Do-or-die measures

Updated July 12, 2019

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The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

THE government seems to have decided how it wants to be hailed at the completion of its first year in power. It wants to be known as your infamous headmaster who was happy to declare all suspects equally guilty and who did not discriminate while punishing them. Worse still, Prime Minister Imran Khan looks to be increasingly enslaved by his own logic that leaves him in a perfect situation to fuel adversarial relationships.

As the anniversary fast approaches, the PTI team is making frantic efforts to add as many grimaces as possible to the expression for maximum effect. The image that emerges is far from the benevolent face some in this nation might still have claimed they deserved. It is the image of a disciplinarian prime minister who doesn’t mind being taunted as a dictator while following his own accountability map.

There was news in Tuesday’s papers about the impending media ban on those who have been convicted as well as the ones who are under trial (read: opposition politicians). At first it, appeared as if this was a joke by someone in the middle of all the fake news flying around. But quickly, there was a realisation that the sentiment expressed therein did not militate against the general thrust of the direction set by the prime minister, most consistently in a series of statements which can easily be titled as ‘No NRO to anyone’. Only recently, channels were taken off air for running an interview of Mr Asif Ali Zardari. A ban on media appearance by him and other suspect politicians looked logical.

What is the source of the insecurity the PTI is faced with, which forces it to frequently take out its gagging equipment?

The most striking aspect about this possible next measure to gag undesirable voices was the certainty with which the subjects of the ban were selected. It does obviously target the convicts who must not be heard by the people after they have been condemned by the court. And then, in one sweep, it includes in the list of people who must be barred from using the media to air their views those who might still only be undergoing trial for ‘alleged’ involvement in corruption, those who are yet to be proven guilty by a court.

Read: Media ban on convicted and under-trial politicians: At best presumptuous and at worst draconian

This latest horror in the PTI’s campaign to try and black out the messages of the opposition leaders entails the inevitable questions the government cannot quite escape. What is the source of the insecurity the PTI is faced with, which forces it to frequently take out its gagging equipment against those it doesn’t want to hear, or doesn’t want heard, generally? It is staggering the pure force with which the PTI is trying to deal with the opposition parties and the media which dares to broadcast views of people so universally infamous as Asif Ali Zardari.

This is quite a mystery, unless we were to believe that Mr Khan was actually perturbed by the likelihood or the mere thought of the opposition leaders managing to win a reprieve here. There’s always been this theory which says that an NRO or amnesty was not entirely impossible from those, we are told, who have the powers to grant the pleaders this favour.

And it is just not the prime minister’s camp that is moving with utmost care, mindful of the unseen. There are players in the opposition as well who are ready to stake their critical assets in an effort to upset and upstage the still young government. Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari’s stance for the removal of the Senate chairman is one example of the desperate opposition moves to unsettle Prime Minister Khan, that could ultimately place the PPP and its allies in an awkward position.

The Senate chairman was elected in a visibly engineered election in which the PPP acted as a willing tool. No one should know it better than the Zardaris operating in the power politics of Pakistan that if it were possible for the ‘hidden hand’ to present the post of chairman of the Senate to a favourite then the power brokers are quite capable of pulling the strings to get some shocking results. If Mr Asif Zardari is willingly or unwillingly prepared to launch an offensive on the strength of the opposition’s numbers in the upper house, there must be solid reasons for his actions.

Perhaps for the opposition this is not at all the riddle some others, including journalists, make it out to be. It could well be that the top opposition politicians recognise the danger inherent in Mr Imran Khan’s daily declarations. Most disturbingly for them, they appear to realise that this is not a short burst at trying to malign the opposition leadership. They seem to know that their trial is going to be much more intense in the coming times and their best bet is to try and somehow force the government to return to the past routine where the two sides — the opposition and the government — recognised the worth of giving each other some breathing to space in order to not jeopardise the system.

This fear of worse in store, manifest in signs such as the arrest of Rana Sanaullah, could well have been the clinching factor which forced Ms Maryam Nawaz to come out with what the PML-N calls clear evidence of the government’s prejudice and witch-hunt. This was critical capital, the judge who had ruled against Mian Nawaz Sharif ‘allegedly’ confessing that he was under pressure to convict the former prime minister.

This could perhaps have fetched the PML-N greater points if it had been made public at some later stage. Ms Nawaz, it seems, thought otherwise and true to her reputation as a politician wanting to live in the present moment instead of following a more patient line, she came out with it, convincing herself, and more importantly PML-N veterans, that holding on to this ammunition in the face of an Imran Khan poised to suppress the media and politicians and everyone else in his wake amounted to dying. It could well be that we have already reached the most crucial part of this decisive battle.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

Published in Dawn, July 12th, 2019