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DAWN - Features; April 06, 2008

April 06, 2008

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A ‘national asset’ that is cause of problems

The Pakistan People’s Party and the Pakistan Muslim League-N have been rivals in the past and will contest the next elections against each other. The PML-N has agreed to form a coalition with the PPP mainly for the restoration of the judges President Musharraf had sacked on Nov 3. The two parties are working out a common agenda for implementation during the period they stay together.

But, it seems, there are differences between the two parties on three issues, notwithstanding denials by them. These are: reinstatement of the sacked judges, relations with President Musharraf, and policy about the president’s upcoming visit to China.

PPP leader and Defence Minister Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar ‘revealed’ in a recent interview that President Musharraf was a national asset and the PPP would work for him.

To substantiate his point of view he quoted some statements of slain PPP leader Benazir Bhutto that President Musharraf was a saleable commodity who could bring much-needed foreign assistance to Pakistan. He further said that the PPP would have no problem working with him if he did not interfere in parliament’s affairs.

Mukhtar, who had defeated PML President Chaudhry Shujaat Husain on a Gujrat constituency, further claimed that Ms Bhutto was in favour of working with Musharraf and the PPP would follow that policy.

This opinion is in conflict with that of the PML-N’s. Since Gen Musharraf had toppled the PML-N government in October 1999 and banished the Sharif family to Saudi Arabia, Mr Nawaz Sharif is not willing to work with him. He wants to rid the country of what he calls dictatorship.

The United States is pressing both the parties to co-exist with the man they think is important ally in their war on terror.

In his latest statement, the PML-N leader is reported to have said that impeachment of President Musharraf will not be needed if he is stripped of his power to dissolve the National Assembly.

The two parties have different approaches with regard to the president’s visit to China, due to start on April 10.

PPP’s Shah Mahmood Qureshi, the foreign minister, will be accompanying the president during the week-long visit. However, PML-N’s Ishaq Dar, the finance minister, wants to be counted out. He said in a recent interview that he would be meeting with the officials of the World Bank and the IMF and thus was unable to become part of the president’s entourage.

Superfluous to point out that Pakistan’s ties with China are more important than meetings with the World Bank or IMF officials. But since the PML-N doesn’t want to have a working relationship with President Musharraf, the finance minister has come up with this excuse.

Another point of difference between the two coalition partners is the restoration of deposed judges.

While the PML-N is committed to bringing these judges back to their positions in 30 days, the PPP is not in a hurry.

Some press reports suggest that Mr Asif Ali Zardari exchanged hot words with Supreme Court Bar President Aitzaz Ahsan for his uncompromising stand on the subject. He complained that the judges Aitzaz was so keen to get reinstated had failed to give him any kind of relief during his eight years in prison.

This statement becomes more significant as it has been made after Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry’s recent meeting with the PPP co-chairman.

Although the declared objective of the meeting was to offer condolences over the death of Ms Benazir Bhutto, unconfirmed reports say that it was aimed at removing misunderstandings between the two sides. It is said that Mr Zardari was assured that if reinstated, Justice Chaudhry would not proceed against him on any account.

However, Zardari thinks that since he was not provided justice in the past, he could not expect a fair treatment in the future as well. Therefore, experts of the PPP are devising their own strategy about the matter.

Apparently, it will be difficult for Justice Chaudhry and President Musharraf to work together. And if the PPP wants to retain President Musharraf in power, as its leaders say, it will not be possible for them to reinstate Justice Chaudhry and then let him complete his remaining term as Chief Justice of Pakistan.

And if this commitment is not honoured, it will not be possible for the PML-N to stay together with the PPP. In such a situation it is difficult to say anything about the shape of things to come. Some say that Mr Zardari has already got support from so many parties that the coalition would stay on even if the PML-N parts ways for any reason. — ASHRAF MUMTAZ

When taking sides is unwise

By Hajrah Mumtaz


As what one hopes are the winds of change blow across the country and there seems to be the distant glimmer of hope on the horizon, issues that remained relegated to the back of many people’s mind for the decade past have returned to the fore. The corruption of military governments, the saintedness (or saintliness) of democratic regimes, the limits — whatever they are – to state authoritarianism and the role of the beautifully amorphous ‘civil society’ are subjects of hot debate.

