The fog of Broadsheet

Published January 23, 2021
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.

THE government’s decision to appoint retired Justice Azmat Saeed as head of the inquiry commission to probe the Broadsheet issue has triggered controversy for valid reasons. At stake is not just the reputation of a former judge but the government’s sincerity in investigating the issue.

Prime Minister Imran Khan should reconsider his choice. Here’s why:

The Broadsheet scandal is becoming an equal opportunity offender for all concerned. The list of those concerned is — inconveniently — a rather long one. So is the number of aspects to be probed, as listed fairly comprehensively in the terms of reference (ToR) framed by the government. This means the nature of the inquiry has to be non-partisan in its approach. Otherwise how else can the inquiry question people associated with multiple governments, multiple organisations and multiple professions? This becomes doubly important because the PTI government has already issued its political verdict on the Broadsheet scandal and indicted the Sharif family as the primary culprit. The inquiry now has to swim against the political verdict just to reach a point where it can start its proceedings without any presumptions. What good is an inquiry if it is tainted even before it commences its work?

How can the government pump credibility into an official probe when it has already declared its own political verdict?

The work is already cut out for it in two equal halves. The first half is defined by the ToR. These ToR cover key developments from the original signing of the contract between NAB and Broadsheet in 2000, its termination three years later, subsequent legal challenges, and arbitration hearings, to settlements involving large payouts and all the poor decisions that linked these events into one sorry chain of happenings. In order to do this, the inquiry commission will need to delve deep into sensitive matters where many red lines will need to be crossed. The commission will have to summon senior retired military and civilian officials, question well-known lawyers and prosecutors, pry open file cabinets inside NAB headquarters, question relevant NAB officials like NAB officials question other officials, and demand documents that usually never see the light of day.

In order to do this, the inquiry commission will need to manage the other half of its work: fuelling its purpose with credibility, neutrality, and due diligence born of professional excellence. It will also need to power its performance with the strength required to resist pressures from powerful people and repel requests from weighty organisations. Only then will it succeed in bringing to its task an even-handed approach towards people loyal to Gen Pervez Musharraf, Asif Ali Zardari, Mian Nawaz Sharif and Prime Minister Imran Khan. Anything less and the commission will run the risk of falling short of its mandate.

Explainer: Politics fuels the Broadsheet narrative

The risk will be acute when the inquiry commission delves into developments that have taken place since the PTI came into power. No government in Pakistan, howsoever well intentioned, is willing to open itself to a neutral and credible inquiry that may incriminate it. Case in point: the foreign funding issue. In this matter, the ruling PTI is unwilling to offer up the type of transparency that it requires from others. This is why the inquiry commission will find it very hard to investigate senior people occupying powerful offices in the sitting government in order to establish the veracity of allegations against such people by other people like Kaveh Moussavi.

Moussavi’s own role may be shady in the whole affair, but his allegations that some people associated with the current government asked him for a bribe, cannot be ignored. Moussavi’s lawyers have written many details of the developments since 2018, including the mysterious role of a UK lawyer who met senior people in this government to negotiate a deal between Pakistan and Moussavi, and these matters require to be probed from every angle. Can an inquiry commission appointed by a government in Pakistan inquire into the acts of omission and commission by a government in Pakistan? The answer is depressing. But here’s an opportunity for this government, and for the head of the commission, to defy expectations.

Perceptions wield a large shadow over expectations. Since the Broadsheet scandal surfaced a few weeks ago, it has been mishandled by most stakeholders, including the government. Moussavi availed the opportunity provided by this mishandling to command the media airwaves and set a narrative that painted everyone involved from the Pakistani side in a bad light. The government finally did the right thing by allowing the award documents of the arbitrator to be made public. But then, going by its instincts, it tried to spin the entire Broadsheet issue as an indictment of its political opponents. When the cabinet ministers and other voluble spokespersons of the government fired their initial salvos, it became fairly evident that many of them had not read the documents. Facts therefore became a casualty of political spin.

Now the government is on a sticky wicket. How can it pump credibility into an official probe when it has already declared its own political verdict? One way could be to appoint as the head of the inquiry commission someone who can start with a clean slate and overwhelm the toxicity of politicking with the power of professional and personal credibility.

Which is where retired Justice Azmat Saeed comes in. There may not be any questions about his personal and professional credibility, but there are some such issues about his perceptional credibility. It has come to the fore that he was working with NAB during the time under investigation. It is also public knowledge that he is a member of the board of directors of the Shaukat Khanum Memorial Hospital. Both these associations will dilute all the professional competence he brings to the task. He may want to reconsider.

But there is a larger perceptional issue. Why did the prime minister appoint him in the first place? Did he not, of all the people, realise the perceptional problem this would bring to a matter that requires to be perceived credibly?

The fog of Broadsheet appears to have reduced visibility to an alarming level.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.

Twitter: @fahdhusain

Published in Dawn, January 23rd, 2021

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