[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Languages
Last Updated: Saturday, 17 March 2007, 17:59 GMT
Blood and batons spur Pakistan row
By Masud Alam
BBC Urdu service, Islamabad

While a contingent of police in riot gear was smashing glass doors and equipment and firing tear gas shells inside the offices of a private TV channel, Geo News, in Islamabad on Friday afternoon, the country's media minister was watching helplessly a few yards away.

Broken glass at the offices of Geo TV
Staff at Geo TV inspect the damage done by the police

Eye-witnesses said the minister, Mohammed Ali Durrani, arrived just after the police and tried to intervene - but they wouldn't listen to him.

Later in the evening Mr Durrani faced the cameras, accepting his impotence and said that all he could do was to offer an apology.

This was followed by more apologies and stronger condemnations from sitting and former parliamentarians.

Then President Pervez Musharraf himself spoke live to a Geo presenter and publicly regretted the police attack.

He promised to identify and punish the culprits "tonight".

In the event, 14 low ranking police officials have been suspended, pending a judicial inquiry into the case.

Programme banned

If the police raid on Geo News had been an isolated incident, it could have been dismissed as a bizarre and half-witted measure gone wrong. In fact it looks more like a clear expression of state belligerence towards the media.

Pakistan president and chief justice
Mr Chaudhry (right) supported Gen Musharraf's coup

The same channel had its high-profile discussion programme banned a day earlier. And three TV channels were briefly taken off air earlier in the week for running footage of bloody clashes between police and lawyers.

Which brings us back to how all the trouble started, the presidential move of 9 March, suspending the chief justice of the Supreme Court on charges of misconduct, the details of which are still unspecified.

The fraternity of lawyers has been protesting in all the big cities of Pakistan on a daily basis ever since against what they see as an attempt to humiliate and tame the judiciary.

Making of a hero

Until then, Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry had enjoyed a mutually satisfying relationship with the media.

Now the situation has all the marks of turning into a big political challenge for Gen Musharraf and his government

He liked taking centre stage and often delivered his verbal judgments and comments in the form of sound bites that fitted nicely in headlines.

The media liked his penchant for judicial activism on public interest and human rights issues.

Journalists were also hugely entertained by Mr Chaudhry's habit of passing harsh comments on senior government functionaries and frequently embarrassing them publicly in his court room.

But Justice Chaudhry was no public hero. Not, that is, until the government took action against him.

In the past he was seen very much as a supporter of Gen Musharraf.

Justice Chaudhry was among the half of the Supreme Court judges who validated Gen Musharraf's 1999 military coup against an elected government. The other judges resigned in protest.

Later, when the general held a referendum to install himself as the president of Pakistan, and the act was challenged in the Supreme Court, Justice Chaudhry was on the bench that decided in favour of the general.

These actions brought him closer to the military rather than the ordinary Pakistani, making him an unlikely champion of people's aspirations.

Recently as chief justice, he did grab a few headlines with some decisions that have been uncomfortable for the government. But he was never seen as a threat to the legitimacy of Gen Musharraf's rule.

Black-coats

A simple constitutional matter of referring the country's most senior judge to be investigated by the appropriate judicial body is getting bigger, nastier, and potentially more dangerous for the present government by the day. And it would appear that it is a problem of the government's own making.

Lawyer injured in Lahore clashes
The sight of lawyers attacked in Lahore galvanised opinion

Essentially, a few hundred lawyers in half a dozen cities was all the opposition amounted to in the beginning.

If they had been allowed to shout slogans and wave their fists in front of courts, that would probably have been the end of the matter.

But local administrations chose to pit their police forces against the protesting lawyers. Bloody scenes in Lahore last Monday unified the lawyers like never before and hardened their stance.

They have taken to the streets again on Saturday. And the police have got their batons out. Result? More blood being spilt, more publicity.

The "black-coats" as the lawyers are being affectionately called these days, have never shown this kind of unity, nor this temerity, before.

Even lawyers politically affiliated with the ruling party have refused to toe the party line.

The president's office has had to bear the embarrassment as one prominent lawyer after another refused to represent its case against Mr Chaudhry.

Juicy material

The media has become the second thorn in the side of the government.

Ministers joined the courts in ordering the media to tone down its coverage of the Chaudhry affair. Editors were consistently threatened over this and that, but the media has so far shown remarkable resilience and foresight.

Coverage of the court proceedings against Mr Chaudhry are very limited - as directed by the Supreme Judicial Council hearing the case. The hearings are being held behind closed doors, which does not help the media.

But the continued clashes between lawyers and law-enforcement agencies, and the various government pronouncements on the issue, are supplying enough juicy material to fill reams of newsprint and are just what 24 hours news channels want.

The police attack on Geo TV in particular, has been luring the ordinary citizen in to take a close interest in the story.

Playing politics

So what then of the opposition political parties?

The alliance of Islamic parties, the MMA was the first to seize the opportunity. Joined later by Muslim League (Nawaz), and a number of other smaller parties, the MMA has spearheaded the participation of ordinary citizens in what the government is at pains to describe as a purely constitutional matter.

The Pakistan Peoples Party has been the slowest to react, giving credence to rumours that its leader, Benazir Bhutto, is in the process of cutting some kind of deal with Gen Musharraf that would allow her to return to the country.

So, the argument goes, the PPP doesn't want to jeopardise that deal by openly supporting the lawyers.

The PPP finally joined in the protests on 16th March when it seemed clear that the lawyers' movement was gaining strength and the government was unable to contain it.

So now the situation has all the marks of turning into a big political challenge for Gen Musharraf and his government.

But no one in Pakistan underestimates the brute power and guile of the military.

So quite how this confrontation will turn out is anybody's guess.




RELATED INTERNET LINKS
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites



FEATURES, VIEWS, ANALYSIS
Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit

PRODUCTS & SERVICES

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific