Hopelessly Poor in Power

As the current government tackles complex and potentially explosive situations that often involve multiple factors like politics, internal sovereignty, the army and use of State force and armed resistance, the government seeks to set limits to how the media should report such situations. Particularly in two conditions the government gets tougher on the media. One if the problem itself worsens putting increased pressure on the government. Two if the government enters into serious negotiations with the rival groups. In both cases the government views independent media reporting as a factor that weakens its position.

Today, there are multiple issues, including Waziristan, Baluchistan and now on the reference it filed against the Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Justice Chaudary, on which the Pakistani print and electronic media come under government pressure.

The government has consistently penalized Dawn a Karachi-based English daily by holding back advertisements, for its reporting on Baluchistan. Additionally, there is a go-slow approach to issuing the same group a license for a television channel. The matter is now in Court. Earlier the government was using the advertisement tool against the Lahore based Nation. In Waziristan, individual journalists were harassed and killed for their objective reporting. All secondary evidence points to the involvement of the government and their antagonists in harming media personnel.

The tendency of State power to ‘rough up’ its opponents is a common element in societies where State power is exercised without reference to any legal, Constitutional or moral framework. Over the decades Pakistani rulers whether military or civilian, have often tended to use State power against opponents high-handed and unconstitutional manner. State power has been used with no fear of accountability. State power has been used by successive governments to stifle the Opposition, to kidnap and torture those seen to be the enemies of the State, to storm the Supreme Court, to imprison 80 year old father of an Opposition leader, to muzzle the press etc.

For many decades this high-handed use of State power has gone unchecked. Pakistan’s political forces not only often been violators themselves but the overall power scene in Pakistan has taught them the pragmatism to be their ultimate survival tool. Confronted by the army’s perpetually threatening presence of a self-appointed political godfather,

Pakistan’s weak and blundering mainstream political class has mostly forgotten movement politics needed to promote principles, processes and institutions, as enshrined in Pakistan’s Constitution. Exceptions like the MQM do exist yet their close collaboration with the current military-authored democracy is a tell-tale of the state of Pakistan’s power scene. Even more telling is the possibility of a possible PPP-Establishment deal which does appear to be a necessary bitter pill to swallow to ensure that the next round of elections will not be engineered only to ensure that the ruling party wins. The Establishment may seek such a deal to get the President General Parvez Musharraf re-elected by the same parliament. The Establishment is also cornered on many other fronts including the judiciary, political extremism etc. This politician-army deal is not unprecedented. It in fact signals continuity in the way Pakistan’s power scene operates-outside of the purview of the Constitution. Hence it is not ideal but as of now this seems the only way forward.

Against the backdrop of these ‘odds’ of Pakistan’s power scene in which civilian politicians and military men are busy trying to produce some hybrid form of democracy for the next round too, a most promising development has taken place. The ‘credit’ for triggering this development, that has severely challenged the Musharraf government’s authority, must go only to the Musharraf government, which grossly mishandled the filing of a reference against the CJP.

Ironically, it was the high-handed and unconstitutional exercise of State power by men in the President’s inner power circle that has lead to a movement that is questioning the fundamentals of how State power is abused in Pakistan. While it zooms in on the case of the CJP and the related issues there is a broader canvas that this movement is bring into public focus. The inevitable corollary of this is the rolling back of all extra Constitutional power currently enjoyed by different institutions The broad canvas is focusing on the role of two institutions; on the acts of the omission and commission, the judiciary and the army.

As the judiciary is in the limelight, for the first time in Pakistan’s history a nation-wide movement of lawyers is building up seeking the independence of judiciary and for upholding the Constitution. Significantly for the judiciary the movement is proving to be a ‘call to duty’ to Pakistan’s judiciary decades long history of acts of submission which, among other factors, has laid the foundation for the mostly unrestrained, adhoc and self-serving Pakistani power culture. In the resignations of some judges, the Deputy Attorney General and the April 24 demand of Supreme Court (SC) judge that a full SC bench be constituted to hear a petition filed by the CJ, are all indications that the judiciary is responding to this ‘call to duty.’

Similarly, the lawyers’ movement is also increasingly demanding that that the army quit Pakistani politics. Such a direct and growing challenge to the Pakistan army’s involvement in politics has perhaps never before been posed to the army leadership. There have been attempts by political groups to oppose martial law but after General Ayub Khan’s ouster in 1966 no other political movement succeeded against a military ruler. Especially the post -Zia ear has seen the emergence of a truly hybrid and adhoc Pakistani power scene which was born on an almost incapacitated Constitution. This lawyers’ movements is now soberly seeking the return to Constitution rule, the rule of law, in Pakistan. In doing one of its key demand is to end the rule of a uniformed president.

The lawyers’ movement is snowballing into a political movement. The government may still be thinking it is a situation it can control. Instead of having its multiple spokespersons argue why the CJP trial should not be an open trial, what the membership of the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC), why the reference was important, why President Musharraf should be supported, why the politicians are taking advantage of this movement etc, the government should have simply said it committed mistakes in the handling of the reference against the CJP, the President himself as the head of the State should have apologized for State functionaries pulling the hair of the CJP, the law minister should have said that while the SJC will decide if there should be an open trial the government believes that an open trial will ensure a fair trail.

But this was not to be. There is hopeless poverty in Pakistan’s power scene; poverty of wisdom or sobriety and of humility. The April 22 show cause notice to Aaj television for "casting aspersions against the judiciary and integrity of the armed forces of Pakistan" and for running programs that "incite violence" is yet another sign of this grave poverty.

In yet another display of this poverty the government seems to have taken a decision to enter the political fray on the issue of the Chief Justice of Pakistan. On April 24 the ruling party led a procession to the Supreme Court in support of general Musharraf. The law minister said on Geo television that the government party’s procession was to assure the members of the SJC that we that we have faith on the SJC , let them decide and don’t pressurize them.

Increased pressure on the government may translate into increased pressure on the media. But any move to muzzle media freedom will backfire. The public including the professional classes and the political classes all recognize the media as the source of the ‘complete picture’ and of the facts of the many explosive issues that Pakistan’s State, society and politics face. The power of responsible media is here to stay. What Pakistan needs is that the poverty of wisdom within Pakistan’s power circles must go.