I have known Pakistan’s Ambassador to the United States Hussain Haqqani since 1991-92 when he was spokesperson and special assistant to Nawaz Sharif. He performed similar duties for Benazir Bhutto when she replaced Sharif as Prime Minister after the 1993 polls. The first PM he served was Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi.
An erudite man who writes beautifully in English and is equally well versed in Urdu poetry, Haqqani has had his share of controversies in a career that also took him on a diplomatic assignment to Sri Lanka. He succeeded Gen. (Retd) Mahmud Ali Durrani (who returned home last year to briefly serve as national security advisor) as Pak envoy to the US where he had lived in exile during Musharraf’s regime.
Haqqani isn’t as much a subject of this blog. What has brought him in news is his defense of two US journalists blacklisted by Islamabad. He took issue with his government on being approached by top executives of news channels represented by journalists on the exit list: CNN and NBC.
A former journalist and contributor to leading international publications, Haqqani feels Islamabad can ill-afford the controversy while Washington debates clearing a USD 1.5 billion per annum non-military aid to Pakistan.
The envoy has promoted his country’s interest by holding brief for the US scribes. But he has raised in the process a bigger question: If Americans could be so browbeaten, what to talk of Indian scribes in Pakistan and their counterparts in India? I’ve myself suffered long, anxious waits for renewal of resident permit or visa while serving in Pakistan between 1991-94 and am aware of similar problems Pakistani journalists have had in India.
So pernicious can be the Indo-Pak visa regime that correspondents from either country often find themselves in captivity at their place of posting with no visa but only the promise of an extension. It happened to me in 1993 when I couldn’t— for want of timely visa renewal— travel to Delhi for the death anniversary of my father who had died the previous year.
I returned home for good after the failed 1994 foreign secretary level talks; two other Indian scribes similarly denied visas over the next few months. A Pakistani journalist’s experience last year was equally bitter.
His wife and two sons were stranded in India and couldn’t join work and college back home on time for want of visa that came too late. The result: loss of fees and an academic year for one of his sons.
More recently, an Indian journalist in Pakistan faced the ire of secret agencies. The matter was resolved— but only when President Zardari played the Good Samaritan at the urging of some senior Pakistani journalists.
Amid such intolerance and distrust, one can only hope that the establishments on ether side will some day recognize the futility of it all. Till that happens, I can only recollect what I told Pak Interior Minister Naseerullah Babar before leaving Islamabad in 1994: media relations are much too serious a matter to be left to intelligence organizations given to treating journalists as undercover agents! The Minister heard in silence as I said: “Aney wali naslen aapako eis bhool key liye maaf nahin karengi….” The PPP’s back in power in Pakistan and so is the hounding of the foreign media. Difficult to say whether it reflects the establishment’s distrust of the ruling dispensation or that of the guest scribes.