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Saturday, April 12, 2008

Media and the lawyers
After the shameful incident in which hot-headed young lawyers criminally roughed up Dr Sher Afgan Niazi in Lahore on Tuesday, a lot of stock-taking of the lawyers’ movement is needed. The media covered the sad deed honestly and objectively and allowed the viewing public to make up its mind about what happened and who was responsible for it. This was a crucial turning point in the media’s relationship with the lawyers’ community which had benefited greatly from the TV coverage it got while protesting against the firing of the chief justice of Pakistan in March 2007 and the dismissal of the judges on November 3, 2008.In fact the media were more or less in the same spot as the lawyers at that time. The lawyers were roughed up by the executive as they came out in the streets and demanded the freedom of the judiciary. As the TV channels came out to cover the protest it was discovered that the government was not as much bothered about the protest as it was about its projection. The mediamen were thrashed along with the lawyers as if they were a part of the same movement. The government thus blundered by causing the birth of a sense of solidarity between the media and the lawyers.One can say with confidence that without TV coverage the deposed chief justice of Pakistan Mr Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry would not have become a national figure. Also, the leaders the movement spawned from among the legal community could not have become household words without being allowed to appear on TV to make their argument against President Pervez Musharraf and his imposition of “emergency plus” on November 3. From the volatile and legally minded leadership of Munir Malik, Tariq Mahmud and Ahmad Ali Kurd to the more politically inclined guidance of Barrister Aitzaz Ahsan, the fact is that everybody was “made” by the TV channels.The power of the media not only affected the thinking of the people of Pakistan at large, but the honourable courts as well. When the November 3 PCO was imposed many judges, instead of objectively looking at what the lawyers were doing, joined them and left their jobs in protest. Once again, the adage that the courts in their function are always affected by the social and political environment in the country began to circulate. The message from the lawyers to the courts was: we know how you should decide the cases against President Musharraf, and you had better deliver accordingly.The power that the lawyers’ movement felt was based on the aggression of the bars, but the courage of its leadership to challenge and threaten the court and government came from the profile they had acquired on the TV channels. (The channels tended to ignore the early manifestation of violence among the lawyers as a sop to a growing solidarity between the two.) After the 2008 elections, however unfortunately and incorrectly, most of the channels developed a consensus that the mandate of the people was not in favour of the parties that won but the restoration of the judges and the ouster of President Musharraf. The two mainstream parties registered this with a slight variation of response. The PMLN embraced the new situation completely and began to reap media dividends; the PPP felt that it was being pressured too much by the “countdowns” handed down by the lawyers and sought a middle ground.Therefore the events of this week in Karachi and Lahore have awakened the media to something that has been happening quietly in the background as they lionised the lawyers and gave good sound bites to their leaders. The depiction of violence that grew out of the confrontation between the lawyers and the government has inclined the lawyers to what they think is “reactive” aggression. But the lawyers are not a political party and are not disciplined. A large section are also a part of the problems hounding the judiciary. They are led by Barrister Aitzaz Ahsan, but those of them allied to the confrontationist-boycotters Jama’at-e Islami and the Tehreek-e Insaf may not agree with his worldview, and he does not have the charter to compel them to follow his thinking. (Hence the supplication or hath jorna.) On the other hand, unfortunately, his “countdown” and veiled threats of agitation have further moved the already unruly ones towards misbehaviour.If the earlier media was biased in showing us only the strengths and vitality of the lawyers’ movement, the media on Tuesday showed us what’s also wrong with the lawyers’ movement. Indeed, we cannot defend certain violent tendencies in sections of the lawyers’ movement and the media has to realise that the government is no longer the Musharraf establishment but a democratic coalition that can be effective only if it sticks together and remains based on national reconciliation. Therefore it is time for the media to become less partisan on the question of whether or not parliament should submit to the “countdown” of the lawyers’ movement or consider issues put before it through discussion and consensus. *

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