Pakistan’s media has a reputation for being confrontational. After being freed by Gen. Musharraf in 2002, Pakistan’s media grew exponentially and is often credited with playing a role in the dictator’s eventual downfall. Following the 2008 elections, Pakistan’s media has continued in its unrelenting criticism of government officials – an activism defended by Geo TV president Imran Aslam earlier this year as “talking truth to power.” But in Pakistan,it appears that the media is more interested in holding some powers accountable than others.
The international non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) has found itself under attack recently for criticizing certain powerful quarters in Pakistan. A statement released last month by HRW asked the judiciary to “cease using their contempt of court powers to prevent the media from airing programming critical of the judiciary”.
HRW’s concern is not new. In August, our organization warned that Pakistan’s judiciary was undermining its moral authority by holding itself to a different standard of public oversight and recommended that Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry seize the opportunity to set a standard set a standard for other institutions that no agency or individual is above the law – or criticism.
In response to HRW’s recent statement, however, some in Pakistan’s media have taken the suprising position of siding with the judiciary over freedom of the press. The News International, an English-language daily owned by the Jang-Geo group, accused HRW of interfering in Pakistan’s judicial matters and quoted a former Supreme Court judge saying that “no democratic system in the modern world can allow such defamatory and malicious programmes in the name of freedom of expression.” The News International’s reporter went on to accuse HRW’s Pakistan chapter of being a tool of civilian politicians.
But former President of Pakistan’s Supreme Court Bar Association, Asma Jahangir, said Human Rights Watch was only stating the facts.
“It was simply factual and the manner in which the arms of the bar leaders are being twisted to protect the excesses of the superior judiciary further confirms the sensitivity of the judiciary to its legitimate criticism,” a statement issued by Jahangir said.
Neither is this the first time that Pakistan’s powerful media has come to the defense of the judiciary. Last fall, HRW found itself under fire from The News International for suggesting during the “Memogate” crisis that “all arms of the state must act within their constitutionally determined ambit and in aid of legitimate civilian rule.” Despite the HRW’s statement that the NGO had “long been a supporter of an independent judiciary in Pakistan,” The News International characterized their position as “a highly objectionable and partisan position against the superior judiciary of Pakistan.”
The judiciary is not the only powerful institution to find itself defended, rather than questioned, by Pakistan’s media. Earlier this year, The News International accused HRW and its Pakistan Director Ali Dayan Hasan for allegedly “[starting] a full campaign to fuel more and more fire on the issue of Balochistan by holding security institutions responsible for the whole crisis” instead of “[criticizing] the PPP’s government in the centre which has completely failed to initiate a political process to bring an end to the endangering crisis.”
Another recent article in The News International criticizes the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) for not including in its recently promulgated Content Regulations 2012, “any provision to safeguard any attack on Islam, Islamic values, the Ideology of Pakistan and even the institution of defence and armed forces.”
In fact, the new regulations do address these content restrictions – as the reporter readily concedes later in his article. The complaint, then, appear to be not about a lack of protection for religious and military institutions, but rather that these particular institutions are not exclusively protected.
And it is here, perhaps, that the real issue exposes itself. Much of Pakistan’s powerful media is consciously selective in how it exercises its role as an “accountability czar.” The judiciary and national security institutions go largely unquestioned or defended while democratically-elected civilians are subjected to personal or partisan attacks under the guise of investigative journalism.
In a democracy, no public institution – whether political, military, or judicial – should be outside the realm of legitimate public oversight and criticism. Defamatory and malicious attacks can be prevented through the application and enforcement of anti-defamation and libel laws that, at a minimum, hold media groups accountable for publishing information if it knows that information to be false, or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.
However Pakistani authorities choose to regulate content, the rules should apply equally to all institutions. If they cannot, it is a sure sign that they do not meet the threshold of equal protection of law guaranteed by Article 25 of Pakistan’s Constitution. Surely Pakistan’s respected justices would agree.