Image often mirrors reality

October 20, 2019


The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

THE people may be going under, given the weight of what is increasingly looking like stagflation, but the government, its head, and other key institutions’ bosses continue to score own goals even as they remain obsessed with Pakistan’s image abroad.

Let me explain what I mean by own goals. In our country where the Constitution and all laws flowing from it remain in force at least in theory, on a recent visit to China the prime minister expressed frustration at not being able to imprison scores (was it 500 or 5,000?) of people he considers corrupt.

At the same time, the chairman of NAB went to the media and said he wished he had Saudi Arabia type of powers to deal with the corrupt. The chairman, who is said to favour head-to-toe accountability, did not explain whether he wanted the power to behead the corruption accused; apart from that he already possesses the most draconian of powers, so why lust after powers foreign?

He may have explained had he had time from welcoming the publisher of a little-known magazine which named him ‘Mr Accountability ’ and then having the NAB public relations department circulating a picture to the media where he is shown displaying the cover with his own photo.

For a government that says it is democratic and vociferously champions the right to self-determination of the oppressed peoples from Kashmir to Palestine with legitimate cause to look like it wants to deny due process to its own people must appear like a bad joke to outsiders.

Going by the arrogance of our rulers, one seriously doubts that they would be open to any counsel, but try one must.

Given the arrogance of our rulers, I seriously doubt that they would be open to any counsel, but try one must. The image of a country as law-abiding and responsible often reflects the reality within that country. Millions of dollars spent on foreign lobbyists and image consultants can’t deliver miracles.

Let’s just focus on the criminal justice system which has long been crying out for reform. It is to the credit of the current chief justice of Pakistan that he has dramatically cut the number of pending cases, some pending for decades, before the Supreme Court.

Even then this laudable endeavour is no more than a drop in the ocean. Take the example of Junaid Hafeez. An innocent man has been languishing in prison for six years while his case has not even been decided by the trial court.

He stays in prison on trumped-up blasphemy charges while the judge and the prosecution have taken the trial nowhere near conclusion. After Rashid Rehman, the human rights lawyer representing the accomplished Bahawalpur university lecturer, was shot dead in 2014, all involved seem to have found doing nothing — the safe option.

If such instances do nothing flattering for Pakistan’s image abroad, utter madness such as that witnessed this week tarnish it further. Lahore is hosting a conference dedicated to the memory of Asma Jahangir, that indefatigable champion of human rights and the rule of law.

Along with a star cast of Pakistani speakers, many celebrated foreign personalities in the fields of law and human rights have also been invited. Among them was Steve Butler, who runs the Asia programme at the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Butler was issued a Pakistani visa for the conference and flew in from the US only to be told at Lahore airport that his name was on the ministry of interior’s ‘stop list’ (Did you know it even existed? I didn’t) and promptly deported.

It was nothing short of a disastrous own goal for an image-conscious government that says it is democratic and for a prime minister who claims that the media in Pakistan has more freedom than even Western media, to do this to the representative of an organisation committed to journalists’ freedoms and safety.

Asma Jahangir used to call those who wield real power in the country duffers. This decision had precisely this description written all over it, coming as it did at a time when the whole country is one in advocating the rights of the Kashmiris’, an issue that is being coverage in the global media and being noted in some foreign capitals.

Meanwhile, a couple of readers asked me why my column did not appear yesterday. Well, from this week I have had the audacity to move to the Sunday slot. Audacity because to Dawn readers the Sunday slot belonged to that force of nature, Ardeshir Cowasjee.

Sometime after he had stopped writing due to his poor health, the slot was made his own by the most brilliant, gifted writers/columnists I have had the privilege of not only reading but working with. Cyril Almeida created his very own irreverent style of writing and incomparable perceptive political analysis.

The confident young man, a Rhodes Scholar who read law at Oxford, was introduced to me by a colleague when I was editor. I remember asking him that while he wished to be a print journalist was he aware of what print journalists make? He smiled and said I was overestimating what lawyers make in Pakistan.

Cyril was so gifted and worked at such speed that he became an editor’s, any editor’s, dream. What the readers credited him with were his by-lined columns and news stories. I am referring to leaders, the editorials. A speech would end at midnight or an event happen in the small hours. Half an hour, later he’d produce a flawless edit where, in my case, my thoughts as editor were spelt out with such clarity, order and logic that I’d feel envious at his gift. Cyril Almeida has now parted ways with Dawn.

I feel burdened with sadness but wish him the best as he explores new, exciting frontiers. Hope and pray he returns one day as editor. In the meantime, on Sundays, you will be challenged by my sloppy copy. I doubt my image will fare any better than the government’s. But someone had to step up to the plate.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

Published in Dawn, October 20th, 2019