THE Asma Jehangir Conference held over the weekend in Lahore generated plenty of noise and controversy in terms of what the speakers said and who the speakers were. However, while the discourse and debate on the role of the judiciary, and the strong opinions expressed both in favour of and against judicial performance, are par for the course, what was clearly not was the attempt to gag the speech of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif.

Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry had protested Mr Sharif’s selection as the final speaker and had bowed out of the conference, as is his right, but whoever was responsible for disconnecting the internet in order to stop the former PM’s address being shown at the venue clearly crossed a line. Pemra has already slapped a ban on his speeches being televised by news channels but this does not mean that he is not allowed to speak at private events.

Somehow Pakistani governments refuse to learn that banning leaders and blacking out their speeches has never had the effect that the government has desired. Politics has a way of channelising itself through various means. Even in the days when there were no private channels and no social media, and PTV only showed ministers while pretending no opposition existed, politics continued to shape the national discourse. In this day and age, therefore, it is almost infantile for governments to try and block the speech of its opponent by means that are laughably crude, and amusingly ineffective. One expected better from the PTI government.

The conference, however, witnessed a fruitful debate over the role of the judiciary and it was instructive to hear the honourable judges themselves address the topic. This has become all the more relevant after recent allegations against the former chief justice of the Supreme Court Saqib Nisar. It is no secret that the Pakistani judiciary has had a controversial past but it was hoped that the institution had learnt from its mistakes and was now increasingly asserting its independence.

Read: Judicial jugglery

The last few years though have seen fresh controversies erupt over the conduct of the judiciary and these misgivings found voice at the Lahore conference. The chief justice delivered an impassioned speech debunking allegations that the judiciary was not making decisions independently. It was important for the judges present at the conference to hear arguments that usually do not reverberate inside their courtrooms.

There is a lot that the judiciary has to introspect. With disclosures about the Panama Papers case and other related decisions emerging gradually, it is all the more important for the judiciary to get to the bottom of these allegations to separate the truth from lies and ensure transparency in the affairs of the institution and the conduct of judges. After all, the credibility of an institution is dependent on the level of trust it enjoys among the citizens.

Published in Dawn, November 23rd, 2021

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