Vanishing consent

15 Feb 2020

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

ASK yourself this: do you genuinely and deeply believe in the concept of freedom of speech and the press? Ask yourself this too: do you genuinely and deeply believe in the absolute rule of law? Then finally ask yourself: do you genuinely and deeply believe in democracy as the best form of governance?

The answer may shock us all.

All three are weak — media freedom, rule of law and democracy — and are under constant attack in Pakistan. Here’s the funny thing though: all three are also enshrined in the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. This Constitution is the basis of how our society is governed. Or so says the theory of life in Pakistan.

Imran Khan as the opposition leader was fond of saying he wanted one Pakistan not two, referring of course to how the elite here considered themselves above the law — and more importantly, how the law considered the elite above the law. He was right, but only partially so. The cleavages within society have never been identified on a class basis alone and in recent years they may have proliferated in strangely curious ways.

An unhinged society tempts chaos. And what does chaos yield? The stick.

This brings us back to the three original questions. The recently framed rules that may unleash subjugation in the name of regulation of the social media are only the latest example of a trend in Pakistan — a shrinking of space for independent expression. This is nothing though. Media has remained chained to the ankles of the state for most of our history. The struggle to break these chains may have slackened often but never has it extinguished completely. Unlike many societies that we befriend — monarchies, sheikhdoms, one-party rule etc — we in Pakistan have always struggled for a constitution-driven way of life because, well you know, that’s what the Father of the Nation wanted. So that should be good enough for us all. Right?

Once upon a time the dissent on freedom of expression was primarily between state and society; today society itself is divided over it. In the last few years, a clear pattern has emerged in which a large section of educated society has grown vocal against media freedoms. A few reasons come to mind. First, we have witnessed a deliberate, calibrated and orchestrated campaign against the media from various quarters. Such social and political undercurrents had always existed in this land but recent years have seen them turbo-charged with identifiable objectives and targets. It’s not that media organisations and journalists have been smeared alone; the concept of media freedom itself has come under attack.

Test this if you want. Ask a roomful of people in any city of Pakistan whether they want media freedom in Pakistan as specified in the Constitution — you shall see the divide. In mature democracies, there exists a cultural and social consensus on values such as media freedom and this consensus protects them when political and legal consensus come under assault. Here in this land of ours, however, failings of the media industry are cited as justifications for not having a free media. Muzzling the media is preferred to reforming the media. The argument in ruling circles trending nowadays goes something like this: China and Singapore did not need a free media to progress. Why should we?

A similar degradation has happened with the concept of the rule of law. Pakistani society has never upheld this universal value much but in the last few years we seem to have officially accepted it as a ‘nuisance’ that should be tolerated at best. The PTI’s entire political philosophy is constructed around the corruption of its opponents and this philosophy has accrued it significant electoral dividends. In opposition this was an acceptable line to take. But at some point, when in power, governments do need to accept and acknowledge the difference between an allegation and a conviction.

When you do not, and when you declare your opponents guilty as charged, you as the government are propagating a belief amongst your supporters that an evidence-based legal procedure does not matter, or should not matter, when the leader has already passed his judgement about the guilt of his opponents. As a result, a vast segment of the Pakistani educated population believes people who are perceived to be guilty should be thrown in jail. This belief weakens the belief in the rule of law. This in turn weakens democracy.

Which brings us to the third question: as a functioning democracy, does Pakistani society have a consensus on democracy? The traditional argument peddled across generations that what we really need is a danda (stick) still resonates across large segments of the population. The last few years have arguably weakened belief in democracy given the disputed nature of the last elections and the authoritarian streak of the governance currently on display. There seems to be increasing disdain for debate, discussion and dissent in society.

A growing body of opinion, as reflected through social media, would prefer an authoritarian order to the messy and disorganised practice of democracy. If ever democracy were under threat, would there be a significant cultural and social pushback? Have the events of the last few years reversed an emerging consensus on democracy even while practising its motions?

There is much to be alarmed about. First we dumbed down rhetoric, then we dumbed down governance, now we are dumbing down democracy itself. When constitutional values are debased, the system itself is debased. A debased system bleeds trust and credibility. This in turn damages and weakens core beliefs that constitute the foundations of a representative system. When core beliefs are weakened, society is unhinged. An unhinged society tempts chaos. And what does chaos yield? Danda.

When people with shallow belief in core values of media freedom, rule of law and democracy scale heights of power, danger lurks in every corner. Pakistan is vulnerable to these dangers because the vanishing consent on these values is depleting the will and capacity of the system to hold them together. Perhaps this is the price we must pay for failed experiments.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.

Twitter: @fahdhusain

Published in Dawn, February 15th, 2020