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Asia

Judiciary and media take on Pakistan's government

A power struggle between the country's institutions is threatening whatever little political stability there is left in Pakistan.

The Supreme Court of Pakistan has become an important political actor

The Supreme Court of Pakistan has become an important political actor

The judiciary and the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP) have been at loggerheads for a while, with the Supreme Court insisting that corruption cases against President Asif Ali Zardari and other political leaders must be reopened. Last week, a showdown seemed imminent: TV channels reported the government was planning to strike back and issue a notification. It would withdraw an order from 2009 which reinstated the judges sacked by former President Pervez Musharraf.

Iftikhar Chaudhry was reinstated as chief justice a year ago

Iftikhar Chaudhry was reinstated as chief justice a year ago

Midnight meeting

Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry reacted with a dramatic move, convening a bench of 17 judges shortly before midnight on Thursday to look into the reports. The court declared any moves to sack the judges once again unconstitutional and sought written guarantees from the government that it was not contemplating any such action.

Even for Ali Ahmad Kurd, former president of the Supreme Court Bar Association and a leader of the lawyers' movement against Musharraf, this unprecedented step went too far: "I think this was a war of nerves. In my opinion, the judges should not have met on the premises of the Supreme Court at night."

Stepping back from the confrontation

In a televised address to the nation on Sunday, Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani promised there would not be a confrontation between state institutions. He said it was an "insult" to his office that the judges simply acted on the basis of rumors, and insisted there was no plan to remove them from office.

Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani

Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani

For the time being, the judges and lawyers seem to be satisfied with the PM's assurances. Addressing the prime minister, Supreme Court Bar Association President Qazi Anwar said, "the judiciary is not a political party. It is not in opposition to you in any way. The judges will neither take over your seats themselves, nor will they benefit in any way if you leave."

However, critics say the judiciary has once again overstepped its boundaries. "The people of Pakistan came out for safeguarding the honor of the judiciary in 2007, and the world saw it," political columnist Marvi Sirmed notes. "But now, the way the judiciary is establishing its authority is equivalent to judicial dictatorship in Pakistan!"

During the rule of former President Pervez Musharraf, many private TV news channels came up in Pakistan

Under former President Musharraf, many private TV news channels came up in Pakistan

The power of the media

But the latest political drama in Islamabad has mainly highlighted the role of another important political player in Pakistan these days: the TV channels. "It's very intriguing why the media started it," says Marvi Sirmed. "I mean, it was media-generated essentially. And there is still no proof of any such notification on the part of the prime minister's secretariat. Nobody has come up with any copy of the notification or any inkling about the wording of the notification. But still, the media kept on airing the news for more than 24 hours."

Demonstrating how big the rift between the government and a section of the media has become, the PPP has announced a boycott of the country's biggest media group Jang. PPP information secretary Fauzia Wahab said no party leader would give any interviews to the group until the journalists withdrew their campaign against her party. Pakistan's most watched TV channel, Geo TV, is a part of the Jang group.

Author: Thomas Baerthlein
Editor: Arun Chowdhury

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