Cry for free media sparks battle cries

Published December 2, 2007

ISLAMABAD, Dec 1: Representatives of the political parties and civil society endorsed a declaration on media’s rights here on Saturday but disagreed whether the way forward lay in taking part in the Jan 8 elections or boycotting it.

Maulana Fazlur Rehman caused a furore at the event, held by the South Asia Free Media Association (Safma), by saying that the demand for restoring the pre-emergency judiciary should not stand in the way of participating in the election.

His argument that “judiciary and judges are two different issues” provoked boos of “No. Go, Go” from the audience. And the Maulana, who was at the fag end of his very cool speech at the conclusion of a conference of mediapersons, which had produced the declaration, left the podium.

But not as a defeated man. He took up the cudgels with his detractors when they came back at him after Asma Jehangir of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) had spiritedly responded to the Maulana who had claimed that ”religious elements happen to be more tolerant than secularists”.

“We never took pride in our judiciary but for the first time the judges have said ‘No’ to a dictator,” she said, calling the post-emergency dispensation “a civilian throng of the military”.

She observed that the HRCP never differentiated on the basis of religion and regretted that while the civil society had matured in the 60 years of turbulence, the political parties had not.

“To say ‘don’t confront’ (dictatorship) amounts to treason,” she said. Why did not JUI come out on the streets to protest the tormenting Guantanamo? she asked the Maulana reminding him that the secularists did.

She said that in spite of all their faults, the political parties had a role in improving things. “They have to be democratic and transparent. If the dynamic civil society can make generals kneel, it can make politicians kneel too,” she said.

Safma official Imtiaz Alam sensing the heat generated by the lustily cheered Asma Jehangir got the political leaders sitting on the dais sign the Media Declaration.

He told the charged audience that the freedom the document seeks demands an independent judiciary in the country that could enforce human rights.

That opened the floor for heated arguments by the speakers who included Afrasiyab Khattak of ANP, Rasool Bakhsh Palejo of Awami Tehreek, Kabir Ali Wasti, Prof Khurshid Ahmed of Jamaat Islami and Sherry Rehman of PPP.

Fiery Palejo, fighting Asma and cool but isolated Maulana Fazlur Rehman however stole the show in the absence of the titans, Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto, who were invited but ”could not make it” to the event, as many others.

Najam Sethi, Editor-in-Chief of Daily Times and secretary-general of South Asia Media Commission, set the theme for the battle royal.

Though the situation today was “revolutionary”, he said his revolutionary friends from the 1970s sitting on the dais should not be carried away by emotions and take on today’s “dictator”.

Unlike 1977, the people were not in the streets today and ”the bazaar” was not on the side of the civil society, he pointed out by way of a warning.

Except for Imran Khan’s, no political party was ready for the transformation — as opposed to transition — that he said the nation needed.

“Be realistic. Pervez Musharraf is now dependent on the next parliament. You can continue your struggle (for independent judiciary) but not through confrontation. Do nurture revolutionary sentiments but these are not revolutionary times,” he said addressing the elements calling for a boycott of the Jan 8 elections.

ANP’s Afrasiyab Khattak confined himself to praising media’s role in the struggle for democracy and announced that “the civil society has come of age” as a result.

Writer, thinker and leader of the seven left wing parties alliance, the Awami Jamhoori Ittehad, Palejo, stood for confrontation, warning everyone that “you will surrender your right to protest if you fall for any compromise”.

“It is the best of times and the worst of times,” he said, stressing that politics meant “creating a new world and establishing a new order and not selling oneself at the current rate in the market”.

Prof Khurshid Ahmed quoted Marx’s maxim that ‘thesis and anti-thesis produces synthesis’ to the old Marxists sitting by his side and called for “an informed debate” on the political issues.

Sherry Rehman of PPP said her party “always had a progressive role” and advised political parties against putting “too much burden” on the media in the struggle for democracy.

“Boycotting the elections is easy, fighting the planned rigging by participating in it is the hard thing,” she said.

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