The accountability discourse has suffered mutilation and deformation of Himalayan proportions with the expansion of electronic media and its “freedom”. The term media trial is not sufficient to describe what transpires in the prime time talk shows of TV networks. There are many reasons for it. One, the semi-democratic nature of Pakistani state system determines the monopoly of the deep state over defining almost all dimensions of national narrative. ISPR’s word is supposed to be the last word on any issue. As if that isn’t enough, the so called defense analysts don’t lag behind the spokespersons of political parties in projecting the views of the deep state on any issue under the sun which leads to thought control. Two, in other countries of the world, where freedom of expression exists, there are strong and effective laws on defamation and damages. Media outlets or networks involved in publishing or broadcasting lies for maligning other people or inciting violence are taken to task by courts. A recent judgment of a court in London imposing heavy fine on a Pakistani TV channel operating in UK is a case in point. On the contrary Pakistani torts and defamation laws aren’t strong enough to discourage media from indulging in negative practices. Three, although the masses and political workers are struggling for democracy and have rendered heroic sacrifices against dictatorships of all kinds, the political leadership has failed to translate those efforts into the supremacy of the Constitution and elected Parliament. The dominance of a patronage culture has been the major obstacle in gaining a higher moral ground on the part of the political leadership which seems to be content with becoming just a partner in power.
Rampant corruption in most of the state institutions has been eating into the vitals of the democratic system. Unfortunately neither the institutional machinery inherited from the colonial state or new institutions created for fighting corruption have delivered, as they have been confined to selective accountability, witch-hunts and political victimisation. Some powerful institutions have simply refused accountability all together. Consequently substance has been replaced by rhetoric on this issue. Most recently the slogan of accountability has become a stick to beat one’s opponents with.
Be that as it may, the recent uproar over an article of Mr Hussain Haqqani published in the Washington Post has brought to the fore the twisted nature of Pakistani discourse on accountability. With a few noble exceptions the rating hungry electronic media went for the kill without bothering about rationality or fairness of the argument. At least in one Urdu TV channel I saw a ticker purportedly based on a message from a viewer demanding hanging of Mr. Hussain Haqqani. Now we know that there is no FIR or criminal complaint against Mr. Haqqani and he hasn’t been put on any type of court trail. How can someone say such an irresponsible thing against Mr Haqqani or anyone else and get away with it? Interestingly the Abbottabad Commission Report that can clarify most of the controversies involved in the debate about Mr Haqqani’s article remains under wraps. The Publication of the said report can not only put most of the controversies to rest but can also apportion responsibility paving ground for trails. If the aforementioned report finds Mr Haqqani in violation of any law or procedure no one will have any problem with his prosecution. But that doesn’t seem to be a priority. Is it surprising? Haven’t we been here before? The worst thing that has happened to this country during the seven decades of its existence was its disintegration in 1971. A Supreme Court Commission known as Hamood-ur-Rehman Commission investigated the debacle, apportioned responsibility and recommend trails. But the report never saw the light of the day inside Pakistan because the then political government (supposed to be the strongest) didn’t dare putting Generals on trail.
Total failure of the state in prosecuting the abrogators of the country’s Constitution is another instance of the myth of accountability in Pakistan. Article 6 of the 1973 Constitution describes abrogation of the Constitution as high treason punishable with death sentence. Even if we forget about the martial laws imposed by General Ayub Khan and General Agha Mohammad Yahya that happened before the 1973 Constitution, there have been at least four instances of abrogation of the Constitution (with General Musharraf having the dubious distinction of abrogating the Constitution twice). The only serious effort for prosecuting an abrogator was seen when General Musharraf was arraigned before a special tribunal some time ago. But we witnessed the brazen manipulations that led to General Musharraf’s escape from the trail and interestingly he has been bragging about it. Breaking a traffic signal seems to be a more serious offense in Pakistan than breaking the country’s Constitution!
Yet another example of the myth of accountability is the weird debate about banning social media in Pakistan. Like every other medium social media has its pros and cons. It is a powerful medium presenting new and serious challenges to the authoritarian control over media. Curbing dissent in its presence has become impossible. It has empowered the suppressed masses by providing a forum for raising issues that could never find space in the so-called mainstream media. But some criminal elements, including extremists and terrorists have also started using it for promoting their nefarious designs. There aren’t two opinions about legal mechanisms for eliminating cyber crime. But the deep state doesn’t seem to be even inclined to go by the rather draconian Prevention of Cyber Crime Act. The kidnapping of bloggers and the subsequent fascist campaign clearly show that an atmosphere is being created to block all social media instead of weeding out cyber crime. It’s like killing the patient instead of eliminating the disease.
Pakistan needs a robust and effective constitutional system for across the board accountability with no holy cows and no witch-hunts. But the country also needs a truth and reconciliation commission for bringing the painful and troubling issues of the past to a closure.