Saturday, July 17, 2010
In the wake of the terrorist attack on Data Durbar and the furore over MPAs’ fake degrees, it seemed that things could not get worse for Mian Shahbaz Sharif in Punjab. But they did, in the aftermath of the provincial assembly’s unanimous passage of a resolution, sponsored by the PML-N, which condemned the media.
A belated attempt has been made at damage-control with the passing of another resolution lauding the role of the media. Nevertheless, the whole episode has laid bare the weariness of political parties with the media, but particularly the PML-N’s traditional anti-media bias.
At first, attempts were made to make Sananullah Mustikhel, who moved the resolution, the scapegoat, by painting him as a kind of agent provocateur. He had converted to the PML-N’s cause only after being refused a ticket by the PML-Q at the time of the general elections. Mian Nawaz Sharif has asked for his scalp, repeatedly calling from London that he be sacked forthwith.
Little did he know the extent to which his own people were complicit in the sordid affair. Nor, perhaps, was he aware that sacking Mustikhel would trigger a revolt in the party, whose members greeted him effusively when he attended the session in the aftermath of the passage of the resolution.
Mian Shahbaz Sharif was in his chambers in the provincial assembly building, and as soon as the controversial resolution was passed he hurriedly left. Later on, he claimed that he had no prior knowledge of the resolution. According to media reports, which are denied by PML-N spokesmen, he was not only aware that a resolution was being moved, he also vetted its draft.
Whatever the true sequence of events, it does not show the PML-N in a good light. If the chief minister had no prior knowledge about the moving of the resolution it was his business to know as the head of his party. On the other hand, if he was aware of the resolution, as is being generally claimed, it is even worse. Either way, it demonstrates a weak grip of the leadership on the affairs of the party.
After failing in their attempts to make Mustikhel the fall guy, the PML-N leadership has decided not to expel him. In the wake of this, it has also been admitted that the anti-media resolution was drafted in a meeting earlier this month in which PML-N and PPP MPAs were present.
It is interesting that virtually all parties represented in parliament are angry with the media’s exposure of fake degrees. However, more members of the PML-N are in danger of losing their seats, and the party is facing the negative fallout of the resolution. The very same MPAs belonging to the PML-Q who had been making venomous speeches on the floor of the assembly only a day before the controversial resolution was passed have overnight assumed the role of champions of a free press.
Unlike the PPP leadership, Mian Nawaz Sharif is adamant that his party will not award tickets to those who lose their seats because they possess fake degrees. But the incident has betrayed a certain disconnect between him and the party on governance and political issues. Nawaz Sharif, the quintessential idealist as a consequence of his years in exile, has become more of a democrat than he was during his stints as prime minister and chief minister of Punjab. Hence, despite demands from his party hawks he has consistently refused to upset the applecart.
Before his departure for London the PML-N supremo chaired five brainstorming sessions of his party in which, apart from Mian Shahbaz Sharif and the leader of the opposition in the parliament Chaudhry Nisar Ahmad, other party stalwarts were also present. During these sessions the future of the party as well as the performance of the PML-N government in Punjab was minutely discussed.
There was consensus that the Punjab government under Mian Shahbaz Sharif as its chief executive has badly underperformed. Despite schemes like “sasti roti” and the hard work being put in by the chief minister the provincial government has failed to deliver.
There is no denying the fact that the chief minister is heading a coalition government with the PPP in the province, with which he does not see eye-to-eye. With him preferring to keep most of the key portfolios with him, the cabinet of the largest province has not been expanded; mainly to keep the PPP out, as that party alleges. Nonetheless, there was broad agreement in the brainstorming session that the PML-N must end its coalition with the PPP.
There was some discussion in the sessions on the weak support from the bureaucracy to the provincial government. Immediately after assuming power, the chief minister chose a relatively junior person as chief secretary. who played havoc with his peers before he was transferred as a result of being involved in a hit-and-run traffic accident. As a consequence of frequent transfers and demotions and dressing-downs, the bureaucracy is demoralised. It has not yet recovered from the resultant paralysis.
On his return from London, the 11 committees formed by Mian Nawaz Sharif to improve governance and chart the future course of action for the party, will submit their reports to him in the final brainstorming session. The PML-N Quaid will have a lot more to ponder than these reports, including the inexorable damage recent events have done to the party.
The PML-N, judging by its past record on this score, should have been doubly careful in handling the media. It had been adept at managing media persons and creating a lobby among journalists, with the end justifying the means.
In this age of a free and vibrant media, pampering a particular group of journalists or newspaper owners while intimidating others, simply does not work. The sooner it sinks in that the media environment has diametrically changed over the past decade, the easier it will be to chart the future course of action. Both Mian Nawaz Sharif and his brother have reiterated their belief in freedom of press. They are yet to walk the talk.
The Supreme Court’s declaring the provincial prosecution secretary Rana Maqbool a proclaimed offender in a case registered against him in 2005 for allegedly plotting to kill Asif Zardari is more egg on the face of the provincial government. Federal law minister Babar Awan, himself under a cloud for submitting a dubious doctorate degree, has advised the Punjab administration to hand him over to Sindh.
Notwithstanding Awan’s own credentials as “law minister,” it will be in the fitness of things to relieve Maqbool and others of his ilk. Why should the provincial exchequer be burdened by personal loyalists who in any case are a political liability?
There is a feeling, prevalent even in a section of the media, that the press has become too powerful and now considers itself above the law. As freedom in a democratic dispensation is subject to law, the media should not portray itself as a “holy cow.” For this reason, ideas such as an independent and workable Press Council and a voluntary code of ethics should not be resisted.
The other day a contributor to the “Letters to the Editor” column of a local daily quoted from the late Justice A R Kayani’s decades-old address to the Zurich- based International Press Institute (IPI). He said, “The journalists may argue that in a free country the press has the right to publish everything in the first instance, as there is the right to eat everything. But if you eat a snake you take the consequences.” It is quite pertinent even today.
The writer is a former newspaper editor.