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Pakistani media finds anti-govt partner in judiciary

Pakistan's media knows well that attacking the government is good for ratings, but it's also finding a welcome partner in an aggressive judiciary, which makes for good politics as well.

world Updated: Oct 23, 2010 17:16 IST

Pakistan's media knows well that attacking the government is good for ratings, but it's also finding a welcome partner in an aggressive judiciary, which makes for good politics as well.

As the young and rambunctious media industry unleashes a barrage of attacks on unpopular President Asif Ali Zardari almost every day, the judiciary has fed, and fed off, the media.

And while there is no evidence the two institutions that were key to restoring democracy in 2008 are working in collusion as the ruling party has sometimes alleged, they often seem to be pursuing the same goals.

Just last week, the Supreme Court of Pakistan reacted angrily to television reports that the government was planning to dismiss judges hearing an appeal against overturning a law that gave amnesty to Zardari, several of his key aides and politicians of corruption charges.

"There is no doubt in my mind that a section of the media seems to have now political ambitions and political stake. And clearly this section of the media rather fancies itself as a bit of a kingmaker," said Najam Sethi, a veteran journalist and now host of his own show at Dunya television.

"This (excess media freedom) is aided and abetted by the fact that the judiciary is also trying to become independent of the executive, so there is a natural alliance between the judiciary and the media. And it strengthens the media's tilt towards unaccountability."

The media played a key role in the restoration of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, who was sacked by former military ruler Pervez Musharraf and was only brought back after a strong campaign by the opposition, the lawyers and the media.

"Media becoming a problem"

The Supreme Court has been aggressively acting on media reports on corruption and taking the government to task.

Renowned journalist Kamran Khan, who hosts one of the most popular television shows on Geo television, said the government was worried as it was unable to defend the charges he raised.

Geo television, one of the most hostile towards the government, is Pakistan's most popular news channel and is owned by the Jang group, which also owns the country's top newspapers.

It has been one of the biggest targets of Zardari's Pakistan People's Party (PPP), which said last week that it would boycott the Jang group for allegedly maligning the government and the character assassination of the party's top leaders.

Some of its most famous journalists, including Khan, were even termed by a provincial minister from the PPP as being "Indian agents", resulting in even harsher attacks by the group.

"Our investigations showed that the connections (in corruption cases) were far more broader then we thought, they went really to the top," said Khan.

"And they were not just Kamran Khan stories. They were taken up by the Supreme Court, which took action and after that the government thought that it (media) is becoming a serious problem," he said.

Ratings war

The electronic media in Pakistan have flourished rapidly in recent years and in less than a decade, about a hundred new television channels have been established.

Analysts say at times, the media finds it difficult to handle the new found freedom and to stay balanced, but that this is part of the transition period.

"In some instances, the news media have become far too conscious of their ability to shape part of the public opinion," said former information minister Javed Jabbar.

"But that new sense of power has not come with an equivalent sense of humility and restraint."

The large number of television stations also means a vigorous competition to get a share of advertising, which has already shrunk in a plunging economy.

As a result, journalists are under increased pressure to improve ratings, and perhaps the easiest way is to appeal to the prevailing anti-government mood.

"For a large section of the electronic media, Zardari is the target no. 1, and since his credibility is generally low in the public, it is a good tactic to target him for ratings," said Sethi.