Ever since the Panama case started, there has been an unseemly cacophony of comment and even ‘advice’ to the Supreme Court what verdict to give, coloured of course by the particular political bent of the commentator. Whereas the media, especially electronic, has gone to town with such discussions and pronouncements, perhaps the most unsavory has been the ‘circus’ put on by supporters and opponents of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his family outside the Supreme Court after every hearing of the case. Here the rostrum to address a media eager to lap up and reproduce every last syllable and word of the heavyweight spokesmen of the government and the opposition led by PTI has often become a bone of contention, with the two sides vying for, and sometimes pushing for, ‘capture’ of the platform. Unseemly as all this seems, it is what has been on offer in all these pronouncements that is the most concerning. Not only has this rowdiness and free-for-all commentary been unprecedented in a matter that is sub judice, it has not done the respect and dignity of the Supreme Court any good. Superior courts in the past have not shown the extreme patience with this three-ring circus that the Supreme Court bench in the instant case has displayed. Whether its hesitation to intervene and stop this show has been motivated by a reluctance to be seen as placing curbs on freedom of expression or some other consideration, arguably the restraint has not done the apex court’s image, reputation and respect much good. The media, especially TV, has in any case given free rein to unrestrained comment on the case and its outcome to both government ministers and opposition leaders. This is bad enough, but the vituperation on display close to the Supreme Court premises by rival spokesmen has been a stunningly unprecedented media circus. With the rise in the political temperature because of the increasingly shriller vituperation by both sides, it was perhaps inevitable that push came to shove between the workers of both sides of the political divide before the Supreme Court on July 17, the day the court started hearing the case in the light of the Joint Investigation Team’s report. Mercifully, the situation was saved from deteriorating into a physical clash by the timely intervention of the police. But the incident shows how the fraught situation in the country because of the weight of expectations from the Supreme Court in the Panama case could so easily lead to physical clashes and even violence between the protagonists of both sides. It would perhaps be in the fitness of things for the Supreme Court bench to take notice of this potentially explosive scenario and forbid the holding of these public addresses to the media outside the courtroom after every hearing. To the objections of the defenders of freedom of expression it can be argued that it is the venue that is sensitive and loaded with implications for the respect and dignity of the Supreme Court. The warriors of both sides can and are welcome to take their diatribes elsewhere and onto the already available TV screens to satisfy their unbridled keenness to steal a march on their rivals after every hearing.
The three-ring circus before the Supreme Court is only one of, and perhaps the most visible manifestation of the effects of the case. In the country as a whole meantime, the situation resembles nothing better than a paralysis of governance by a ruling PML-N seemingly fighting for its continued grip on power and to fend off adverse interpretations of the outcome of the case. With the massive distraction of the Panama case, it seems the government has been rendered virtually dysfunctional. The damage to the interests of the country may be unquantifiable, but promise to be massive once the shouting and dust kicked up dies down. The case, if the pronouncements of the two contending sides are taken into account, has taken on the hues of a ‘do or die’ effort by the incumbents and their would-be topplers. With hindsight, we may come to rue the invisible damage wrought by the all too highly visible war of words swirling around the Panama case.