Opposition leader Mian Nawaz Sharif moved swiftly to defuse a confrontation between Pakistan’s powerful news media and his party over the scandal of legislators faking their educational qualification to be elected.
But the issues raised by the firestorm continue to resonate in the political arena and across the country’s energetic media.
The fracas was triggered by the adoption in the Punjab legislature, controlled by Sharif’s faction of the Muslim League, of a resolution last week condemning the media for irresponsibility and damaging democracy. In a rare show of unity, League members were joined by all their rivals to support the unanimous resolution. What precipitated this extraordinary move was the press and broadcast media’s unrelenting effort to expose those MPs who had submitted bogus degrees to run for elected office.
At the time of the general elections in 2008 the graduate qualification was mandatory for eligibility as a member of parliament. The condition had been imposed by the country’s former president Pervez Musharraf but was swept away by the constitional amendment adopted by the national parliament two months ago. This did, however, bring to an end media questioning about whether some politicians had used fake documents to secure their election. Indeed it was a prominent and feisty member of Sharif’s own party who kept agitating the matter and drawing the media’s attention to this. Once the media began to unearth cases of bogus degrees involving members of virtually all the major parties represented in parliament, this prompted the Supreme Court in May to order the Election Commission to verify which lawmakers had bogus degrees and initiate action against them.
As this process got underway in the full glare of the media angry legislators affected by these disclosures began to cry conspiracy. It was both intriguing and an example of extremely poor judgement that while a relatively modest number of legislators were initially accused in the media of lying about their graduate qualification the majority of their partymen and women came to their rescue and sought to defend the indefensible.
Lawmakers from different parties accused the media of “corruption” and undermining democracy by tarnishing the reputation of politicians. This elicited a stinging response from TV anchor persons and newspaper editorial writers who pointed to the moral bankruptcy of those hurling these allegations in an obvious effort to cover up their own misdemeanour. The media was only doing its job by exposing the truth. Those engaged in a fraudulent practice were the ones bringing the political class into disrepute. Losing patience with the daily embarrassment caused by the fierce media onslaught on the matter the Punjab Assembly passed a resolution denouncing the media. Predictably journalists reacted furiously and portrayed the resolution as an assault on their freedom. Countrywide demonstrations were held demanding that the resolution be rescinded.
In the face of this the Punjab’s legislators began to retreat. Nawaz Sharif addressed a press conference while he was in London denouncing the action against the media and declaring that he was prepared to risk losing the Punjab government rather than defend or protect those who had lied to be elected. This set the stage for a remarkable U turn by the Punjab Assembly which proceeded within days to adopt a resolution praising the role of the media – again unanimously!
While this ended the media’s boycott of the Punjab assembly and defused the situation it has far from buried the issue. Three kinds of political implications have flowed from this episode. One, the issue of ethics in politics has taken centre stage in a country where the integrity of public officials is often in question. For weeks those political leaders who kept expressing doubts about the media’s intent and ascribing partisan motives to the disclosures hurt their case even more by deliberately obfuscating the real issue: the mendacious conduct of legislators who produced false documents about their educational status.
The scale of the scam is still being ascertained by the Higher Education Commission, the body that has been asked by the Election Commission to verify the degrees of over 1,100 federal and provincial lawmakers. But it has already laid bare the lack of probity among those expected to set a higher standard rather than lie about their educational qualifications.
Several of those affected by the media revelations marshalled out a number of rather disingenuous arguments. Some said that the eligibility requirement was introduced by a military dictator and was therefore patently wrong. Others wondered why journalists were making such a fuss when this was no longer a requirement for legislators to be elected. Many MPs insisted that others – judges, generals and journalists – should be held to the same standard and the media by not focusing on them was out to damage the nascent democratic process in the country. None of this however helped to obscure the fact that a number of their party men had been found guilty of outright fraud.
Two, the whole affair has injected new strains in what is an increasingly adversarial relationship between an energetic and newly empowered media and politicians. Although party leaders have sought to quickly distance themselves from the move against the media this is not going to diminish the media’s resolve to hold public representatives more vigorously to account. More disclosures can be expected in coming months not just on this issue but other accounts as well. This could make for rocky relations ahead despite the present rapprochement. Three, if the number of lawmakers with fake degrees continues to rise, political leaders will come under greater public pressure to cleanse their parties of such elements and suspend them from their organisation. So far party heads have shown a marked reluctance to do this – a hesitation that has further eroded their party’s credibility. In the final analysis if a significant number of legislators are found to have dodgy degrees and the Election Commission is obliged by an assertive Supreme Court to take action this could strengthen the possibility of mid-term polls. No party may want such an outcome but this could be an inescapable consequence if the fake degree saga comes to embroil a large number of MPs.
Maleeha Lodhi served as Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States and the United Kingdom. For comments, write to firstname.lastname@example.org