Indo-Pak monitoring: A Panos-supported project on The Hoot
Pakistani President Gen Pervez Musharraf's dismissal of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry on March 9 sparked off a storm of protests and demonstrations in the country. The sacking of the chief justice remained a top story for the international pages of the Indian newspapers for over ten days as the protests spread through the country.
A study of five English language dailies -- the Hindustan Times, the Times of India, the Hindu, Indian Express, and the Asian Age -- showed the kind of interest that the events in Pakistan generated in India. The Hindu and the Asian Age have their own correspondent filing from Pakistan, while the other three newspapers relied mainly on news agency reports and occasionally published articles and news reports from Pakistani newspapers under special arrangement.
Among the articles and editorials there was a view that President Musharraf had stirred a hornet's nest with the summary dismissal and subsequent police manhandling of the chief justice. The most commonly asked question was whether the protests would lead to a countrywide agitation against the President who is due for re-election later this year. The demonstrations in Pakistan gave an added piquancy and bigger display to reports from Washington of the Bush administration's growing disenchantment with President Musharraf as an ally in the war against terrorism.
The Indian media tends to display an extraordinary interest to matters pertaining to Pakistan as compared to any other country in its neighbourhood. The regular coverage of the controversy in Pakistan was in sharp contrast to the amount of interest shown in developments in Bangladesh at about the same time. In Bangladesh, an interim administration conducted raids at the homes top politicians in a bid to cleanse the corrupt political system before it held the general elections. The homes of two former prime ministers, Begum Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina were searched and Begum Khaleda's son, Tarique Rehman was arrested. Indian commentators have continued to stress on President Musharraf choosing to remain army chief while ignoring the army's involvement in installing the interim government in Bangladesh.
The Bangladesh police raids were reported on March 9, with the Indian Express and the Hindu carrying them on the front page, and the Asian Age and the Hindustan Times giving the reports ample space on the international page. But the follow-up to this breaking story over the next week was limited to a couple of brief items with only one editorial on the subject. Contrast the sporadic attention in the Indian press to Bangladesh events to the detailed coverage of events in Pakistan.
Like the Bangladesh raids, the dismissal of the Pakistani Chief Justice was front page news in most Indian papers on March 10. The Hindustan Times had a story by Sirmed Manzoor, Islamabad bureau chief of Pakistan's Frontier Post. It said that President Musharraf had summoned the chief justice to his camp office, in Army House in Rawalpindi and confronted him in the presence of Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz. According to the report, 'Naeem Bokhari, a senior advocate of the Supreme Court had written a harsh letter to Justice Chaudhry accusing him of misusing his authority to get his son into the police force, despite the fact that the latter did not have proper qualifications for the job. This was reportedly the main reason for Justice Chaudhry's suspension.' It went on to say that 'Justice Bhagwan Das, the only Hindu judge and second senior most after Chaudhry could not be appointed because he was not a Muslim, sources said.'
The single column headline in the Indian Express read: 'Musharraf sacks Chief Justice who had begun asking questions'. The PTI report said: 'Ever since he took over the post in June 2005, Justice Chaudhry has shown judicial activism, hitherto not familiar to Pakistan's judiciary, which in the past was accused of toeing the line of the military and governments of the day.' The Times of India was the only newspaper to place the story on the lower half of page 20.
The next day, the story was moved to the International pages with reports of demonstrations by lawyers in Pakistan. The Hindu (March 11) said that Chaudhry, known as an 'activist judge', had crossed swords with the government several times. Pakistan's intelligence agencies had been forced to produce several 'disappeared' persons they had been secretly holding on suspicion that they had links with the al Qaida. He had also annulled the privatisation of Pakistan Steel Mills, it said.
The controversy gained momentum over the next two days, (March 12 and 13) with the visual impact of photographs of black-coated lawyers scuffling with the police. The Indian Express had a picture of a lawyers' protest with an agency report. To make amends for downplaying the story on the first day, the Times of India of March 12 carried a banner headline: 'Sacked Pak chief justice defiant, refuses to quit', placing it next to a report from its Washington correspondent titled: 'Is US ready to dump Mush? Washington insiders believe the General is no longer indispensable'. The report quoted from a number of articles in the US media pillorying Gen Musharraf to say that Washington was quietly dispensing with the 'Musharraf is indispensable' argument.
