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September 2, 2018

Let Imran defend democracy


September 2, 2018

In these early days of Naya Pakistan, there is bound to be some anxious anticipation of how the promised ‘tabdeeli’ will reveal itself. So far, in the two weeks after Imran Khan took oath as the prime minister, the going is not very pleasant. In fact, there have been a number of missteps that range from the sublime to the ridiculous.

On Friday, in his first encounter with a group of television anchors and panelists, Prime Minister Imran Khan asked the media to give his government three months before criticising its performance. This is a fair request. There is some tradition of a honeymoon period, nominally of 100 days, when a new administration is to be handled, so to say, with kid gloves. And the PTI has its grandiose list of goals to achieve in this period.

But the media has its obligation to report the unfolding events and comment on them. That it does, literally on an hourly basis. Given the present state of a politically polarised society and a plethora of news channels with a dearth of professional expertise, the noise that is generated is often quite strident.

Against this backdrop, Imran Khan’s wish that the media be more patient and understanding while his administration is finding its feet raises some questions that haven’t been sufficiently explored. This is to be expected when, for instance, the transfer of a district police officer in a small town in Punjab attracts the attention of the Supreme Court and a federal minister calculates the cost of flying a helicopter as Rs55 per kilometre.

What one has to figure out is whether Imran Khan is genuinely mindful of the role of the media and the influence of an informed public opinion in a democratic dispensation. He must realise that in this context, he needs to seriously review the style and content of his electoral campaign and his apparent disdain for some fundamental democratic practices.

Let me put it straight. In the months leading to the national elections, the media had been under severe strain, operating in an environment of fear. This situation was present to all political and social stakeholders.

Irrespective of how this may have impacted electoral proceedings, the imperative now is to restore the confidence of the media in its struggle for freedom and the realisation of its purpose in a democratic setting. The burden of executing this shift lies on Imran Khan’s shoulders. Sadly, there is no evidence that any serious thought is being applied to reinforcing the standard precepts of democratic freedoms and fundamental human rights. Also, Imran Khan had little to say about the pressures that the media had to suffer during his election campaign.

After all, the ‘tabdeeli’ that Pakistan is yearning for cannot fertilise in an intellectually and socially repressive environment. The truth is that freedom of thought and expression is essential for any democratic development. In that sense, the media should not only be protected from the restrictions imposed by the powers that be, but must also be rescued from the onslaught of intolerance, violent extremism, and bigotry that our ruling ideas have nurtured for so long.

So, can we expect Imran Khan to devote more attention to these and other liberating attributes of a meaningful democracy? He has certainly been reminded of what the challenges are and in what respect his intervention is sorely needed. Let me refer to just two of these reminders.

In a letter made public on Monday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) asked Prime Minister Imran Khan to make human rights the key focus of his government. It said that addressing human rights challenges should be one of the new government’s top priorities.

In his letter, HRW’s Asia Director Brad Adams urged the government to take concrete steps to protect fundamental civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights in six key areas: “These are freedom of expression and attacks on the civil society; freedom of religion and belief; violence against women and girls; access to education; restoring the moratorium on death penalty; and terrorism and counter-terrorism abuses”.

This is a rather comprehensive agenda, but it rightly begins with a reference to freedom of expression. Incidentally, the response to this letter by Minister for Human Rights Dr Shireen Mazari, which was issued on Tuesday, wasn’t very encouraging. She sought to snub HRW over what she termed as the “selective” monitoring of rights, without being aware of the credibility and work of HRW and other international human rights organisations.

Anyhow, Dr Mazari is advised to take the findings of our own Human Rights Commission of Pakistan on the subject of freedom of expression more seriously. On Wednesday, HRCP released its fact-finding report on the curbs imposed on freedom of expression in Pakistan. This report was compiled just before the July 25 elections and its initial findings were presented in a press conference on July 23.

The HRCP report is a document that the new government should carefully check to understand what the media in Pakistan had to endure in recent months so that it is able to decipher the moves that are necessary to repair the damage that has been done, ideally within the prescribed 100 days. If Imran Khan wants the media to critically appraise the performance of his party’s rule after three months, he should also ensure that the media isn’t unduly restrained from doing so in an efficient and confident manner.

On Wednesday, HRCP called on the federal and provincial governments, and other state institutions and services to take appropriate steps to prohibit and prevent unauthorised and illegal interference with freedom of expression in the country.

HRCP Spokesperson I A Rehman also noted that the journalist community had been deliberately divided, and massive campaigns were launched against some journalists on social media.

This, to be sure, is a complex situation. In a larger context, ordinary citizens have to be empowered to participate in national affairs and this will only be possible when the media is objective and responsible. But this is just one dimension of what may be defined as the intellectual infrastructure of a free nation.

Meanwhile, we have to contend with the existing pace of events and the diversions that are provided by, for instance, the information minister of Punjab. Three months may not be a long period but, proverbially, a week is a long time in politics. When will the action begin in earnest?

The writer is a senior journalist.

Email: [email protected]

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