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Smile, they’re on TV

india Updated: May 20, 2008 01:50 IST
Amit Baruah
Amit Baruah
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

Lahore: Inside the Lahore High Court compound, a meeting of select lawyers from across Pakistan is taking place to decide their next course of action. Their objective: to restore judges sacked by President Pervez Musharraf in November 2007.

Outside the compound, journalists and lawyers patiently await the end of the meeting, gossiping and talking among themselves. It is 43°C and the lawyers in their black suits look decidedly uncomfortable. All of us sit under the shade of a majestic tree affording protection from the blazing sun.

A distance away, there are seven-eight television channel ‘OB’ vans broadcasting live from the venue. As lawyers trickle out of the meeting, information instantly makes its ways to the outside world about the next steps in the campaign to restore the judges. A TV reporter is summoned for a live feed. He’s ready, but there are some technical glitches. “My flight is late,” he quips.

Since March 2007, when Musharraf tried to sack Chief Justice Iftekhar Muhammad Chaudhry, the lawyers have been at the vanguard of the movement against the Pakistani establishment. And, even in this heat, they have decided on a ‘long march’ to Islamabad. As our waiting ends, Aitazaz Ahsan appears before scores of TV cameras and says, “We consider the media to be a part of our movement.” He is spot on: TV is the oxygen on which the lawyers’ movement has prospered.

It looks as if news channels are opening up here every single day. In 2002, there was just one news channel, Geo. Today, according to Azhar Abbas, chief of Dawn News, the country’s only 24-hour English news channel, there are 15-17 news channels. Express, a new Urdu channel, is giving Geo a run for its money for the No. 1 news slot. It’s run by a big business group. ARY Gold and Aaj have been around for some time, but you’ll find Waqt TV, Samaa and many others in the ‘test-run’ phase. Language-specific news channels such as KTN (Sindhi), Punjab TV (Punjabi) and Khyber TV (Pushto) are already in business. A Lahore-specific channel, City 42, is in the works.

“Television is the strongest engine of change,” says Fahd Hussain, Director (News) of Express, at his spanking new office. Outside his open cabin, scores of young men and women are engaged in the job of keeping the channel running. “We have replaced the functions of many institutions in Pakistan. TV in Pakistan represents middle-class power,” he says, adding that a new breed of journalists has come into being — young, upwardly mobile, well-paid and not migrants from the print medium.

In a country of 160 million where 49 per cent of people over 15 can read and write, TV is changing people’s lives and the information they receive. Gone are the days when State-run Pakistan TV, with its tight control of information, was the sole source of news.

The country’s economy has been showing a healthy 6-7 per cent growth over the last five years, with the World Bank estimating that roughly 8 million Pakistanis have moved from below poverty levels to being part of the lower-middle class between 2001 and 2004. A report in the International Herald Tribune estimated that the upper and middle classes may now include 10-20 per cent of the population. According to Eurmonitor.com, consumer spending in Pakistan was $103 billion in 2007 as opposed to $69 billion in 2004. The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority claims that the number of mobile phone subscribers in the country has crossed 80 million.

Abbas says that in Karachi alone, 64 million people are now watching TV, of which 35 million have access to cable/satellite. Advertisement revenue spent on TV was Rs 2 billion in 2002-03; in 2006-07, that figure has reached a whopping Rs 18 billion. All these numbers are impressive. The missing link in Pakistan remains its political-intelligence structure that is yet to stabilise despite an impressive and clear vote for change in the February 18 elections. Transparency in the media is evident, but transparency in governance remains a pipe dream. The permanent establishment of Pakistan needs to wake up and accept that the country and its people have changed. They now have a voice.

Conversations with a range of Pakistanis over the past few days indicate that Asif Ali Zardari and his Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) needs to immediately rethink its ‘go slow’ on reinstating the judges — especially the ‘Chief Justice’ if they want to retain political credibility. Everyone here knows that the judges’ issue boils down to Chaudhry. He’s the real stumbling block — Musharraf doesn’t want him and knows that a re-empowered Chaudhry will move against the President, even to the extent of ejecting him from office.

Two scenarios look possible. In the foreseeable future, if Chaudhry isn’t back, the PML(N), or the ‘Noon group’, of Nawaz Sharif, will walk out of the coalition. And then, the Zardari-Gilani government will have to depend on the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and the pro-Musharraf PML(Q) for its political survival. The numbers can sustain such an arrangement. But this kind of a government will be a mockery of the mandate for change expressed by the people of Pakistan on February 18. It will mean a return to power of President Musharraf, who has ensured that the Zardari-Gilani government is amenable to his continuing in power. In Pakistan, of course, conspiracy theorists refer to a Musharraf-Zardari ‘deal’.

The second scenario is the PPP and Zardari realising that the judges’ issue is not just about the judges, but it’s a litmus test for democracy. It’s about knowing that you just can’t remove judges whose orders you don’t like. There is still the possibility that Zardari appreciates that the political ground is shifting beneath his feet and agrees on the return of Chaudhry & Co.

Many in Lahore, Pakistan’s political capital, believe that Sharif will sweep the elections if they are held tomorrow. His principled stand on the judges’ restoration has been appreciated; the Noon group is definitely on the ascendant. Elections look distant, and a prolonged period of political agitation against the new Pakistani government (at a time of six-hour power cuts across the country), including the lawyers, very likely.

A little distance away from the Lahore High Court stands what was once the headquarters of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), the Pakistani equivalent of the CBI. On March 11, a truck containing explosives was driven into this building on Temple Road, killing 25 people and wounding 200 others. The scarred building is a tragic reminder of the other challenge facing Pakistan — that of extremist violence and extremist ideas. Pakistan needs governance, not political instability, to deal with this menace. And it needs democracy.