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National drama

June 16, 2012

BRANDISHING a copy of the Quran, business tycoon Malik Riaz makes serious allegations about the chief justice in press conferences and television talk shows. Lawyers opine in front of cameras at length while hearings involving their clients are under way. Talk-show hosts go after each other in social media and on live television. During breaks the camera keeps rolling, revealing an alarming familiarity between politicians, journalists and big — and corrupt — business. And now the Supreme Court is in on the game, going after the media in a televised full-court meeting designed to confront that industry on its own turf. Pakistan’s latest national crisis, in which rivalries among some of the country’s most influential and important people and institutions have been played out in a shockingly public fashion, started out as overblown drama and is now descending into farce.

Yes, the issues involved are extremely serious: high-level corruption possibly involving the supreme judiciary, media ethics and suspicions about Mr Riaz’s real motives. Is he simply a frustrated briber, or has someone promised him a bigger prize? These matters are not insignificant, and they need to be exposed. But much of that could have taken place less publicly — through legal channels, for example — and less hysterically, avoiding some of the drama that is distracting from a host of other problems and making average Pakistanis lose what little faith they still have in the country. Instead, the very open back-and-forth seems designed to settle scores and attract attention rather than solve the real issues at stake. Mr Riaz could have opted for legal routes if he thinks he has been wronged. Instead, he is still dangling the carrot of further revelations in press conferences yet to come. Against the backdrop of a case that has raised questions about the chief justice, the SC has simply appeared defensive by broadcasting its attempts to uncover violations possibly committed by certain talk-show hosts. Meanwhile, the media has been focused mainly on keeping audiences hooked to a steady diet of drama — words like ‘dhamaka’ and ‘zalzala’ are bandied about casually and accomplish nothing more than raising viewers’ blood pressure — and on individual journalists using airtime to take swipes at each other or establish their own moral uprightness.

The net result of all this posturing and duelling? Some evidence of corruption has come to light. But Malik Riaz and Arsalan Iftikhar have yet to be investigated. Questions about the chief justice’s possible involvement remain unanswered. The media has only called into question its own independence. What have we achieved? Lots of sound and fury, signifying not much at all.