WHERE caution and sensitivity were required, all sides seem determined to plunge headlong into confrontation and crisis. A decision by a three-member bench of the Lahore High Court to ban the broadcast of so-called anti-judiciary speeches by Nawaz Sharif, Maryam Nawaz and other PML-N leaders is unfortunate. Tasked with enforcing the interim order of the court, Pemra will also have 15 days to decide complaints pending against the alleged anti-judiciary speeches broadcast by TV channels. The latest mini crisis to emerge is rooted in several problems. Set aside technical and legal arguments for a moment because the issue is sub judice before the Lahore High Court, there are at least three separate conflicts that are apparent. First, the failure of the government to turn Pemra into an authentically independent and empowered regulator has allowed all manner of interference in the contents of broadcast media. That interference, both by the political government and other state institutions, has turned TV news channels into a stage for bitter partisan fighting — with journalistic independence and the rights of the viewer to both impartial information and informed opinion deeply undermined. The government’s failure to ensure the independence of Pemra has allowed it to become hostage to political and other agendas.
Second, as the judicialisation of politics has increased, the judiciary has become a greater part of the national discourse. That perhaps may have been manageable from a democratic perspective were it not for two other changes. While some of the criticisms by the PML-N of the judiciary have been ill-advised and excessive, independent legal experts have also expressed concern about the judgements that have seen Mr Sharif progressively shut out from electoral and party politics, at least in an official capacity. The judicial verdicts needed to be well argued, firmly rooted in existing law and setting good precedent. Unhappily, that does not appear to have been the case. Given the political implications of the judgements, political controversy was perhaps inevitable. It is the legal controversy — questions being asked about the verdicts by senior and independent legal analysts and practitioners — that is problematic. In addition, the superior judiciary has appeared willing to discard old norms and wade into the public discourse by making frequent remarks to the media and delivering speeches with political hues. The judicialisation of politics is a trend that the judiciary itself ought to reconsider.
Third, the Sharifs and the PML-N failed to offer a strong defence in the Supreme Court when the Panama Papers issue was before it. Through more than two dozen hearings and over many months, the Sharifs’ poor legal strategy in the Supreme Court mystified most legal experts. Mr Sharif has gone on to pay the ultimate political price for those mistakes, but does not appear to have accepted that it was his and his family’s legal strategy that may have been deficient.
Published in Dawn, April 17th, 2018
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