Touchy at the top

June 29, 2019


WHEN I was at school, the standard response to insults was the old saw: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me.”

But apparently they do: witness the ban of the phrase ‘selected prime minister’ imposed by the deputy speaker of the National Assembly, Qasim Khan Suri. Apparently, he was offended by the use of this description of his leader as it implied that his party had not been fairly elected.

Clearly, this attempt by the opposition to de-legitimise the party, and question the fairness and transparency of last year’s general elections, has stung the ruling combine. Also, the PTI has promoted a culture of political intolerance that extends from containers to TV studios to our assemblies.

Wit and tolerance continue to elude our politicians.

Recently, I watched with fascination and disgust as a senior PTI member assaulted a Karachi journalist in a TV studio. This is no longer a rare occurrence: the science and technology minister is accused of slapping another journalist at a recent social function.

It would appear that Pemra, the electronic media regulator, is on the same wavelength as the deputy speaker. A couple of weeks ago, it banned the use of satire on TV channels. Again, it would seem that our rulers have very thin skins, and can’t tolerate being laughed at.

And yet the PTI has been in the forefront of using abusive language against its opponents. Imran Khan has set an example for his party members and supporters by employing crude insults against his rivals during his long campaign to get to Prime Minister House.

This is in stark contrast to his admiration of the British parliament where political barbs are elegantly phrased, and violence is unheard of. Indeed, members of opposing parties are often seen having a pint together in one of the Westminster bars after a session of cut-and-thrust debate.

Sadly, having adopted the Westminster model of parliamentary democracy, we have absorbed none of the tolerance that underpins it. Of course, each country evolves its distinct political ethos based on its own culture and traditions.

Unfortunately, far too many of our elected members bring their crude backgrounds into our assemblies. Machismo and swagger have replaced gravitas and sobriety. Party leaders do little to discipline members for their repeated misbehaviour. And it doesn’t help that Imran Khan expressed his true feelings about the National Assembly when he sent “a hundred thousand curses” at it during a rally in Lahore. His attendance record first as a sitting member, and now as prime minister, is pathetic. Perhaps his presence could set a better tone, but somehow, I doubt it.

Perhaps this kind of thuggish, violent behaviour can be best understood by examining our culture of ‘honour’ where no perceived insult goes unpunished. This tribal code has resulted in countless vendettas and ‘honour’ killings. So any criticism, whether in a newspaper, a TV channel, or the floor of the House, has to be countered immediately and forcefully.

Ultimately, democracy is about the ability to hear opposing views even when they run counter to your own. In Pakistan, as well as in many other ex-colonies, we have acquired the trappings of parliamentary democracy in the form of imposing parliament buildings and elections. But wit and tolerance continue to elude our politicians.

Imran Khan is a prime example of this syndrome. I do not recall him smiling or laughing at any of his public appearances. He is always grim and fulminating against his opponents. Hey, lighten up, Kaptaan! Life can’t be all that bad!

The impulse to censor critical comment runs deep in Pakistani politics. Of course, military governments have the power to imp­ose curbs on the media at will. But elected politicians, too, can be touchy about being exposed and mocked.

Technically, Pemra is an independent body, and the deputy speaker is supposed to be non-partisan, shedding his party affiliation when he assumes his office. But as we have seen, neither has performed in a neutral manner. Members of the Assembly are privileged with freedom of speech, while the electronic media can surely say pretty much anything as long as it doesn’t cross the line decency and accuracy.

However, as we have seen all too often, most of our TV channels churn out unfounded accusations and wildly inaccurate comments. But as long as these are directed at the opposition, Pemra doesn’t bat an eye. It is only when some of these barbs are aimed at the ruling party that the regulator wakes up to the dangers posed by free speech.

Social media, too, has felt the weight of censorship. Bloggers have been kidnapped, and allegedly tortured by anonymous thugs. The state has acquired software that permits it to access emails and mobile phones. Iron­ically, all this is happening when elected governments are in office, if not really in power.

Until these undemocratic practices change, who can deny the use of the phrase ‘selected PM’ to describe reality?

Published in Dawn, June 29th, 2019