ISLAMABAD: Buckling under relentless pressure, the government on Saturday sent its information minister packing after preliminary investigations established a ‘lapse’ on his part vis-à-vis a ‘planted news story’ about a top level huddle on national security.
Tellingly, Senator Pervaiz Rashid’s sacking came barely 48 hours after an unusual meeting of senior government functionaries with army chief General Raheel Sharif at the Army House.
The government refuted the story published in English-language daily Dawn on October 6 as ‘false and fabricated’ not once, not twice but thrice. The repeated denials, however, failed to satisfy the military which called for unmasking those who had planted the story.
“Evidence available so far points to a lapse on part of the information minister, who has been directed to step down from office to enable holding of an independent and detailed inquiry,” says a statement issued by the prime minister’s office.
“The planted story related to the NSC [National Security Committee] and NAP [National Action Plan] meetings published in daily Dawn on 6th October was a breach of national security,” it adds.
The government will also form an inquiry committee, comprising senior officers of the Inter-Services Intelligence, Military Intelligence and Intelligence Bureau, to “clearly apportion blame, identify interests and motives and expose all those responsible for this episode for stern action in the national interest”.
Following Rashid’s sacking, reports also swirled through the media that Principal Information Officer Rao Tehsin Ali Khan has also been removed from his office and made officer on special duty (OSD). There was no official confirmation, though.
The interior minister, who is looking into the matter on the instructions of Premier Sharif, is expected to brief the media today [Sunday] where he might expose who else was behind this ‘deliberate leak’.
In the Dawn story, reported by Cyril Almeida on the authority of unnamed sources, the civilian government warned the military leadership in the high-level huddle of Pakistan’s increasing international isolation for its failure to act against non-state actors.
The story created an impression that the security establishment was reluctant to take action against the non-state actors, particularly those hostile towards India.
In its first formal reaction on October 14, the top military commanders voiced serious concern over the ‘feeding of [the] false and fabricated news story’, calling it a ‘breach of national security’.
Premier Nawaz Sharif had tasked the interior minister with holding an inquiry into the matter. The interior minister had promised to complete the investigation within three or four days. But that didn’t happen, though the names of some officials and reporter Almeida were put on the exit control list until the completion of the inquiry. Almeida’s name was later taken off the list.
It is not immediately clear whether the military would accept the sacking of the information minister as security sources want to try those responsible for ‘planting’ the story under the Army Act – something the civilian government may not agree to.
Now the question is who will step into Rashid’s shoes.
Government sources told The Express Tribune that Mohsin Shahnawaz Ranjha, Ayesha Raza Farooq, Mushahidullah Khan and Zahid Hamid are in the race for the slot of information minister, though nothing has been finalised yet.
Sources said Daniyal Aziz also has his sights set on the office, though he might not muster support from within the ruling party. It is also possible that the government may not appoint an information minister. There is also possibility that Planning and Development Minister Ahsan Iqbal is given the additional charge of the information ministry.
But if the government decides of appoint a junior minister, minister of state, then potential contenders could be PML-N MNA Maryam Aurangzeb and MNA Talal Chaudhry among others, sources said.
Imran reacts to resignation, defence minister’s Dubai visit
Reacting on the surprise ‘sacking’ of the senior leader of the ruling PML-N, PTI chairman Imran Khan tweeted that one lackey of the government has been sacked and other has ‘fled’ the country, referring the latter [Defence Minister Khuwaja Asif] who left the country for Dubai Saturday morning.
However, according to the official Twitter handle of the defence minister he has reached Dubai with his family to attend a wedding and will be back in a day.