New Freedoms for Civil Society Heighten Political Tensions in Pakistan

September 5, 2007 at 6:30 PM EDT

MARGARET WARNER: It’s taken near two decades, but Pakistan finally has a National Gallery of Art. At a gala reception 10 days ago, Islamabad high society mingled with the artists and lauded the man who brought it about, architect Naeem Pasha. He designed this striking brick building to showcase some of the country’s finest artists and some edgy artwork that does not always fit a strict Islamic sensibility. Pasha says it’s about time.

NAEEM PASHA, Architect: The last 30, 40 years, we have been self-censoring ourselves, and especially in art and culture and literature, that, you know, what would be palatable and what would not be palatable, with, you know, the people or general public.

MARGARET WARNER: Pasha said the gallery’s construction was due to the personal intervention of a very powerful benefactor, President Pervez Musharraf. Pakistan’s military ruler opened the museum himself. He told the story of driving past the abandoned half-built site, asking what it was, and once Pasha was summoned to explain it, ordering it funded and built.

PERVEZ MUSHARRAF, President of Pakistan (through translator): It has taken 50 long years to create this one art gallery. Well, they say, it’s better late than never.

MARGARET WARNER: The irony that it took a military ruler, not a civilian one, to finish this gallery wasn’t lost on the artists and celebrities at the gathering. Pakistani supermodel Natasha Hussain covered the event for one of Pakistan’s new private TV channels.

NATASHA HUSSAIN, Model and Actress: I was really, really happily surprised, and I’ve been feeling very emotional about this whole building and that it’s been made and that it’s been done and that our president, General Pervez Musharraf, has not only financially, but otherwise also really helped all of us out, you know, by doing this.

Media clashes with government

MARGARET WARNER: On hand was a throng of journalists from the country's newly robust electronic media, competing for Pakistani viewers with edgy offerings of their own.

IMRAM ISLAM, President, GEO Television: I think we went haywire in the beginning, ourselves, the media, because it was almost as if we'd been given a license to say whatever we liked. And so a lot of taboo subjects that were pushed under the rug suddenly started to surface.

MARGARET WARNER: Imram Islam is the president of GEO Television, one of the most successful private networks in the country. Based in Karachi, GEO just celebrated its fifth anniversary. It operates five channels in Urdu and will launch an English-language one soon. It's all part of a media landscape that didn't exist before General Musharraf seized power in a coup eight years ago.

IMRAM ISLAM: We would give him his due. We've had a sustained period of freedom, if you like, sustained in such a way that, in my experience, I've never seen that. But we have an expression over here. We say that, you know, there is a lot of freedom of expression in Pakistan at the moment, but very little freedom after expression. And this is a problem.

MARGARET WARNER: It's a problem that GEO has directly experienced. When President Musharraf suspended Pakistan's chief justice in March, massive demonstrations erupted, covered live by GEO and other networks. As the cameras were rolling on a demonstration in Islamabad, police broke into GEO's bureau. A GEO cameraman filmed the attack, and the network broadcast it live, as police smashed offices and equipment and beat up GEO journalists.

IMRAM ISLAM: Immediately after the attack, within about 10 minutes or so, the president was on the line. And he went on live, spoke to the anchor, spoke to Hamid Mir, who had been attacked, who was our bureau chief in Islamabad, and apologized.

MARGARET WARNER: But what does it tell you that these cops bust in and beat up your reporters, then the president apologizes? I mean, who's in charge?

IMRAM ISLAM: We've been saying this. I mean, they keep saying, you know, everything is under control. And our question has often been: Under whose control? So I think there's always that problem. The investigation always leads to some police personnel who decided to take the law into their own hands and, you know, the matter rests there.

Press scrutinizes military rule

MARGARET WARNER: The vigorous press in Pakistan, where the newspapers offer unrestrained criticism of military rule, is often cited by the government as evidence that President Musharraf has delivered the enlightened moderation he espouses. Tariq Azim Khan is Pakistan's state minister of information.

TARIQ AZIM KHAN, Deputy Information Minister, Pakistan: There is this argument about whether a person holding the presidency should also be in uniform. That argument, of course, is a valid argument, a strong argument. But on the other hand, we have to see the realities on the ground. Our experience has shown that a man in uniform paradoxically has given more democracy to this country than people in the civvies. And that's the reality.

