations with India and Afghanistan because that is the only way they can create business and employment opportunities for their voters and stay popular.

But the military is afraid this will erode its huge business empire which provides thousands of corporate sector jobs to retiring officers every year.

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