President Zardari and media obsessions

On Tuesday, at the press conference following his swearing-in, President Asif Ali Zardari set the tone by saying: “The president will only carry forward the brief of the government and bow before the parliament; the president will be subservient to parliament”. This is all he could say as president, but those present around him wanted him to speak as chief executive, which he couldn’t be without violating the Constitution. The journalists later on complained on TV that he didn’t say much; and because he didn’t say much, he was accused of refusing to commit himself to what they thought was his moral duty as a politician.

Why did the press act on the presumption that he was not the proper president under the Constitution, but someone with excessive rights which he should give up? After having heard him pledge that his party would go back to the Constitution as it was in 1999, how could they expect from him what they wouldn’t have got from President Rafiq Tarrar, for instance? So it wasn’t a “frank” first outing of Mr Zardari as president? Wrong. The press got it wrong all the way. Any president under the Constitution would be trespassing on the rights of the parliament were he to answer questions pertaining to policy as demanded by the media. Theoretically, policy is not made by the president. At any rate, Mr Zardari has pronounced a hundred times before on every question raised by the media.

The first question was: when was he going to get rid of Article 58-2(b)? The question was wrong. Article 58-2(b) cannot be removed by the president; the right person to ask is the prime minister because he is the leader of the house in the National Assembly. Then the second question was: When was he going to get rid of the 17th Amendment? Wrong, again, for the same reason. Getting rid of the party position? In the same category. The party decides who is to be its leader. It is another matter that, given the nature of the PPP as a party with “family charisma”, Mr Zardari’s giving up the leadership would hardly make things any different.

Because he was speaking as president under the Constitution, all his answers were brief without impinging on policy or appearing to formulate it. Given the conditions of a hostile environment, Mr Zardari did well by not going into detail about anything. Still, a stickler for legalisms would probably rebuke him for allowing too much comment on Kashmir. His answer to the question about ousting the Americans from Afghanistan relied on the UN Charter but he could have been even more periphrastic. The press should have been given the treatment it deserved for not viewing the president as a titular head of the state especially when its main crib is that he should get rid of his powers and be just like a titular head of state. If the idea was to make him run off at the mouth and then catch him violating the Constitution or attempting to be an “elected” dictator, it fell flat.

The presence of President Hamid Karzai at the press conference was taken amiss. The BBC was pleasantly surprised and welcomed the move because the world outside Pakistan knows that the most explosive prospect of conflict in the region is on the Pak-Afghan border. Unfortunately, the first post-conference discussion staged by a particular TV channel condemned the act of inviting President Karzai to Islamabad. The anchor began by saying that the economic crisis in Pakistan was more important than the trouble in the Tribal Areas, and a retired foreign secretary immediately complained of the PPP’s crime to equate Pakistan with Afghanistan. He said there were times when Pakistan was at par with India, but now Mr Zardari had downgraded the country. How ridiculous.

The discussions that followed on other TV channels actually condemned the presence of President Karzai at the press conference because he had earlier made such grievous allegations against Pakistan. People who had watched the TV channels then began ringing up the talk shows and telling the anchors that President Karzai was a criminal who should not have been invited to Islamabad. The first discussion, led by a needlessly angry anchor, set the tone. Good guests were hard to come by and resultantly just one point of view was projected. An economist actually came on TV to say that President Zardari had not presented an effective economic policy review in answer to a question at the press conference!

Okay, you hate the man, but this is not the way to get your anger out. Give President Zardari a fair chance so that at the end of the day the TV channels don’t have to hang their head in shame. Already our anchors have gone overboard with the increasingly politicised cause of the lawyers and their passion for Lal Masjid and its vigilante gangs. Their hatred of America and India in the end will push them into hating everyone whom the people choose to govern Pakistan. How long can one be excused for a dearth of knowledgeable and moderate anchors and a famine of guests who can correct the Punjabi tilt of the channels?

Daily Times, 11 September 2008.