MARGARET WARNER: But critics of President Musharraf take issue with that, saying the TV technology genie was already out of the bottle. And they say a deplorable human rights record trumps any advances that he's made on the road to an open society.

Pakistani activists describe rampant arbitrary detention, torture and death in custody, and say they fight a daily battle to protect the rights of the individual. Attorney Asma Jahangir chairs the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

ASMA JAHANGIR, Chair, Human Rights Commission of Pakistan: President Musharraf has called himself an enlightened moderate who's going to lead the nation. But at the same time, violence has increased; people are kept under illegal detention all the time. Torture is just routine. And if you're not tortured, you're really lucky and exceptional. I don't know how, under what vocabulary, can a person who oppresses others and takes away their rights can ever be called a liberal or someone who is moderate.

MARGARET WARNER: From her office in Karachi, stacked to the ceiling with dusty legal files, Jahangir is leading a human rights revolution in Pakistan. The day we visited, a group of young volunteers -- all women -- were being trained to serve as community case investigators. Jahangir represents women and girls who have been raped and abused, families who've had their assets stolen by the government, and relatives of the "disappeared."

Jahangir says the majority of the "disappeared" are nationalists from the Baluchistan province in the southwest, suspected Islamic militants and terrorists, and the occasional journalist.

ASMA JAHANGIR: There are hundreds of people who have disappeared, and we have gone to court with a list of something like 175 people who still remain disappeared, out of which some were recovered and 95 are still not there. But to my utter amazement, the government has been saying for a long time that these people are not with us, and then suddenly they own up to them. Suddenly, they are released.

Human rights issues

MARGARET WARNER: Yesterday, the Supreme Court ordered some 40 missing persons released by September 21. The government insists its record isn't as bad as activists claim. Sheik Rashid Ahmed, a federal minister in the Musharraf government, says Pakistan's role in fighting the U.S.-led war on terror requires authorities to do what it takes.

SHEIK RASHID AHMED, Pakistani Government Minister: There are some cases of tortures for investigations to know the news and to know the network, to enter in the network.

MARGARET WARNER: And you think that's necessary?

SHEIK RASHID AHMED: In my opinion, yes, for such kind of people and things, you know, you have to do something like this.

MARGARET WARNER: Despite accusations that this government is abusing some of its citizens, a shift in the balance of civic and political power is under way. The key to its continuation is the newly assertive Supreme Court behind me, for it is inspiring many Pakistanis to press for their rights.

Directly opposite the court, petitioners from across the country now picket the building, calling for justice. Nasreen Iqbal has spent weeks camped outside. She says she lost her home and 12 acres to expropriation by local officials. The court has already given her some protection, but she's hoping for more.

NASREEN IQBAL, Petitioner (through translator): I came here to appeal to the chief justice of Pakistan to help me again. I want the people who occupied my house to be removed. The police have arrested two suspects on the orders of the Supreme Court; now I want the police to arrest the other 11.

New empowerment of the people

MARGARET WARNER: That Pakistanis from all walks of life are now demanding the full implementation of the law is, attorneys say, both a new development and a further shot across the government's bow. Iftikhar Gilani is a Supreme Court advocate who took part in the demonstrations and court challenges supporting the chief justice.

People feel newly empowered, he says, and expect the Supreme Court to insist on accountability from authorities and from President Musharraf on the election front, as well.

IFTIKHAR GILANI, Lawyer: You know what one of his statements was? If somebody likes this or does not like it, I'm going to be the president of this country for the next five years. That was his statement, I heard it myself. Literally, I'm not joking, that "if someone likes it or does not like it, I am going to be the president for the next five years." No, sorry. The lawyers said no; the civil society said no. And our instrument of implementation of our wishes today is Supreme Court of Pakistan.

MARGARET WARNER: If the new self-confidence of Pakistan's courts and civil society is creating headaches for President Musharraf, it could do the same for exiled civilian politicians, former Prime Ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, who are now planning to return. Jahangir says they're in for a surprise.

ASMA JAHANGIR: I, in fact, said to both of them that Pakistan has changed. When you come back, it's not the same Pakistan. And I am sure they realize -- they watch television where they are -- it's not the same. And people are going to ask questions. It's not going to be the dictate of leadership alone; people will expect more consultation.

MARGARET WARNER: Under military rule, the people of Pakistan still lack normal political channels to work their will, but the flourishing of artistic, journalistic and judicial activism during the Musharraf era has created a platform on which they can build.