Curbs can’t beat narratives

Published May 26, 2024
The writer is a former editor of Dawn
The writer is a former editor of Dawn

WITH the passage of a bill to muzzle criticism of those in high offices, the Punjab Assembly has taken the lead in legislating fresh curbs on free speech with heavy penalties, even as it says this move isn’t directed at legitimate media criticism but to regulate defamatory content and ‘fake news’.

That the PML-N government, under its chief minister Maryam Nawaz Sharif who opposed such curbs when in opposition, decided to do this signifies a number of things. The first is that the party now seems to be certain it has lost support in its power base of Punjab where it appears to be struggling to counter and contain the traction PTI’s narrative has found among the electorate.

Therefore, the second, and equally important, factor is that the PML-N now appears totally reconciled to being a junior partner in the current manifestation of the hybrid set-up, as the party feels that is perhaps the only way it can survive in office during the period it attempts to rebuild its lost support.

However, there is a catch here. A party in power can regain lost popularity only through exceptional governance and by spending huge amounts of money on projects where there is a demonstrable benefit to the voter. Can the PML-N government do this?

A party in power can regain lost popularity only through exceptional governance.

With the economy the way it is in the IMF straitjacket, there is very little chance that any feel-good goodies are on the way. What is on the cards at least over the next year or two is more hardship for the people of Pakistan, 40 per cent of whom already find themselves below the poverty threshold.

With further increases in utility prices planned and the need to raise more revenue via enhanced taxation, there is very little likelihood of the PML-N coming up with a positive enough performance to transform its fortunes in Punjab, and even less so elsewhere. It’s pointless to talk of the quality of governance in this setting.

Many experts talk of the need for sweeping economic reforms, including widening the tax base through levies on income from agriculture and windfalls from real estate. In the latter, there are trillions said to be tied up. What else could explain that our savings rate is half to a third of our South Asian neighbours India and Bangladesh?

Such low savings means negligible investment in areas where it is direly needed. So far, real estate is one of the holiest of cows which can’t be touched because all those who form part of the ruling elite have a stake in it whether large or small.

Another red line are the subsidies that this class awards itself every year whether affordable or not and which are now being likened to a millstone around the resource-starved economy’s neck. This is taking down the economy as much as the more or less tax-free real estate holdings.

Does a weak, feeble hybrid set-up have what it takes to embark on a path to reform that can give some hope? Definitely not: especially when it is weighed down by demands of its senior partners in the governing arrangement who may not even comprehend what is needed as their training and orientation don’t prepare them for such a role.

It isn’t rocket science to say political stability is one of the major prerequisites for economic growth. In the past, the West has bailed out authoritarian regimes in our country, as in others, for its strategic goals whether related to the Cold War, the Soviet presence in Afghanistan or the so-called war on terror. What do we have to show for the largesse we received over three decades — 1960s, 1980s and 2000s? Our competence or lack of it meant we made a hash of things.

As we speak, political stability remains elusive with unprecedented polarisation in society, and different elements in the power structure locked in a head-to-head clash with each other as they fight for primacy in decision-making. Many of us are reduced to being mere bystanders as this savage fight is being fought.

Against this backdrop, it is normal that those who the public believes are calling the shots come in for criticism. Of course, we have a long history of politicians and even members of the judiciary being slammed left, right and centre. What this new legislation is aimed at is curbing social media criticism of those in positions of real power and authority.

There is no doubt there is an element of unprecedented viciousness in social media criticism and that is what scares those at the receiving end because they seem to fear that it is divisive for society as well as the institution. Hence the curbs — from the X ban to the new ‘defamation’ law.

The problem is that once a society tastes the joy of a free media, whether by consuming traditional media or, relatively more recently, social media, it is not easy to place them under an oppressive blanket where there is no free flow of information. It does not work.

There are suggestions that some changes may be underway in the coming weeks in the security set-up which may in turn lead to the drawing up of a new game plan. Given the disastrous ‘game plans’ of the past decade, even if it turns out to be true, this speculation inspires little confidence.

The battle of narratives is won in the long run by holding one’s nerve and developing a counter-narrative, which resonates with the popular will. Bringing in draconian curbs is akin to conceding a walkover to the opponent, particularly when there are signs of disarray in one’s own camp.

Curbs are not the answer. Developing your own narrative is. Admittedly, it isn’t in everyone’s gift to see this.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

abbas.nasir@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, May 26th, 2024

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