Media and the judiciary in a crisis of credibility?
By Raza Rumi
Extraordinary things have happened in the past few days. Pakistan’s better-known crony capitalist Mr Malik Riaz levelled allegations against the son of the sitting chief justice. The instrument used to transact this frontal attack was the media, which now stands divided. One section of the media comprises loyalists of the CJP, who have termed it a conspiracy to attack the judiciary; another segment wants to probe further and wants a neutral inquiry to determine the facts.
The Supreme Court itself has taken a few somersaults. First, came the suo motu by the CJP and for a day or two, the latter presided over the bench that dealt with his son’s case. Legal experts reminded everyone that Article IV of the Code of Conduct for judges states that: “A judge must refuse to deal with any case in which he has a connection with one party or its lawyer more than the other…” After initial involvement, the CJP distanced himself from the bench but took the opportunity to defend himself and tell the nation through a courtroom that he did not even own a house.
Then, there has also been convenient use of Islamic references in this saga. Mr Malik held a copy of the Holy Quran and held his scathing press conference. Such intersection of customary law and religion in a straightforward case made it more intriguing — at least, for the future of constitutionalism in the country.
The two-member bench recently disposed of the suo motu and sent the matter to the government for legal action. The short order consisting of 14 pages asks for action to be taken against all players. However, the Court has neither recommended a mode of inquiry nor insisted on how the investigation ought to be done. Even the fairest of inquiries would be termed political victimisation by supporters of the CJP. Thus, a new ‘victim’ of the CJP’s son has been added to the long list of corruption cases that are usually termed politically-motivated. The Court did not comment on how Dr Arsalan may have created a business worth Rs900 million in less than four years. And, most importantly, the bench also avoided raising the question of whether the honourable CJP was aware of his son’s dealings.
The issue is now slipping from the legal domain into a popular political contest. The opposition parties and sections of the bar have come out in support of the CJP and termed Malik Riaz’s assault a ‘conspiracy’ against the judiciary. Now, this may very well be true given the Court’s recent activism on the issue of missing persons and its reopening of the infamous case of the ISI meddling into political affairs and fixing the elections of 1990. However, no such conspiracy can be ascertained unless there is a fair and robust inquiry.
Mr Malik also influences the media, as was proved by the leaked video of the off air conduct of two famous anchors admitting to how planted questions were being used to mock-grill the tycoon. This has led to the first major crisis of Pakistan’s ‘free’ electronic media.
Mediapersons are attacking each other and an ugly split has appeared. This has dented the credibility of the Pakistani media. It is somewhat unfair as the case of Dr Arsalan’s dealings would never have appeared in the public domain had there been no free media. But the way TV anchors and channels operate, often with impunity, needs to be checked; a code of conduct is now imperative.
The recent full court meeting, administrative in nature, and its telecasting on television has also set a new precedent. Once again, a matter was discussed that involved the family member of a judge. Both sides are using the media for advancing their positions. However, the onus of protecting the judiciary against attacks and conspiracies is on the judges themselves. And, the vital issue here is to stay clean of any charge of bias or favouritism. Two powerful institutions — the media and the judiciary — are in crisis and it is time to restart the debate on public accountability of institutions that are not directly answerable to the people.