January 1, 1970 |

The South Asia Free Media Association (SAFMA) conference on Media Freedom and Security in Islamabad (Nov 30 – Dec 1) offered a forum to some of stakeholders of the current day Pakistan — media persons, intellectuals, politicians and members of civil society — to vent their thoughts, and exchange views on the prevailing situation. The last day witnessed some of the most spirited and charged speeches, turning the focus away from challenges confronting the media and instead tuned the gathering virtually into a debate as to whether or not to boycott the elections — as proposed and prepared by General Pervez Musharraf and his coterie.

The advocates of “peaceful transition” believed (Najam Sethi, Maulana Fazlurrehman and Sherry Rehman) in avoiding confrontation with the mighty military establishment and accept whatever it offers for “return to democracy”. However flawed the system, this should be accepted, as an opportunity to reassert the peoples’ will, was the bottom-line.

But let us discuss here two extreme views, one coming from the burly Maulana, and the other from an ever-aggressive Asma Jehangir, who gave everybody else a passionate dressing down while calling for unity to confront the establishment. Unfortunately, most of the reports about her speech published next day lacked the sting and core questions that she raised in her frontal assault on the apologists of the Musharraf-led dispensation.

Employing his oratory skills, combined with the knowledge of logic (that is often part of the madrassah curricula) and linguistic rigmarole, Fazlurrehman attempted to build a case in favour of participation in the elections, saying that “we politicians and the people” are faced with the gun-totting army. An unarmed man can hardly challenge the one with a gun in his hand. So, he argued, we need to trick the gunman into certain concessions and that Musharraf doffed his uniform and agreed to hold elections, calls for boycott made little sense.

Though logical and passionate, the Maulana invited a massive round of jeers from amongst the crowd, accompanied by “shame shame” boos that forced him to retreat into his seat on the dais. The audience reacted adversely also when the Maulana refused to commit himself to the restoration of the dismissed 60 plus judges and said: “I will always support judiciary but not individuals.”

Asma took the rostrum immediately after Fazlur Rehman and unleashed a scathing attack on all the advocates of participation in polls and the supporters of the “transition”.

In pin drop silence, the audience heard Asma tear the theories propounded by the Maulana and others apart and raise questions; 

* Has Musharraf restored and released the judges who refused to be the slaves of Musharraf’s martial law? 

* Have the amendments to the Army Act and the Pemra Ordninance been revoked?

* Has the election commission been reconstituted?

* Has the Musharraf appointed caretaker government been recomposed?

* Has the emergency been lifted?

* Have all lawyers been released?

* Will any honourable lawyer appear before the soulless and conscienceless judges who took the oath of allegiance to Musharraf?

* How can the PCO judges provide justice to us and our clients when they couldn’t get same for themselves?

* Are we still romanticizing with the idea of rule and supremacy of law after the Nov 3 events – whose direct and worst victim is the judiciary itself?

Asma was equally cross with Maulana’s mention of “secularists’ activities in Pakistan”. 
If you believe in democracy, you will have to provide space to Pakistanis of all shades and thinking. As a citizen I expect you and other religious parties not to attack us when we represent rape victims in courts or support women who want to marry after their choice.

Did the MMA ever support the civil society initiatives against illegal trials and detentions in jails or in Guantanamo Bay. Did you ever raise voice for the missing people?

What transition are we talking about, Asma asked. Whatever Musharraf has done goes largely to the credit of lawyers “whose integrity and unity” enabled them to mount pressure on the government and the judiciary, which eventually had to unanimously restore Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry on July 20.

The media owes its freedom to people like Nisar Usmani, Aziz Siddiqi, Minhaj Burna and I.A.Rehman, and not to General Musharraf, Asma told those who credited Musharraf with allowing private radio and TV channels.

Some amongst the audience also pointed out that PTV’s limitations during the Kargil had actually woken up the military establishment to the need for private electronic media. It sprouted and materialized only out of the need for greater coverage capacity to counter Indian “propaganda” (where private electronic media had taken roots much before the Kargil conflict). Private TV channels, one must underscore, emerged as a matter of need and had little to do with the benevolence of the military establishment. The latest code of conduct and the Army Act Amendments amply underline the contempt whit which the establishment views the media.

Asma also appealed to all political parties to unite on issues such as participation or otherwise in elections. They also must vow not to allow appointment of army generals to key positions such as governors. Big applause followed her speech but little coverage in the papers next day. So much for the integrity and devotion of the apologists and conformists.

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