Listen to the critics

Updated 17 Sep 2020

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I.A. Rehman
I.A. Rehman

NO country likes to be told what is wrong with it but responsible states do not dismiss criticism without assessing the element of truth contained in adverse comments on their performance. Pakistan is not among such countries. It either ignores whatever is said about its performance by friend or foe or denies the very basis of the criticism.

Recently, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) asked Islamabad not to extend the tenure of its Commission of Inquiry into Enforced Disappearances (COIED) as it had failed to achieve its objective. Domestic opinion feels even more strongly about the futility of expecting this institution to deliver. Further, it generates a false impression that the needful is being done to deal with enforced disappearances and the people are prevented from demanding alternative institutions to address what undoubtedly is one of Pakistan’s most painful human rights challenges.

Now Human Rights Watch (HRW), the widely respected international monitor, has issued a statement Pakistan’s Hypocrisy on Press Freedom: Editor’s Jailing Shows Reality of Media Crackdown. It says “The NAB has been widely criticised as being used for political purposes and it’s evident that the charges against [Mir Shakil-ur-] Rehman were politically motivated. Rehman’s ordeal epitomises the fast-shrinking space for dissent and criticism in Pakistan.”

The statement adds: “In Pakistan arbitrary arrests and baseless criminal prosecutions are often used as instruments of press censorship. So long as Rahman and others in the media are punished for practising journalism, Prime Minister Khan’s statement that ‘I don’t mind criticism’ is not worth the paper it won’t be printed on.”

Any organisation urging Pakistan to solve the matter of enforced disappearances is acting as a friend.

Unfortunately, Islamabad’s attitude towards both the ICJ and HRW is characterised by crass opportunism. When these organisations assail Indian atrocities in held Kashmir it uses their observations as the most authoritative and objective denunciation of New Delhi’s perfidy. They are accepted as totally unbiased defenders of rule of law and unadulterated justice. But if they point to anything wrong in the policies or conduct of Pakistan they are accused of all possible biases. That this attitude needs to be corrected cannot be disputed.

Sometimes observations by international rights bodies are unwelcome for being at variance with the official narrative. But in case of one of the issues under discussion, namely, enforced disappearances, there is no permanent official narrative. The Supreme Court started hearing petitions for the recovery of victims of enforced disappearances in 2007. On its suggestion, a commission comprising three retired judges of high courts was set up in 2010 and it completed its report on the last day of the year. Despite persistent demand by civil society organisations the commission’s report has not been released, but one of its recommendations, that a commission be set up to recover the victims of enforced disappearance and pursue legal remedies, was accepted. This is how the present commission of inquiry was set up in 2011 and the Supreme Court stopped hearing cases of enforced disappearances.

Throughout the nine years of the COIED’s existence the UN Working Group on Enforced Disappearances, ICJ and Pakistan’s rights organisations have been demanding its upgradation and the allocation of adequate resources to it. Now domestic as well as international opinion is calling for replacement of the useless commission with a genuine coin.

Read: Death by a thousand cuts

That this demand is wholly in Pakistan’s national interest is obvious. Enforced disappearance is a crime in international law and it should be so recognised by Pakistan’s Penal Code. Enforced disappearances have blighted the lives of thousands of families and alienated large communities from the state. Hence any organisation urging Pakistan to solve this matter is actually acting as its friend and deserves to be listened to with due respect.

However, replacement of the existing commission with a better one will solve only part of the problem. Equally important is the need to ratify the UN Convention for the prevention of enforced disappearances so as to bring Pakistan’s efforts to deal with the problem in line with the international campaign. It is also necessary to make a law that declares enforced disappearance a crime and provides for the punishment of culprits and for compensation to the victims. A bill to achieve this purpose was moved in the federal parliament in 2014. If the present government is not satisfied with this bill it may draft a new bill but doing nothing is no answer.

As regards the second issue, the complaint that the space for media freedom is shrinking is indeed contrary to the official narrative, which holds that the media is absolutely free. This matter can be resolved by examining evidence that the two sides can produce. If the media is a victim of official acts of omission and commission as is evident in the revival of press advice in an uglier form, in discrimination in the release of state advertisements and advice to advertisers not to give ads to certain newspapers, if free circulation of any newspaper is not allowed in certain areas, if journalists ‘disappear’, if the fact of thousands of media employees becoming jobless does not attract the attention of the government, then the official narrative has no leg to stand on.

It would be a great pity if in the 21st century journalists are expected to explain that encroaching on media freedom is contrary to the interests of the state and the people of Pakistan. Without a free and independent media there will be no countervailing force to prevent the people in command from dragging the state and the people into an abyss of ignominy and oblivion. Responsible societies value friends who point out their shortcomings. If Pakistan chooses any other course it cannot avoid paying the cost which might be unaffordable.

Tailpiece: The Lahore CCPO is being denounced for deviating from the dominant narrative about the motorway gang rape. But how many in the country’s male-dominated, patriarchal and woman-baiting society think otherwise? Besides, the official publicity for the affair and stories of police fumbling gleefully presented on the TV and demonisation of suspects are likely to boomerang on the inept authorities.

Published in Dawn, September 17th, 2020