It was an array of the most committed activists and leaders of civil society, human rights, lawyers’ fraternity, and media professionals in the country – gathered in Islamabad on June 17, 2021. These people are committed to freedom of expression and independence of the judiciary, and to the concept that all institutions must work within their constitutional ambit.
Some political leaders also joined them, and it became a sight to behold as the Asma Jahangir Hall located not far from Constitution Avenue in the capital of Pakistan resonated with demands to ensure freedom of expression and of the judiciary in the country. Their main thrust was adherence to the supreme law of the country – the constitution of Pakistan. They resolved to resist the persistent attacks on the media and the judiciary by those who consider themselves above all the laws including the constitution.
The occasion was the All Pakistan Lawyers’ Convention titled ‘Assault on Judiciary and Media’. The Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) deserves all the credit for organizing such a significant event to reflect on the state of freedom of expression and judiciary in the country. The SCBA has remained at the forefront of most struggles for constitutional supremacy. The best part was that the Pakistan Bar Council (PBC), Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) and South Asia Free Media Association (Safma) all joined hands to make this convention a resounding success.
Qalbe Hasan Shah fired the first salvo by highlighting that in the present situation ‘even breathing is difficult’ if you want to challenge the current regime. He demanded that the pressure on civil society, human rights organizations, media outlets, and on the judicial and legal community must be lifted. For this, he called for continuing the struggle with renewed vigour and vitality. He was brief and to the point so as to give a chance to other speakers, but he set the right tone with his minimal rhetoric.
The tenor of the event took a sharp turn with the PFUJ’s Nasir Zaidi. He is an iconic figure in the history of journalists’ struggles in Pakistan. He was one of the four daring journalists who were sentenced to the barbaric punishment of lashes by the martial law regime of General Ziaul Haq. Zaidi reminded the audience that bar associations and journalists unions in Pakistan have a history of consistent struggles against all authoritarian regimes in the country, civilian or military.
Zaidi recalled that General Ayub Khan throughout his rule used Section 144 as a pretext to not allow any gatherings consisting of more than four people. But still neither journalists nor lawyers were cowed down by these tactics. They fought against all attempts to curb the media. Whenever the constitution was in danger of being trampled, journalists and lawyers came together to fight hard against the highhandedness of the country’s rulers. Zaidi warned that any attempts to subjugate the media and the judiciary would result in dire consequences for the country.
Brilliant parliamentarian Senator Tahir Bizenjo also spoke. His National Party had tried its best during their brief tenure of limited rule in Balochistan to bring peace to the province. He belongs to a family that has sacrificed a lot for democracy in the country. Bizenjo said that in today’s Pakistan the conditions in Balochistan and the state of media are not much different, as both are under duress, while the government is playing the role of a spectator. He also mentioned the case against Justice Faez Isa.
Hina Jilani has no match when she spits fire against all those who conspire against rule of law in the country. Speaking at the convention, she recalled that whenever lawyers demand adherence to the constitution, it is not for the sake of one person as it happened in 2007 for Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary. The lawyers’ movement is for the sanctity of the constitution under which no one can interfere in judicial matters, no matter how strong that person feels. Hina Jilani sent a clear message to all that any messing around with the constitution, the judiciary, or the media, will invite the wrath of the people.
Farhatullah Babar is another indomitable fighter for the supremacy of the constitution and of democracy. He was all praise for Lala Lateef Afridi who is still in his old age standing like a solid rock against the onslaught of anti-democratic forces on the judiciary and the media. Babar cautioned the audience about the efforts to delegitimize democracy and mute the media. The media, as he explained, is free to demolish democracy, but dissenting journalists have been chased and hounded as many recent examples have amply proved. He called for defending democratic ethos in the country.
Ali Ahmed Kurd was all fire and brimstone against all those lawyers and media professionals who use neutrality as an excuse. He was, however, too loud – as though trying to wake the audience from slumber. He is a gem of a person with much insight into Pakistan’s constitutional and legal history, and he is so loved by audiences who know him well. Kurd’s integrity is beyond question, but perhaps he needs to control his temper while talking to the sort of audience as was present there.
Afrasiab Khattak is inimitable in his mellow style and cogent arguments. To him the hybridity of regime is not a new phenomenon as it started in 1977, but since 2014 it has taken to a new proportion. Khattak was vocal in defending federalism and declared a well-functioning federation to be the backbone of Pakistan. He called for initiating cases against all those who had usurped power directly and indirectly in the country.
From the PML-N, Marriyum Aurangzeb spoke her heart out. She deplored how the media has been silenced and how that will affect fundamental freedoms in the country. She informed the audience that the PML-N government did try to introduce a journalists’ protection bill in parliament but some ‘unknown forces’ thwarted this attempt. To her, self-appointed centres of power in Pakistan try to steal elections ‘just like they did in Daska’. The ECP should be functioning without any pressure from any ‘power centres’ and political parties should be ready to defend the ECP’s independence.
Sherry Rehman was of the opinion that a storm was gathering as more and more journalists and even dissenting judges are becoming targets. Journalists are the first and last targets as most of them work on their own and no institution stands behind them. Sherry was right in pointing out that politicians have the protective umbrella of their parties, judges have the judiciary that in most cases stands with fellow judges, but journalists and media professionals are all alone and they end up fighting with the help of some other civil society organizations such as lawyers and human rights commissions and councils.
In short, the event should serve as an eye-opener to those who think all is well. On the occasion, other speakers such as Abid Saqi, Hamid Mir, Imtiaz Alam, Lateef Afridi, Mohsin Dawar, Raza Rabbani, Talat Hussain, Shehzada Zulfiqar also spoke and showed their concerns at the worsening situation of freedom of expression in the country.