On March 13, the Indian Express carried a dramatic photo of Pakistani lawyers clashing with riot police in Lahore. The accompanying story was a New York Times (NYT) analysis that asked 'How far can US push Musharraf?' The blurb read: 'If Musharraf were to be assassinated, it is unlikely that there would be mass uprisings in Lahore and Karachi, or that a religious leader would rise to power.' The story focused on the fragile nature of Musharraf's hold on power. The same story was also carried prominently in the Hindustan Times and the Asian Age.
The agitation acquired an added intensity after the suspended chief justice was roughed up by policemen when he insisted on walking to the court and the government began bearing down on the media in Pakistan to tone down their coverage of the protests. On March 14, the Indian Express had a bold headline across the top of its international page, saying: 'Pak CJ, family roughed up. Govt blacks out channels for airing lathicharge'. The strapline said 'Chaudhry wanted to walk, security personnel forced him into car: Opposition plans agitation'. An accompanying box item said 'US-based rights body slams Musharraf'.
The Times of India's front page report had the heading - 'Chief Justice walks tall in Pak row. Becomes a rallying point for Musharraf's opponents'. The Asian Age's banner headline on its international page said - 'Pak Chief Justice refuses to go'. The Hindu's report said that 'Justice Chaudhry refused government transport - his official car had been withdrawn on his suspension - and set off on foot with his wife. Policemen stopped him and his jacket got torn in the scuffle'. It related the drama at the gates of the Supreme Court where the chief justice was taken out of the government vehicle by a crowd of lawyers and opposition leaders. 'It took the Chief Justice 45 minutes to cover the short distance between the gates and the court building, and he seemed to enjoy every moment,' it said.
By March 15 attention had focused on the likelihood of Justice Rana Bhagwan Das, the only Hindu judge of the Supreme Court becoming the acting chief justice. The fact that the Justice was on a private visit to India added further colour to the story. The Hindustan Times carried the headline: 'Pak's Hindu judge holds the key to crisis.' Other stories for the day were acting chief justice Javed Iqbal taking suo moto notice of police misconduct against the suspended chief justice. An accompanying story said that Pakistan's law minister, Wasi Jaffar had allegedly abused a journalist on a live talk show during a Voice of America discussion on the suspension of the CJ. The Hindu had a five column front page photograph of lawyers forming a human chain outside the Sindh High Court with the caption 'Snowballing protest'.
The Asian Age (March 16) asked - 'Mystery in Pak: Where is top judge?'. Its correspondent, Shafqat Ali wrote from Islamabad that there was speculation that Justice Bhagwan Das had returned to Pakistan but chose to stay at an undisclosed location as he was not in favour of being sworn in as acting chief justice. The Hindu said: 'Chief Justice challenges panel'. Its legal correspondent reported that the Bar Association of India had expressed serious concern over the sacking of the Pakistani chief justice, and another story quoted cricketer turned politician saying that this could be a 'defining moment for Pakistan's democracy'. The Times of India said: 'Put on the back foot by the outrage over his action in suspending Chief Justice Chaudhry, President Musharraf attempted damage control by saying he would 'bow' his head and accept the verdict of the Supreme Judicial Council in the matter'. The Hindustan Times reported that a magistrate in Bahawalpur, Saeed Khurshid Ahmed, had resigned in protest against the suspension.
A police raid on the offices of Geo TV added another dimension to the protests in Pakistan and brought back the story on the front page on March 17. 'The channel had earlier come under tremendous pressure from the establishment over its coverage of the judge's suspension. Musharraf later condemned the police raid as an act of 'sabotage' against his government and apologised to the channel', the Indian Express said. The Hindu's front page report said: 'Pitched battles in Islamabad'. On its international page, it carried two photographs of the protests with a story headlined: 'All Pakistan awaits return of Hindu judge'. Raising questions of constitutional propriety, the report said, Justice Chaudhry had said that a reference against the Chief Justice could be heard only by the next senior judge. To the question why Justice Bhagwan Das could not be asked to cut short his leave, the government has said that 'the senior judge was out of telephone contact,' according the report.
The Asian Age had four items on its International page with the headlines: 'Police rampage at Pak Geo TV office' and 'Leaders under house arrest'. The Times of India said on the front page: 'Pakistan erupts in protests. Scores arrested as Mush regime tries to gag Press.' Two more reports said: 'Mush Sorry For Raid' and 'Pak situation leaves Washington worried, wary' appeared on the International page. Its Washington correspondent wrote: 'The Bush administration bestirred itself from a three-day stupor over the turbulent events in Pakistan to express 'deep concern' over the military junta's crackdown on the judiciary even as there was blood on the streets of Pakistan's major cities on Friday in clashes between police and activists.'
The Times of India had near saturation coverage in its Sunday edition the next day, beginning with the front page report headlined: 'Nothing personal, says Musharraf'. It had a full page Special Report on the situation in Pakistan by Indrani Bagchi and a 'View from Pakistan' on the facing page datelined Karachi by Syed Saleem Shahzad as well as a report on page 17 from its Washington correspondent headlined: 'Harried at home, Gen can count on Bush'. Shahzad reported that Lt Gen Hamid Gul, long time ISI chief showed up with some other retired generals to protest the way President Musharraf had suspended the chief justice. The Special report analysed the biggest challenge facing the Pakistani President, assessing his chances and the implications for India. 'The lawyers' agitation has become a lightening rod for general civil society unrest. In response, Musharraf has unleashed the might of the Pakistani police state. It will tarnish Musharraf badly, but won't be the first time he has used state force against his own people. Remember Balochistan in 2006?' said the report.
The Hindu (March 18) reported on its front page: 'Musharraf sees a conspiracy, battleground shifts to Lahore'. On the seventh day of the protests, anti-government demonstrations spread to other cities across the country and president Musharraf alleged that there was a conspiracy against him and the government. It quoted the President as saying, 'who are these elements trying to lower my image by blaming me for everything?' Friday's attack on the Geo TV office was an assault on the government itself, he said. The Hindustan Times had two reports: 'Pakistan crisis deepens as police clash with lawyers' and 'Media became part of the protests after the wrecking of the Geo TV newsroom.'
The furore over the attack on the media died down after the weekend as President Musharraf apologised and made amends to Geo TV. The Hindustan Times on Monday had the front page news: 'Hindu named Pakistan's acting chief justice'. The Hindu's correspondent, Nirupama Subramanian explained that legal experts were divided on whether senior-most judge, Bhagwan Das could officiate as chief justice as he was a non-Muslim and the chief justice also presided over the Shariat court. Some experts argued that there was no bar against a non-Muslim for another judge could be nominated for Shariat court duties. The Indian Express reported President Musharraf's effort to make up with Geo TV by appearing on the news channel's programme. According to the Asian Age, the Pakistani President had admitted in a TV interview that the suspended chief justice had been manhandled and roughed up by the police. He also said that the attack on Geo TV was shocking and was being investigated.
By March 20, Justice Bhagwan Das had been traced to Lucknow. The Hindu's Praveen Swami reported from New Delhi that the Pakistani judge had been attending a satsang in Lucknow. The Asian Age's Lucknow correspondent, Amita Verma reported that Justice Bhagwan Das had left for Delhi for his onward journey to Pakistan. Verma wrote: 'He had kept his stay in Lucknow wrapped in complete secrecy' and 'changed his place of stay quite frequently while staying with friends and relatives.' The Times of India had the headline: 'As Pak burns, new CJ on quiet visit to India'. The story died down in the Indian newspapers after the media-shy judge returned to Pakistan.
