Hypocrites in the Pakistani Media – by M Usama Kabbir

Below are two very interesting pieces appearing in an international daily. There is a complete Media blackout on these writings in Pakistan. One cannot forget to remember the ‘Zardari Bashing’ carried out by Private News Channels in Pakistan when the President was on a visit to Europe whilst the country faced severe floods in early August this year. The troubling fact is that all these ‘Hypocrites’ used to quote the international newspapers humiliating their President and hours long talk shows used to be dedicated to punchlines of The Guardian and New York Times. Now that it is the Media’s and Judiciary’s role which is being questioned, there is a hushed silence in Pakistani Media.

Pakistan’s emboldened judiciary threatens government stability
By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, October 13, 2010

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN – After this country’s then-military dictator deposed the Supreme Court chief justice in 2007, a boisterous movement of protesting lawyers took to the streets and ushered in the return of democracy. Now that same court may be poised to bring about a premature end to Pakistan’s elected government.

Since its December judgment striking down an amnesty that shielded President Asif Ali Zardari and other officials from old criminal allegations, the top court has pressed the government on corruption, in particular a dated money-laundering case against Zardari. The stakes have risen as repeated government delays have stoked frustration within the army and the political opposition. Another showdown is scheduled for Wednesday, when the court could hold the prime minister in contempt or indicate that it will reconsider Zardari’s presidential immunity from prosecution.

The standoff has cemented the Supreme Court’s position as a central player in Pakistan’s nascent democracy. But it has also highlighted questions about the solidity of that system.

To many here, the drama represents progress: In a nation with a history of military coups, an independent judiciary has emerged as the major threat to the unpopular government. To others, including some government critics and lawyers’ movement stalwarts, the court and its chief justice are on a warpath against Zardari that threatens a fragile democracy that needs an elected government – even a bad one – to complete a term in office.

“This judge and the court have embarked upon politics,” said lawyer Khurram Latif Khosa, whose father, also a lawyer, advises Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani. “The lawyers who were chanting slogans in their favor are now burning effigies of their idols.”

Pakistan’s stability is vital to the United States, which depends on this South Asian nation to support the war in Afghanistan and combat a vigorous Taliban insurgency on its own soil. U.S. officials express concern that the government’s foot-dragging is weakening its credibility and distracting it from urgent issues such as the fallout from recent flooding and a collapsing economy.

Some analysts say the standoff is unlikely to imperil the democratic order. They call it just another act in the performance art of Pakistani politics, in which protagonists jockey for power while the masses await leadership that will improve their lives. The government insists that the cases against Zardari were politically motivated and that a hostile media are sensationalizing the court’s wrangling.

From 2007 to 2009, scores of lawyers rallied for the restoration of Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry. He was removed by military dictator Pervez Musharraf but not restored by Zardari’s civilian government until several months into its administration.

The lawyers’ movement dissolved after it achieved its goal, and the lower judiciary is still plagued by complaints about corruption, sluggishness and bias. But the Supreme Court has surfaced as one of Pakistan’s most respected institutions. After decades of deference to presidents, prime ministers and, especially, military rulers, it has doggedly pursued cases involving the Zardari government.

“That the problems of governance were not highlighted in the past seems to suggest that the court is more aggressive on a democratic government than it was on an authoritarian government,” said Munir Malik, a former president of the Supreme Court Bar Association. “But that’s the way to move forward.”

The court has also gained popularity by regularly taking up the grievances of ordinary citizens, often after Chaudhry has read about them in the newspaper. Small and thickly mustached, Chaudhry ranks in polls as one of the nation’s most esteemed figures.

“He is the only person standing firm against the unlawful practices of the government,” said Ibrahim Rasheed, among a group of lawyers sipping tea recently at the Islamabad bar association office.

On Monday, after rejecting a government plea to postpone Wednesday’s hearing, Chaudhry and his colleagues moved briskly through the morning docket. One case involved a man who said policies at the federal medical institute where he worked had unfairly blocked his promotion, while another dealt with “lady health workers” allegedly being paid less than minimum wage by a provincial health department.

Later, the judges harangued the Islamabad police chief over a failure to arrest a suspect in the months-old slaying of a former attorney general – an “eminent man,” in the words of one justice, Khalil Ramday.

Court detractors, who include Pakistan’s top human rights lawyer, point to the court’s cap on the price of sugar and the nullification of a carbon-tax law as crowd-pleasing but overreaching rulings.

The court has not taken kindly to such grumbling. Last week, after a federal minister accused it of activism and interference, the court released a statement criticizing “unwarranted and uncalled for comments” on its judgments.

Some legal experts say they are disturbed that the court rarely pursues matters involving non-ruling-party politicians or the military establishment. Under Musharraf, Chaudhry was a vocal advocate for cases involving suspects who disappeared, allegedly at the hands of Pakistan’s intelligence services. The cases have made little progress since last year.

“The court can be faulted not for what it is doing, but for the omissions,” said Babar Sattar, a constitutional expert who supports the court’s efforts to pursue government corruption cases.

The high court has focused on 13-year-old allegations that Zardari, the widower of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, stashed $60 million in kickbacks in Swiss bank accounts. Swiss authorities closed the case in 2008, after a 2007 Pakistani amnesty deal.

