The limits of freedom
It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all others that have been tried — Winston Churchill. I feel the same about the market economy. But when the two function side by side, the combination becomes too deadly for even the most modern and the most sophisticated societies. Corruption becomes endemic. Absolute power becomes the ultimate goal of politicians. And the market takes over the heart and soul of the moneybags making the rich richer and poor poorer.
In civilised societies, a combination of three social controls — an independent judiciary, a free media and a powerful parliament — keeps the politicians within the limits of the constitution, while statutory regulatory bodies completely independent of the government keep the national wealth from being amassed by a few corporate entities.
The plunder that has been going on unabated in Pakistan over the last several years is a consequence of weak social controls and even weaker regulatory bodies. Politicians and moneybags have indulged to their hearts content in this plunder blatantly and with complete impunity.
We have a number of regulatory bodies, but they exist only by name. In fact, all of them are no more than servile servants of the executive. Take for instance the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP). The degree of autonomy the SBP enjoys raises a number of valid questions. But when you have a person at the top totally beholden to the federal finance minister, then the entire regulatory mechanism on which the country’s financial matters hinge upon becomes no more or less a joke. The same is the case in other regulatory bodies like OGRA, NEPRA, the Competition Commission and PEMRA, etc. Some of these bodies don’t even have a chief heading them. Perhaps the government is looking for people belonging to the class of the present head of the SBP to fill these posts.
Now let us find out the state of health of the social controls related to politics. The parliament has become a handmaiden of the prime minister’s brother, nephews and a couple of other close relatives, reducing the integrity and the credibility of the two elected houses. The lower judiciary is already very corrupt while the superior judiciary is groaning under the ever-increasing weight of the backlog, which is growing by the hour.
And some of the irresponsible practices adopted by a number of media houses, big and small, perhaps driven by the market, seem to have robbed it to a large extent of its credibility and integrity that it had so painstakingly and with sheer hard work had achieved after several years of struggle and sacrifices mainly by the media workers. Today, we stand divided both at the level of owners and workers.
With these three social controls down and out, the unscrupulous politicians are having a field day. This of course does not mean that those rulers that preceded them before 2008 were any better. They were worse.
The kind of political anarchy that we are witnessing in the country today can be directly attributed more to the failure of the media to function professionally, adhering to the voluntary code of ethics and conduct, rather than the failure of the judiciary and the parliament. Take for instance the simple matter of misreporting, misleading reports and half-truths.
We have deluded ourselves into believing that we are infallible. More often than not, we have tended not to let facts stand in the way of a good story, specially a scandal or a campaign to demonise civil servants, state organisations and organs, politicians and political parties and anybody else vulnerable enough to serve as an easy victim. We treat corrections, rejoinders and clarifications as some kind of blasphemous claim by the victims more often than not ignoring them, but when publishing or broadcasting these versions, they are usually rounded off with the claim by the reporter: I stand by my story.
What such reporters, their editors and paymasters don’t understand is that you don’t lose your credibility or integrity if you readily accept an honest mistake and tender an apology. In fact, I have known those who accept their mistakes in print or in their broadcast immediately attain a degree of respect and their reports are accorded more credence than those by reporters who insist that they can never be wrong.