In the Line of Ire: Free Speech and Civil Society in Pakistan

If President Gen. Musharraf has plans to write a second book about his tempestuous last five years, he would do well to title it `In the Line of Ire.'

In the last few years the general has antagonized all three smaller provinces, Sindh, Balochistan and the Northwest Frontier Provinces with an autocratic style of governance that relies on a policy of` `shoot first and negotiate later.' The general turned president may have met his Waterloo since March this year, when thousands of people began rallying around the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court he fired on "corruption charges."

The movement against Musharraf -- who wears two hats as President and Chief of Army Staff -- has acquired new meaning because this is election year in Pakistan. The President's reelection grew controversial when he announced he would present himself for a vote of confidence from the present assemblies while still in uniform. It set in motion a campaign by political parties to keep the military out of politics.

Over the last three months the drama around the Chief Justice has acquired an intensity that shows no signs of ending. It all began on March 9, when an unsmiling Musharraf in military uniform served the Presidential reference to Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry. Known for his independent verdicts, the Chief Justice had appeared unlikely to endorse Musharraf for President so long as he remained in uniform. To the chagrin of Musharraf and his Prime Minister, the Chief Justice refused to resign and instead became the lightning rod for change.

The movement around the Chief Justice was initially begun by prominent judges and lawyers. Former Supreme Court judge and ex Governor of Sindh, Fakhruddin G. Ebrahim told me that the lawyer community had felt "insulted" by the manner in which the government cut off the phone lines of the Chief Justice and kept him house bound. The legal fraternity struggled to get him released, after which his rallies and speeches began to attract people by the thousands.

Thereafter, the motorcade journey by the Chief Justice, chauffeured by his lawyer, Aitzaz Ahsan became the turning point for his role as populist leader. The eight hour journey from Islamabad to Lahore took 22 hours to complete because of the sea of people who flocked out of their towns and villages to welcome the Chief Justice. The new private television cameras captured the welcome awarded to the man who had stood up to Musharraf, amazing viewers by the apparent referendum against the government.

Since then, the military regime has grown increasingly unnerved with the effects of granting freedom to the media covering the Chief Justice. Television cameras capturing support rallies for the Chief Justice have been smashed, their studio furniture trashed and transmission services cancelled while journalists covering the opposition rallies have been put on the hit list and delivered envelopes with bullets inside.

The ruling party spokeswoman, Mahnaz Rafi has defended the ban on media freedom. In a candid interview with me, she said that criticizing the military amounted to assaulting the nation and weakening it from inside. In her words, a nation with low literacy levels like Pakistan could ill afford to criticize the military, especially when "conditions were not right."

The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) has now written to the managements of private television channels, barring them from airing programs which are "likely to encourage and incite violence or contain anything against maintenance of law and order or which promotes anti-national and anti-state attitude."

It has also forbidden live talk shows and discussions on the reference sent against the Chief Justice. PEMRA has quoted legal reasons: presently the Supreme Court is hearing the Presidential reference against the Chief Justice on a day to day basis.

Meanwhile, with the new restrictions on media, the camera personnel of television stations pre-record live rallies of the Chief Justice and the management censors them before screening. Cable operators have publicly warned television stations against screening footage that the government might consider objectionable. All this hasn't stopped the Information Department from intermittently pulling television transmissions off the air.

It has led the New York based Committee to Protect Journalists to name Pakistan as topping the list of nations that have taken a "back slide" on freedom of the media.

Despite the curbs on media, the movement for change in Pakistan keeps growing. There is a hardy patience among people that promises to make the summer of 2007 a long hot one. Inflation, unemployment, electricity outages and rising crime are only some of the undercurrents that are from time to time creating waves against the present regime.

Not surprisingly, Pakistan's close cooperation with the U.S. in the `War on Terror,' has created a lop-sided society. With a growing military-corporate sector on the one hand, millions of people are sliding into poverty. Although since September 11, Pakistan gets $1 billion U.S. assistance every year, the bulk of that is in the form Coalition Support Funds for the `War on Terror.' That has left the Pakistan government only US $900 million for health, education and social services - or a paltry $1 per year to educate every child.

The situation is ripe for fomenting fundamentalism and the movement against Musharraf - who is widely perceived in Pakistan as advancing U.S. military interests in the region. While the people's movement against Musharraf is secular today, if thwarted it can over the long haul be hugely exploited for terrorism against the West.

In recent weeks, the movement against military rule has turned bloody. On May 12, armed gangs put up barriers in Karachi and shot at political party workers and ordinary people who came out to receive the Chief Justice at the airport. Analysts describe it as the fall out of the political blunder by Musharraf, who has allied himself too closely with the armed ethnic party, MQM with which he rules in a coalition government in Sindh.

On that bloody Saturday, the MQM came to the violent rescue of their patron by blocking supporters of political parties who traveled in caravans to the airport to greet the Chief Justice.

When I questioned the MQM's thin, wiry bespectacled leader, Shoaib Bukhari as to why Karachi was the only location where the rally for the Chief Justice turned violent, he attempted to explain the uniqueness of the situation. In his words, the Chief Justice had made a mistake to ally himself with political parties who had no popular mandate and who merely wanted to assert who controlled Karachi.

And so, to quote the MQM leader, the May 12 carnage became a display of who really controls Karachi. The battle lines were drawn when the administration in Sindh used trailers to block the path to be taken by the Chief Justice from the airport to the city. Undeterred, party workers from the different political parties fought their way through the hurdles. They were fired upon by MQM workers shooting from road sides and bridges. Political leaders told me their workers fell before their eyes -- leaving 50 dead and scores of others injured from both sides.

In the backdrop of the Karachi carnage, the scenes transmitted that evening by television channels in Islamabad were a study in contrasts. They showed President Musharraf addressing a rally in Islamabad from behind a bullet proof stand, claiming the people stood with him. Apparently unwilling to be outshone by the Chief Justice, Musharraf's party men had bused in people from the adjoining areas to enable their leader win the popularity contest.

Afterwards, although the government refused to order an inquiry into the deaths of the Chief Justice's supporters, the Sindh High Court took notice to investigate the uncalled for bloodshed. It was a bold step, showing the legal fraternity was once again asserting its independence.

Meanwhile, as the political turmoil goes on, the sight of thousands of people lining up to support the ousted Chief Justice is being closely watched by the two ousted, exiled Prime Ministers of Pakistan - Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. Both the former Prime Ministers have vowed to go back to Pakistan this year and contest for the top job. And yet, both experienced rulers are biding their time carefully, knowing that the chance of coming to power will depend on the good wishes of the top army brass, and the U.S. establishment.

The Pakistan People's Party, whose chairperson Benazir Bhutto was until recently reported to have struck a "deal" with Musharraf is now more cautious about allying with an apparently unpopular President. Watching the political scenario from her Dubai home, Ms. Bhutto has said that a President in uniform would be unacceptable. That, coupled with her statement that she plans to return to Pakistan earlier than scheduled has led to speculations that Musharraf could exit the scene.

But for civil society - which has dug in its heels for the long haul - the questions are not about a change of face in military leadership. Rather, the movement leaders tell me they are trying to bring back rule of law through the leadership of the legal fraternity and civil society. It is an issue worth facing in a nation whose destiny has constantly been shaped by military coups.