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February 11, 2019

Why perceptions matter


February 11, 2019

Just by looking at the front page of a newspaper you can get an idea about how important perceptions are. The two main headlines of this newspaper on Friday, Feb 8, read: “Cabinet believes NAB needs more teeth”, and “NAB gets Aleem Khan’s remand”.

Now NAB is in the news more than ever and everyday at least a couple of headlines are devoted to NAB activities, apart from regular articles that appear in Urdu and English newspapers highlighting NAB’s performance with the picture of its chairman in the top right or left corner of the article. Nothing wrong with that, as far as the public is kept informed about what NAB is doing.

The question is about perceptions. As discussed in detail in the recent judgment delivered by the Supreme Court Bench led by Justice Qazi Faez Isa, perceptions matter. If justice is being done, but the perception that is being created makes people think the other way round, there is something wrong. If NAB is performing well but the perception that is created makes people think about partiality, something is not right. If Aleem Khan is arrested with transparency but the perception is that it was done as a ‘balancing act’, something needs to be done.

Let’s take some more examples from headlines: “Nawaz shifted to jail: Maryam regrets 3-time prime minister being humiliated.” The way we have treated our elected prime misters and military dictators over the past seven decades has created strong perceptions in the minds of not only journalists and intellectuals but also among common people. The last two prime ministers of Pakistan – Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and Nawaz Sharif – both are facing corruption charges.

While there may even be some truth in those charges, they represent one of the largest political parties in Pakistan with millions of people following them. If the perception is that the PML-N is being treated unfairly, it has solid grounds. And those grounds have been provided by all concerned state institutions and the present government itself. The ministers in the PTI government keep harking at corruption charges as if they have solid proof of corruption and money laundering against the leaders of the opposition. In reality, the government is still just trying to get information from other countries regarding bank accounts of Pakistanis held abroad. In the past seven months, the PTI government has repeatedly claimed that soon billions of dollars stashed away by the opposition leaders will be brought back.

All this has created a perception that the charges may be just eyewash to malign the opposition and indirectly the entire political system. The way the previous chief justice behaved in and outside the court solidified the perception created over the past 70 years that the judiciary is after politicians, and spares dictators. If this perception is not correct, can we present some counter-arguments and examples. You will hardly find any. Let’s go back a little further and discuss the prime ministers who held office before Abbasi and Sharif.

Raja Pervez Ashraf and Yusuf Raza Gilani were the targets of another previous chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry. Just like the PML-N government was hounded for a full five years, the PPP government (2008 to 2013) had to take the brunt of direct and indirect onslaught from judiciary and other institutions that are supposed to be non-political. Precisely that is the perception highlighted by Justice Faez Isa. State institutions may be impartial, transparent, unbiased, and truly concerned about the state of affairs in the country but they must not create a perception that may tarnish their own image.

Another headline says: “Sahiwal tragedy: LHC offers judicial inquiry.” Need this writer explain what perceptions have been created by this tragedy and the way CTD and the government dealt with it? Not only that, the cold-blooded murder of Arman Luni, the arrest of Gulalai Ismail and other activists – all are creating extremely negative perceptions. The way Baba Jan is being kept in prison on dubious charges and the manner in which our institutions treat religious fanatics also sends a clear message to the world, and that message is not positive. The earlier our decision-makers realise this, the better it will be.

The way certain news items simply disappear from the electronic and print media – almost in the same manner as people disappear – makes people believe that the media is not free. And this perception is loud and clear, again as lamented by Justice Isa. A ticker or two appear concerning an important judgment, and then they vanish. News stories downplay the most important and salient features of a court order, and people are left wondering what happened, confirming that the perceptions are nor off the mark. When we keep solidifying certain perceptions, why do we wonder people don’t believe us?

Have a look at a news item concerning Afghanistan: “Ghani tweet: its ‘gross interference’ in Pak affairs.” Our foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi asks the Afghan president to focus on the “long-standing serious grievances of his people”. The tone of voice and the choice of words in this statement from Qureshi leave much to be desired. Ashraf Ghani should have been more discreet in his tweet, but we did no better. What perceptions have we created during the last 40 years after involving ourselves in the Afghan imbroglio? Does the world believe us? The answer is no.

We are taking pride that by succeeding in bringing the Taliban to the negotiation table with the likes of the US and the Russian Federation, we have achieved a lot. May one ask, what success are we trumpeting about? And what perceptions are further crystallised by our premature triumphal chest thumping? The Taliban who killed and terrorised not only Afghanistan but almost the entire region for over two decades are being brought to the table, as if they are the harbingers of peace. It is mind-boggling, and sheer miscalculation by those who belong to the General Hameed Gul mindset.

If we want good relations with our neighbours, it should be reflected in our wide-ranging willingness to be open with all religions and sects, be they Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, or any other. Perceptions matter, and our wrong handling of this delicate issue may further isolate us internationally, and also affect our Kashmir cause.

So, how do we deal with the negative perceptions? Read the Justice Isa judgment again and follow it in letter and spirit. Read the judgment in the famous Asghar Khan case and follow its recommendations. Read the judicial inquiry report in the Saleem Shahzad murder case. The documents in the case of ‘enforced disappearances’ are yet another source that will help if you really want to correct perceptions. Nobody can just believe you if you don’t do what you say.

Perceptions are stronger than reality, and mere cosmetic changes in our approach to old problems will not help much. Just by blaming other countries for our miseries, and by implicating innocent people in wrong cases and just by declaring anyone who speaks up for their rights as traitors and foreign agents may have worked in the past – but there is a limit to it.

The writer holds a PhD from the

University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]