Monday, December 10, 2007

Street protest

(The closure of a private news channel has triggered outrage from all sections of the society)
By Beena Sarwar
"General, just think, your own judges have refused to accept your actions," said Fakhruddin G. Ebrahim, the well known former Supreme Court Judge. Standing atop a stage set at the end of what has been re-named 'Azadi Street' in front of the Jang/Geo office in Karachi, he was addressing a gathering of hundreds of Geo and Jang employees along with the event organizers -- members of the People's Resistance, a loose coalition of individuals and organizations opposed to the continuing martial law.

Justice (r.) Ebrahim drew the audience's attention to the joint statement signed by as many as seventeen retired judges of the Sindh High Court and made public at a press conference that afternoon, on Nov 27. The statement condemned the emergency declaration as illegal and demanded the restoration of the independent judiciary and the media.

The retired judges denounced the martial law as "entirely unconstitutional."
"A return to democracy is impossible without the restoration of all chief justices and judges to their rightful position as of Nov. 2, 2007," they declared. The statement also holds that "any election carried out under a de facto martial law shall be farcical and illegitimate."
Similar declarations were expected from retired judges of the Supreme Court as well as the High Courts of the other three provinces (the retired Supreme Court judges issued their letter on Dec 2, as reported in the papers)

Members of the People's Resistance initiated this thought-provoking street event to show solidarity with the banned television network Geo, which has now been off the air for over three weeks. The ban has caused huge revenue losses to the media company. But more importantly, it has deprived the people of Pakistan of their right to information.

The event featured brief addresses by eminent persons who are in the forefront of the movement for the restoration of democracy in Pakistan, and who recognize that the struggle for the independence of the judiciary and the media are interlinked to this issue. The addresses were interspersed by spots provided by Geo which the channel had started to run as soon as General Pervez Musharraf imposed martial law on Nov 3.

All the television channels, except for the official Pakistan Television were immediately blocked on the cable network. All except Geo have been allowed back on air in Pakistan. For over a week, Geo even disappeared from the satellite world as on Nov 16, the Dubai government under pressure from Pakistan ordered the network to stop its broadcast from its base in Media City, a free zone in the Emirates state. (The Dubai government restored Geo's satellite link on Nov 30).
Justice (r.) Ebrahim jokingly warned students in the audience that they would hear him at their own risk, as the government had banned them from participating in any debate on the crucial issue of media and judicial independence. "I have to speak about this, because it is a matter of life and death for the people of Pakistan," said the retired judge, who has also held office of the Sindh Governor. "Even under British rule we were never stopped from debate and discussion, particularly in the universities and places of learning."

He said that Article 5 of the Constitution obliged the government to restore the Constitution -- not just as of Nov 3, but since Musharraf's coup of 1999 when he overthrew an elected government and took over power. "We do not accept any amendments made after Oct 11, 1999," said Justice (r.) Ebrahim. "If the Constitution is the soul of the nation, then the judiciary is its heart. We are currently without a heart and a soul."
Justice (r.) Ebrahim refuted the government's allegation that the deposed judges had released terrorists. Talking about the judges who have taken oath under the PCO, he said, "With a judiciary like that, independence of the judiciary is in the doldrums. We stand for a democratic Pakistan, the supremacy of the Constitution and an independent judiciary and media." He added: "Anyone who is not with us, is against us."

Geo TV provided content for the event, including the bold statement set to images taking off from the famous anti-Nazi declaration about remaining silent as one by one different elements of society are victimized, ending with "Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak up." The Pakistani version starts, "First they came for the Ahmedis..."
Another powerful spot featured the hard-won rights enshrined in the Constitution that the emergency has suspended -- after alternatively outlining some of these rights, a male and female voice together enjoin the people to stand up for the Constitution and for their rights.
Arif Parvaiz, a development writer and researcher, read out Noon Meem Rashid's celebrated poem 'Aadmi se dartey ho' that resounded with the current times, and the kinds of vicious restrictions ordinary people face for speaking out against martial law.

Secretary General of Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), Mazhar Abbas, also addressed the gathering. He had just returned from New York after accepting the Committee to Protect Journalists' International Press Freedom Award on behalf of the PFUJ. "The fight has just started," he said. "The November 3 situation was not one that we could have kept quiet about. The issue is not that of one ordinance, or one channel or FM station. This fight is about freedom. We've never demanded this freedom for ourselves, but for the people who have right to know where their taxes go."

He said that till 1986, the journalists were mostly pliant and fell in with the government's directives. "We kept silent about the situation in then East Pakistan. The Pakistan army's surrender of December 16, 1971 was mentioned in just four lines in Dawn." Abbas blamed the media's silence not on the working journalists, who always spoke out even in the most repressive times, but on the media owners, "who have been late in joining the fight for press freedom."
Drawing attention to the PFUJ's prompt response to the martial law, Mazhar Abbas pointed out that even the 'Black Laws' of PEMRA contain clauses that stipulate certain steps before any media is shut down. On Nov 3, "verbal orders were issued to close the channels, without quoting any clause of PEMRA." The procedure, he explained, was that any complaint had to be followed by a show cause notice. This then went to the Council of Complaint, "which can summon the media organization in question. The Council could then recommend in writing for the closure of the media, citing the causes for this recommendation. None of this was done in this case." The government had instituted a PCO for the media, like it has done for the judges.
"The media was being punished for March 9, when it showed Chief Justice Iftikhar A. Chaudhry's campaign," he added. "This is not a fight of the owners. This is a fight for the freedom of expression. This is our fight, and we will fight whether the owners are with us or not."

"The restored channels are not free," said Abbas. In fact, the current restrictions on the electronic media are so severe that the offending talk show host or anchor has to prove their innocence, rather than the authorities having to prove their guilt. (Reminds one of the Hudood Ordinances in which this was the case for rape survivors, who were presumed guilty until being able to prove their innocence). "The anchor is even responsible for any words coming out of his guest's mouth. This is a constant sword dangling over our heads. Today, anyone can get a telephone call from the authorities and be summoned. We are treated like criminals."
The good thing is that APNS, CPNE, PFUJ have taken a unanimous stand, demanding that the government withdraw the ordinances and restore the media to the pre-November 3 position. "We have to be the voice of the people. Simply restoring Geo will not be enough," he said. "A free media is necessary for democracy. An independent judiciary is necessary for democracy. The Pakistani media is the most vibrant in all the Islamic world, the most critical of its own government. We are all for responsible journalism. If anyone has been irresponsible, prove it."
"Under this government," he said, "uniformed men come and slap journalists covering public events, and snatch their equipment. This has happened in Quetta, Lahore, Peshawar, Islamabad and Sukkur."

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