The editorials and commentary in the Indian media centred on the likely effect of the agitation on President Musharraf's hold over the government. The Hindu's editorial called it - 'A bad miscalculation'. 'Why should anything different have been expected of a ruler who amended the constitution to continue in office as President while continuing in office as army chief? Since the, Gen Musharraf has taken many liberties with the country's basic law, he perhaps believed that Pakistan would accept the summary treatment meted out to Mr Chaudhry as it did his other transgressions. '.' The Indian Express editorial on March 17 said: 'General Musharraf should know sometimes it just takes a spark to remove rulers.' In the Hindu edit page article, Nirupama Subramanian (March 14) asked: 'Will the ouster of Pakistan's Chief Justice set off a tidal wave of popular protest that will engulf the Musharraf regime in the months before parliamentary and presidential elections?'
The Asian Age carried articles by its regular Pakistani commentators on its Op-ed page as well as an open letter written to Justice Chaudhry by Pakistani senior advocate, Naeem Bokhari. The blurb said, 'My Lord, the dignity of lawyers is consistently being violated by you. We are treated harshly, rudely, brusquely and nastily. We are not allowed to present our case. There is little scope for advocacy, when the words used in the bar room for Court No. I are 'the slaughter house'. We are cowed down by aggression from the bench led by you.' The Hindustan Times published an article on its international page by Pakistani human rights activist, IA Rehman who wrote that the people were the biggest losers in the standoff.
The Indian Express also had an article on its Op-ed page on March 14 from a Pakistani commentator, Hussain Haqqani, who wrote: 'The sacking of the chief justice is only the latest proof of the erosion of all Pakistani institutions. The world can hardly be expected to admire a country where, in addition to frequent terrorist attacks and violence, the executive branch of government succeeds in sacking three chief justices in less than a decade'. An edit page article by its columnist, C Raja Mohan on March 19 analysed 'Benazir's third coming'. It said that Musharraf's sudden loss of credibility gave Benazir Bhutto hope of hastening a return to Pakistan. A day later, defence analyst, C Uday Bhaskar's edit page article said: 'the manner in which Musharraf extricates himself from the current morass will depend to a large extent on the US stance in the matter. Even in the past, when Pakistan went through a similar cathartic crisis - for instance the hanging of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto by General Zia - it was US support to the Pakistani military that swung the balance.'
During the same period, the Indian papers reported two main events from Bangladesh, the raids and arrest of Tarique Rehman and a ban on political activity in Bangladesh. The Asian Age of March 9 had a report from the Daily Star of Bangladesh on page 8 with the banner headline: 'Zia's son held, Hasina's house raided. Corruption crackdown: Ex-Health Minister, Mayor, MP, and newspaper editor arrested.' It said that Tarique Rehman, who was allegedly at the centre of the rampant corruption during the BNP-Jamaat regime was arrested from the residence of his mother, former prime minister Khaleda Zia. The Hindu and the Indian Express carried the story on the front page. The Hindustan Times and the Hindu's correspondent, Haroon Habib reported that security forces searched Sheikh Hasina's residence twice on Wednesday night. The Times of India relegated the news to a single column on page 24 with the headline - 'Khaleda's son held in crackdown on corruption'.
Two newspapers had short items on the 'Blanket ban on political activity in Bangladesh' and two others reported that Rahman's bail plea had been rejected. The Asian Age of March 13 published a Daily Star report that said that Tarique Rahman had admitted to having bank accounts in five countries - Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, South Africa and Switzerland during questioning by the joint interrogation cell. It also reported that Sheikh Hasina who was on a month long visit to the US, had denied that the caretaker government had asked her to leave the country.
The Hindustan Times carried an editorial (March 12) that referred to some uncomfortable questions such as whether the caretaker government could actually be acting as an instrument of the military. The revival of the National Security Council would give it a pivotal role in running the government, it said. On March 15, the newspaper reproduced a New York Times article which asked how long the military government could enjoy goodwill at home and abroad before it is buffeted by challenges of governance.
The events in Bangladesh were almost as significant as the agitation in Pakistan; the army supported non-elected interim government had targeted the political elite of the country on suspicion of corruption. But it merited just a day's detailed coverage with only one newspaper choosing to comment on the happenings. The comparison between the Indian newspapers' coverage of newsworthy happenings in Pakistan and Bangladesh amply shows the Indian media's excessive interest in Pakistan.