In London, Pakistan’s smooth-talking foreign minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, attempted to placate a skeptical international audience by claiming that the press in his country is free.
"Believe you me, there is no question of gagging or controlling media," he told a hall that was largely empty on July 11 because of a journalist boycott of his speech at the Press Freedom Conference co-hosted by the United Kingdom and Canada.
But around the same time, thousands of kilometers away in the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore, Qureshi’s ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI) political party’s main opponent was being interviewed live on a private news television. The interview was cut off after 10 minutes and journalist conducting it said it was “stopped forcefully”.
Maryam Nawaz, the daughter of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who is serving a jail sentence for corruption, was relentless in her criticism of the PTI.
“Imran Khan was involved in all the conspiracies -- directly and indirectly. He has benefited from all of them,” she told journalist Nadeem Malik moments after the private Hum News television pulled her live interview off the air and Malik switched to a live Twitter feed to finish the interview.
“They are afraid of the truth. They are not afraid of Maryam Nawaz,” she said. “[But] they are on weak footing because they have spent four years of my father’s term [from 2014 onward] to conspire against my father,” alluding to the Pakistani opposition’s main grievance that the country’s powerful military engineered the PTI’s victory in the July 2018 parliamentary election. The PTI denies being supported by the military, and its leader says the people voted the party into power. A military spokesman has repeatedly denied meddling in politics.
Nevertheless, Maryam, in her 40s, has mounted a major challenge to the PTI’s government after assuming a senior position within her Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) Party last month. She has turned her party from a second-fiddle opposition group into one poised to lead an opposition movement against the PTI.
Her bridge-building with the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and nearly a dozen other political parties helped unite them against the PTI and in opposing the military’s growing role in shaping Pakistan’s politics and the economy.
The united opposition has already moved a no-confidence motion against Sadiq Sanjrani, the current chairman of the Senate or upper house of the Pakistani Parliament, and is set to mark July 25 as a “black day.” Opposition leaders hope that rapid inflation and a recent increase in utility prices will prompt the masses to protest what the opposition leaders claim were rigged elections on the same day last year.
On July 6, Maryam stirred a political storm by releasing a secretly shot video of a judge who convicted her father in a corruption case last year. The video shows Judge Arshad Malik telling a man identified as a PML-N member that unidentified people had blackmailed him into convicting Sharif after they showed him compromising video footage from his past.
Malik denied being blackmailed into convicting Sharif but, in a sign that the scandal is rattling the judiciary, the Islamabad High Court removed him from office on July 12.
“Free Nawaz Sharif, the true people’s representative, the three times elected prime minister who has been conspired against and wronged, not once but over and over again,” Maryam tweeted after Malik’s removal was revealed. “The entire state was determined to persecute one individual in revenge, but Allah decides whom to honor and whom to humiliate,” she wrote, echoing her party’s narrative that Sharif is the victim of a grand conspiracy.
“Leaders are born in the crucible of resistance to tyranny, oppression, and injustice,” wrote Najam Sethi, a prominent Pakistani journalist. “Like it or not, Maryam Nawaz is the new star on the horizon eclipsing Imran Khan.”
But PTI supporters and senior government officials are not impressed.
“The masses elect prime ministers,” Firdous Ashiq Awan, a special assistant to Prime Minister Imran Khan, recently wrote on Twitter. “And the nation has used the power of its vote to throw out those from the political system who robbed them,” she added, alluding to the PTI’s key political message that the country’s current problems are the result of rampant corruption by leaders of the PML-N, PPP, and other political parties.
Maryam, however, appears focused on ensuring that her 68-year-old father does not meet the fate of former Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi, who died during a court hearing last month. “This [Pakistan] is not Egypt, and we will not allow Nawaz Sharif to become Morsi,” she told reporters.
While Maryam seems to be succeeding in ending her father’s ordeal, many in the country will be watching to see whether she will manage to save the country’s democracy, as well.