There is a palpable sense of vindication in the air – not in the sense of vindictiveness but of having been proved right, against the odds. The steps taken by the Musharraf-led government post-March 9, 2007, the reactions they invoked and the events that unfolded were all, in their separate ways, historic and even unprecedented. One would not have thought it possible that a man would say ‘no’ to the king of the army and not only live to tell the tale but spark off a movement that actually became popular. A PPP without Benazir Bhutto – and the manner in which she died – was impossible to imagine, yet that too came to pass and the party managed (at least for the nonce) to maintain its unity although there was no Bhutto to lead it. Who would have thought that Nawaz Sharif and Asif Zardari would sit smilingly at the same table, yet we watched with some awe as this happened.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, the stances being by particularly the urban, educated classes are not only strong but brook little opposition. With the world divided by the ‘with us or against us’ philosophy (thank you, Mr Bush!), Pakistanis are queuing to stand up and be counted and, after a long time, to take a side.

In the citizenry, this is a good thing. It is refreshing to see people examining their hitherto unchallenged (and unchallenging) opinions and taking, to the best of their various abilities, informed stances.

In the news media, however, the same tendency can prove dangerous. Granted that we have suddenly been catapulted into interesting times and each of us must play a role in ushering in the new order; yet it is vital for newsmen to remember that in our professional capacity, our job is not to take sides but to report on the newsworthy. As far as is possible, we must refrain from allowing our preferred ideologies dictate our output; the rules of balanced journalism and the ideals of objectivity are more relevant now than ever before.

As a friend pointed out, a truly professional journalist is characterised by the ability and willingness to examine an issue from the point of view of its intrinsic newsworthiness, rather than whether or not it is dear to his heart. In practical terms this means, for example, that right-wing though I may be, as a reporter or editor worth the name I must give adequate coverage to a rally by, say, the Communist party or even a gay rights organisation (if such a thing existed in Pakistan) that drew popular support. I may personally find it distasteful but my job demands that I not discriminate – and thereby abuse my position of power – on the basis of my personal preferences. Because if I did, there would be no difference between myself and an ideologue or a propagandist.

A newspaper’s job is mainly to report on the news, not comment on it. Therefore, every news article printed must be factual, present all sides of the story and maintain objectivity as far as is possible. The legitimate place for a newspaper to comment or take sides is the op-ed section. In the editorials, the newspaper has the leeway to present its views and publish them under its own name and responsibility. In the opinion section, the newspaper maintains the right to print articles on the basis of the organisation’s general policy and leaning, rather than on pure newsworthiness. In the news section, however, which forms the bulk and backbone of any newspaper, such luxuries cannot be permitted.

Of course, journalistic objectivity is an ideal, not an absolute. In practical terms, true and total objectivity is impossible given that even the most hardened of journalists is, in the end, only human and even the biggest and most credible of news organisations depend, in the end, on individual journalists. The best of editors and reporters cannot always prevent themselves from giving preference to certain matters.

Such weaknesses – failings, if you will – are manifested in ways both subtle and blatant, and this is the measure by which relative professionalism can be judged. Leaving aside the tone or actual content of an article, amongst the more subtle techniques of succumbing to the temptation of preferential treatment are placement and lineage. Since I support the lawyers’ movement, I can place the relevant article at a prominent place, give it 500 words instead of a hundred, perhaps publish a photograph with it. To keep the issue alive, I can print an update every other day (though probably on an inside page unless a development makes it intrinsically newsworthy again). In this way, I declare my tacit support for an issue without direct comment.

But readers do not always see these subtleties and too often take attempts towards objectivity as ‘dry’ or ‘boring’ news coverage. These days in particular, editors and section heads are coming under fire for not declaring their allegiances openly enough. In this context, I can only point out that ‘spicy’ news or its evil brother ‘spiced-up’ news often forgets to be wholly factual and is generally regarded as the domain of the tabloids. As a colleague pointed out, were a newspaper to blatantly take sides or forget journalistic principles far enough to omit to give the point of view of currently unpopular sections of society, would the newspaper not undermine its own credibility and reduce itself to the status of a pamphlet?

Post script: During the past two decades, Pakistan has seen an elected representative become a dictator, and a dictator who professed to be a democrat. Now that that’s out of our system, could it be that we’ve balanced the sheet and can finally get down to the real business?

— hmumtaz@dawn.com