Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan’s prime minister. (Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg)

As Military Tightens Grip, Pakistan's Ex-PM Heads to London

(Bloomberg) -- Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan’s former prime minister, left for London on Wednesday ahead of a looming verdict on corruption charges he and his daughter Maryam face amid mounting signs of a military-led clamp down on the media.

Maryam said they will visit her mother who is undergoing cancer treatment in the U.K. capital, posting pictures on Twitter of her father sitting in a plane’s business class section. “If exemption not granted, will return before next hearing Insha’Allah,” she said, referring to the criminal case they face. She added in a separate post that “as the storm abates, those who stood firm, shall emerge victorious & shine through.”

Sharif leaves Pakistan as the media faces increased censorship over coverage of the former premier, who was disqualified from office last year on graft charges. He continues to control the ruling party and has held rallies ahead of elections due in July. Pakistan’s military has strained ties with the civilian government and is widely speculated to have brought about Sharif’s downfall.

Since March, Geo -- a popular television channel -- has been forced off air in parts of the country and newspaper columnists have complained of censorship. The judiciary, which many see as being supported by the military, has ordered a media regulator to take action against television programs critical of the Supreme Court -- which last week issued a lifetime ban against Sharif ever holding public office.

‘Quiet Bans’

“The media is under pressure from various institutions,” said Arif Nizami, the editor of the Pakistan Today newspaper. “The bigger danger isn’t these bans, but quiet bans that we don’t see and aren’t talked about.”

Television channels on Tuesday muted or stopped coverage of a speech made by Sharif critical of the courts. Pakistan’s media has also shied away from covering protests by ethnic Pashtun groups who have accused the military of repression and disappearances. A spokesman for the armed forces wasn’t immediately available for comment.

Journalists have also fled the country. Taha Siddiqui, a prominent Pakistani reporter who has been critical of the military, wrote in the U.K. Guardian newspaper this month that he relocated to Paris after escaping kidnap on a busy highway in Islamabad in January. In the open letter to Pakistan’s army chief, General Qamar Bajwa, he accused the military of the attempted abduction and an atmosphere that was muzzling the media and forcing journalists into exile.

“Democracy in this country is insecure,” Marriyum Aurangzeb, Pakistan’s minister for information and broadcasting, said by phone on Tuesday. “We’re still in transition.”

Criminal Proceedings

Sharif developed an acrimonious relationship with the military in previous stints in power. He was ousted in a 1999 coup after he tried to remove General Pervez Musharraf the then head of the army. He was forced into exile until his return to politics in 2007. Following the 2016 Panama Papers leak, Sharif and his three children face criminal proceedings on allegations that they purchased high-end London properties illegally, which they deny.

The army “is determined to see that Sharif doesn’t make a return to political life,” said Burzine Waghmar, a member of the Centre for the Study of Pakistan at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. “Sharif is a spent force.”

The political turmoil has roiled Pakistan’s markets and its benchmark stock index was the worst performer globally last year, though it has seen a measured rebound since. The country’s finances are also deteriorating with the country’s foreign reserves falling the most in Asia in the past year.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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