Live coverage is a nightmare for the government machinery if it wants things to move as planned, denying opponents the chance to register their protest. But it is a boon for TV viewers as they don’t need anyone to analyse events. Cameras beam into their drawing rooms unedited images of what is happening thousands of miles away and technology leaves no room for spin doctors to twist facts.
There is nothing more watchable than a live coverage of clashes. And on Saturday, September 29, there was no question of surfing channels. Enjoying the weekend, people were glued to TV sets as pitched battles near the highest podium of justice in the capital of Pakistan were being shown truthfully by Geo and ARY.
The high-voltage drama unfolded on the Shahrah-e-Dastoor (Constitution Road) in Islamabad. The stretch between the apex court building and the Election Commission witnessed unprecedented agitation and aggression.
It is regrettable that the government suppressed lawyers’ protest against the nomination of papers by Gen. Pervez Musharraf while in uniform. A massive police bandobast, instructed to take on anyone, made a mockery of democracy. It looked more like a police state than a free society. Slogan-shouting lawyers were baton-charged, teargassed and hit with stones by policemen wearing white shalwar kameez. The idea behind plainclothes was to hide their identities, it seems.
Suddenly the ire of law-enforcing agencies turned towards the electronic media. Since the police barbarity was being shown uncut, journalists were exclusively targeted. People watched live on TV cops snatching and damaging cameras, beating journalists and chopping their cables with stones. Transmission of some private channels was blocked in some cities. It was a blatant attack on the freedom of the Press. Students of history will remember this as a black day for journalism.
As a result of police action, some lawyers and journalists started bleeding. A number of them, including women, fainted because of teargas. Journalists helped their collapsed colleagues who were later ferried out by horn-blaring ambulances.
While this violation of human rights and attacks on freedom were being covered by private channels, the country’s state-controlled PTV was telling its viewers that folic acid tablets should be taken by pregnant women in the second trimester. Two other PTV offshoots were showing romantic duets and clippings of Gen. Musharraf and Begum Sehba performing Umrah. After that a collage of Pakistan’s achievements under Gen. Musharraf was presented.
It was disgusting to see the way Saturday’s events were planned by the authorities. It appeared that the election commissioner was working under the government. The special treatment given to Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, PML (Q) leader Chaudhry Shujaat Hussein, Parliamentary Affairs Minister Dr Sher Afgan Niyazi, who went there to attend the scrutiny of Gen. Musharraf’s papers, puzzled and angered their rivals. They claimed there were even special chairs for Gen. Musharraf’s men. In such a scenario, he couldn’t be expected to scrutinise the papers honestly. He hid himself behind the Supreme Court’s verdict.
It is appalling to note that the EC expressed his helplessness when he, in the presence of the Premier, was repeatedly asked by leaders to order an immediate halt to the use of brutal force against defenceless lawyers and journalists. Does the EC take dictation from the General Headquarters? Is it subservient to military generals? How will such a weak EC ensure free and fair elections in Pakistan? One suspects that the scrutiny was mere eyewash to show the world that democracy is thriving in Pakistan. Everything was pre-decided. That is why Dr Niyazi was quoted as saying that the EC works under his ministry and that the commissioner cannot afford to go against the Supreme Court ruling.
The situation became so volatile that angry protesters stopped Aziz’s car. For an hour, it seemed that the country’s prime minister was a hostage inside the building. In the melee, the driver of Punjab chief minister crushed a journalist’s foot. And when the Premier and the government convoy left in a steel ring of security, they were booed and jeered. Some irate agitators roughed up the Information Minister, Tariq Azeem, and a senior MQM leader, Dr Farooq Sattar. So much for the ruling party’s popularity.
When the country’s election commission is visibly spineless, what guarantee is there that some Supreme Court judges are not planted by the military regime? Pakistan watchers are not convinced that the nine-member bench, which has given Gen. Musharraf the green light to run in uniform, has all upright and unbiased judges. The three judges, including Justice Bhagwandas, who observed that objections to Gen. Musharraf’s candidature were maintainable, symbolise hope.
Those who underestimate people’s power should brush up their memory. Iran, Ukraine and the Philippines have experienced it. Pakistan could be the next.