When the Supreme Court nullified that amnesty, it instructed the government to write a letter informing the Swiss authorities about the development. A Swiss prosecutor has since noted publicly that Zardari has presidential immunity, and many Pakistani legal experts say the government could calm the judiciary by simply sending the letter.

The government says it should not have to do so.

Legal experts say that defiance could prompt the court to hold the prime minister or the law minister in contempt or trigger it to review the constitutionality of Zardari’s immunity. Either could threaten the Zardari administration, endangering the coalition it depends on to govern and – in an extreme scenario – spurring the military to seize control.

Pakistan’s press piles on president
By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 21, 2010; 10:33 AM

ISLAMABAD – On a recent morning, readers of the News, Pakistan’s largest English-language newspaper, awoke to an unusual front-page advertisement: Printed atop a photo of President Asif Ali Zardari was the allegory of a Muslim caliph who willingly submitted to the court after being accused of wrongdoing.

“Why not you Mr. President?” the advertisement asked. It was signed: “Geo with Justice.”

Geo is not a political opposition group, but rather Pakistan’s most popular television network. Zardari has been hounded relentlessly by news commentators to stand trial for a litany of alleged financial kickbacks from years ago, and the taunt was just one more indication that the country’s media industry has become less a chronicler of the news than a political force in its own right.

In response to the ad, a spokeswoman for the ruling Pakistan People’s Party angrily announced that its members would boycott Geo and the News, which are both owned by the Jang Group corporation, by refusing to participate in interviews and talk shows. The News fought back, running a front-page report this week that said the ruling party was “spewing venom” by calling journalists “Indian agents” and “enemies of democracy.”

The media were instrumental in bringing about a return to democracy in Pakistan in 2008, but they’ve taken an increasingly antagonistic stance toward Zardari’s administration in the two years since. With the government struggling to prop up a stagnant economy, fight religious extremists and provide flood relief, reporters have found an appealing target in Zardari, whose administration contends with weekly rumors of collapse. Whether this is a healthy free press at work or a destabilizing force in a tense and turbulent democracy is the subject of much debate.

“They are totally anti-government; they’re not objective; they twist everything,” said Fauzia Wahab, a Zardari confidante who is the ruling party’s information secretary. “We do not mind a free press, but we definitely mind if somebody has an agenda or somebody is trying to destabilize the government and the country and create an anarchic situation.”

This view might seem hyperbolic were it not for the events of the past week. Last Thursday, several television stations, citing unnamed sources, reported that Zardari had secretly decided to dissolve the Supreme Court in a bid to escape a potential trial. That prompted the court to convene an emergency hearing at which it demanded that the attorney general provide written assurance that no such action would take place. Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani lambasted the stories as “baseless rumors” in a public address.

Reporters contend that the amount of time administration officials spend attacking the media reveals their misplaced priorities.

“Nowhere in developed society does the government go after the media in the way this government goes after us,” said Rana Jawad, Geo’s Islamabad bureau chief, who oversees 18 correspondents. “That leaves us no choice but to defend ourselves and serve our viewers by interpreting what the government does to us. Sometimes that may compromise our impartiality, but that’s what happens when you’re pitted against a government that is hell bent on destroying and muzzling you.”

The free press is relatively new in Pakistan, which was limited to a few government-controlled outlets until Gen. Pervez Musharraf opened the doors to private media ownership in 2002. He wanted to wean residents from relying on Indian news broadcasts, but the general lacked the stomach for independent watchdogs: He shuttered Geo and other stations in late 2007 as their criticism of his government intensified.

The media have expanded rapidly under Zardari. Today, there are 90 television and 135 radio stations serving a country of 168 million, many of whom are illiterate and rely on broadcast news, said Adnan Rehmat, executive director of Intermedia, which advocates for freedom of the press in Pakistan. The number of journalists has grown from 2,000 in 2002 to 17,000 today, while the average age of a reporter has fallen from 47 to 23, he added.

“The lack of experience and increased competition ensures that the emphasis is not on investigation but on sensation and more opinion than fact,” Rehmat said. “You find this perpetual cycle of political conflicts that do not have as much life as the media injects into it.”

During last summer’s massive floods that displaced millions of residents, news reports asserted that the government had intentionally broken levees to save property belonging to powerful officials at the expense of land owned by ordinary residents. Wahab contends that officials were instead acting to save critical infrastructure such as railways and roads.

“It’s bitter criticism bordering on profanity,” she said. “They’re always talking negative and that leads to despondency [among the public]. Suppose this government falls, then what do you have? Do you want this country to become Afghanistan?”

Cyril Almeida, a columnist for Dawn, a major English-language newspaper, poked fun at the media’s role in prompting the emergency hearing last Friday. Despite a courtroom packed with more than 100 journalists and 40 television cameras, Almeida wrote, “curiously, more than 12 hours after the story first broke, no reporter appeared sure of the veracity or the provenance of the allegations.”

Fekhar Rehman, who broke the story for Aaj television, said he confirmed his report with three sources and speculated that the government killed the plan only after its disclosure sparked a public backlash. But Almeida believes the network jumped prematurely to juice its ratings.

“This crisis shows where the media can be dangerous. The echo-chamber affected relations between institutions of government,” Almeida said. “But I blame the government, too. This administration has no interest in governance and things are catastrophically bad, so there are enough people out there who believe that something like this is possible.”



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