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Landscape 2018

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The good thing about our landscape prior to Election 2018 is the lack of ambiguity. The gods seem to be screaming out loud: whatever else happens, they would like to have the PML-N for lunch.

Our confusing Article 62/63 jurisprudence producing disqualification decisions lacking consistency, a hyperactive NAB using powers such that will produce political consequences, the migration of electables to the PTI, the rise of hate-mongering religio-political parties, the attack on a free media and Article 19 rights, and the intimidation of social media dissidents are painting such a perception.

Let’s start with Article 19 and freedom of speech, information and media (or the lack thereof). Here is the paradox. In a government of the people, by the people and for the people, the rationale for Articles 62/63 and disclosure requirements built into Election Act 2017 and accentuated by the Supreme Court’s order (that requires candidates to furnish detailed affidavits) is to provide citizens with all the relevant information about candidates to enable them to make informed choices. Can the scheme work if the media that dissects and relays information is itself under curbs?

We have taken viewpoint censorship to a dangerous extreme. Unaccountable censorship shields the very definition of national interest from the continuous searching scrutiny it deserves and renders unaccountable those who conceive such notions. How can a consensus around where the national interest lies and how it is to be pursued evolve without debate, critique and dissent?

Should one be perceived as anti-state for highlighting the imbalance between our state institutions or for invoking the constitution for defining their roles and against the political outcomes being shaped beyond politics? Must one be viewed as anti-judiciary for analysing the merits of decisions rendered or critiquing the consistency or desirability of evolving jurisprudence or seeking a clear distinction between legal accountability (falling in the domain of courts) and political accountability (falling in the court of public opinion)?

Can it be anything other than myopia that projects the need to respect national institutions as a justification to curb critical voices? Why are we critical of the all-or-nothing sense of loyalty when demanded by politicos, but not when preached to shield unelected office-holders from scrutiny? Can respect for institutions be enforced? Isn’t respect a normative feeling that will emerge in the hearts of a majority of citizens in view of the conduct and actions of institutions (and those who control them) notwithstanding trenchant criticism by dissidents?

And if such criticism is likely to resonate with the majority and lower the stature of an institution in the eyes of right-thinking people, shouldn’t that be a reason for the institution and those running it to introspect instead of backing the need for censorship? Our education system is focused on rote learning instead of creating thinking minds. Our religious, ethical and family values also seem to demand conformity. The outcome is grown men unable to speak their minds in the face of authority. Together, all of this nurtures hypocrisy and false reverence.

The notion of enforcing respect and deterring criticism through carrot-and-stick policies is doing Pakistan no good. Dissuading scrutiny and seeking blind and unquestioning allegiance to those in authority so long as they are in office on any basis nurtures a lack of accountability and protects the misuse of authority. We could certainly use some irreverence in our midst. And that is where a marketplace of ideas (which includes undesirable or disagreeable ideas) enabled by a free media is handy.

So ensnared is our media today that it is loath even to admit it. First there is self-censorship. There are subjects an op-ed writer can’t approach except with insinuations, hoping that discerning readers will read between the lines. A piece that addresses........

© The News International