Some days ago, one of the counsels before the Supreme Court in the Reko Diq case filed a contempt petition against the respondent mining company on the grounds that the company had sought to influence the course of pending litigation by putting out full-page advertisements detailing their version of the facts. Notice has since been issued to the mining company, which in turn means that the mining company now has to explain why it should not be punished for committing contempt of court.
I happened to be in the Supreme Court on one of the previous dates when the Reko Diq case came up for hearing. I was also standing by when, immediately after the hearing, the same counsel who has now filed a contempt petition went before the assembled media and held a live press briefing lambasting the mining company. He was then followed by Dr. Samar Mubarakmand who explained to the gathered media why he thought that his particular proposal for exploiting the riches of Balochistan was a great thing. Neither of those two gentlemen seemed to care much then about the fact that their case – and their exclusive version of the facts – was being played out in the media.
On 14 January 2011, an English-language daily front-paged an item headlined “Tareen assails Reko Diq deal.” The first sentence of that article read: “Former finance minister Shaukat Tareen has said that it was unfortunate that the Reko Diq deal wasn’t transparent.” A television station allied to the same newspaper subsequently ran a special investigate story, complete with interviews of Mr. Tareen, in which the same allegation was repeated – i.e., that Mr. Tareen was of the opinion that the Reko Diq deal lacked transparency.
Mr. Tareen actually never says anything of the sort in his televised interview (or at least, not in the version that I saw). Instead, he only speaks generally about the need for transparency in large deals as well as the need to protect investor expectations (both of which sentiments are perfectly unexceptionable). Since I figured this could possibly be because the relevant bits of his interview had not been telecast, I took the liberty of getting in touch with Mr. Tareen and asking him if he had said anything during his interview to the effect that the Reko Diq deal lacked transparency. He vehemently denied saying any such thing. In fact, he stated that he had given no opinion as to the legality of the Reko Diq deal but had only made general observations about the need for transparency.
To the best of my knowledge, no contempt petition has been filed against either the concerned English daily or its television channel. This may be because nobody else has actually bothered to find out what was or was not said by Mr. Tareen. But it may also be because the media in Pakistan has turned into a raving monster and nobody wants to paint a target on their forehead.
However, let us set aside the minor issue of a complete misstatement of fact regarding a high profile lawsuit and come back to the fact that our newspapers apparently feel no hesitation in putting forward their views on pending litigation, so long as they are able to wrap themselves in the mantle of a populist crusader.
In the particular case of the Reko Diq litigation, the role of the media is particularly noteworthy because at least two of the petitions before the Supreme Court are nothing more than cut and paste jobs attaching paragraph numbers to an earlier news story questioning the Reko diq deal. That story, which is heavy on innuendo and light on facts, makes no effort whatsoever to present a balanced perspective: it does not even carry a response from the people being accused of all sorts of illegality. Instead, it quotes an unnamed corporate executive (who may or may not be a direct competitor of the mining company involved) to the effect that “it is just the right case for the Supreme Court and the Chief Justice of Pakistan to pick up the issue, put a hold on whatever is going on before any binding contracts and deals are signed, which may cause losses of billions of dollars, yes billions of dollars to Pakistan.” And in case, the point is not clear, the final paragraph of the story again repeats the point that the “role” of the Supreme Court is to stop people from making millions at the cost of billions to this country.
So, let me now repeat the facts. There is a news story which provides no clear evidence of any scandal but begs the Supreme Court to step in. Two petitions are filed in which the same news story is converted into numbered paragraphs and presented to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court subsequently takes up the matter (much to the satisfaction of the author of the news story). The Pakistani media goes to town on the poor sods accused of defrauding this country. The lawyers who are selflessly protecting the “public interest” hold press conferences outside the Supreme Court. One of the major news groups of this country not only runs articles about the lack of transparency in the Reko Diq deal but does so despite the fact that the person whose opinion is being quoted denies ever having said anything of the sort. But the people accused of illegality are facing contempt of court charges because they ran newspaper ads giving their version of the facts.
Apparently foreign investors are reluctant to invest in Pakistan. I wonder why.
This column first appeared in the daily Pakistan Today on 25 January 2011.