The price of freedom -Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF)

Paksitan Press Foundtion

The price of freedom

By Saroop Ijaz

The writer is a lawyer and partner at Ijaz and Ijaz Co in Lahore

An often overlooked irritant of living in a tyranny is the condemnation to clichés. Christopher Hitchens once said that while writing about former Czechoslovakia, a primary endeavour should be not to mention Kafka and The Trial – but one hardly ever succeeds since there is no other standard of comparison. Similarly, North Korea cannot be even passably discussed without referring to Orwell and 1984. The appalling abduction and brutal murder of journalist Saleem Shahzad is simultaneously both Kafkaesque and Orwellian, there are just no other standards of reference. The death of Saleem Shahzad is a calamity well beyond itself. The murder is profoundly disturbing, yet nearly equally distressing is the predictable banality of the response. The reaction is and increasingly will be boisterous, at least for some time, but the painful realisation that the horrific assassination will not be earth-shattering is already setting in, and the murder has just been committed. Bogus hysteria over the sinister violence administered by the ‘agencies’ will be on an almost vulgar exhibition for the next few days. Shrieks of revenge, justice and hollow but loud vows of ‘never to be silenced’ and similar other boilerplate stuff will be publicly aired. And then we will move to our next ephemeral crisis. Atrocities have become depressingly everyday routine.

The most perceptible characteristic of fascist tyrannies and ‘demagogies’ is their insatiable yearning for certainty. Monolith narratives and state versions are a necessary corollary of the desire for uniformity and hence necessitate the elimination of those who dissent. Yet a consequence of this certainty is that no elaborate probe is required to ascertain the culprits of this heinous barbarism, the identity of the perpetrators is also known to a moral certainty. To use an imprecise term like ‘agencies’ for these murderers is wickedly generous. This certainly is no occasion for remote implications and fragile insinuations. Intelligence agencies have a history of being accused for harassment and torture of political dissidents, critics of the state and journalists who are not afraid to speak their mind. Words should not be minced. Orwell writing about Gandhi said: “Saints should always be judged guilty, until proven innocent”. We should apply the same principle to our intelligence agencies and they are certainly no Gandhi. In the interest of fairness, on the freak chance that they are guiltless in this particular instance, now would be an appropriate time to make a statement in which they admit to their past shenanigans and put forth the case for their innocence in this particular instance. As a pointer, blaming it on a ‘foreign hand’ is not likely to be helpful, since it would be an admission of incompetence, and we will be back to the uncomfortable though familiar choice between ineptness and complicity.

After Salmaan Taseer, Shahbaz Bhatti and numerous others, writing about another man killed for his views, one feels like cheating on one’s dues, not paying the full price of the ride. Citizens in general and surviving journalists in particular should take offence. Not only because their fellow citizen or colleague was murdered, but also because they are not considered significant enough to be targeted, which in itself is a scathing indictment. Merely being alive has become a sign of weakness – it is, or at least should be, shame inducing.

Saleem Shahzad was silenced because of his ostensible attempt at exposing a nexus between al Qaeda and the top naval leadership. Whereas one cannot be certain about the factual accuracy of his claims, as a matter of principle now his argument should be broadcasted loudly and vigorously. I never knew Saleem Shahzad, although I wish I did since he must have been doing something right. As a tribute to a free speech martyr, his version should now be presumed true, unless proven otherwise. If a detainee was mildly injured due to alleged police torture in the tiniest, farthest, far-flung area in Pakistan, and the episode was given television or print coverage, one would have very good betting odds that the activist Supreme Court would take suo motu cognisance of the matter, and probably summon the inspector-general police of the province just for good measure. One would imagine that the Supreme Court should, applying this flawed but widely practiced principle, have no problems in summoning the director-general of the ISI to explain the position of his agency in the incident. Not a major or a colonel but the director-general, who is not superior in rank to a federal secretary and has not even a mildly legitimate claim of immunity. However, it is evidently inevitable that My Lords just might find themselves suddenly inundated by previously dormant but now urgent matters.

Recently, I came across an observation made by the late Salmaan Taseer’s incredibly brave daughter regarding the fact that none of the top brass of the military offered their condolences on his murder. I stand to be corrected here, but I do not recall any member of the superior judiciary publicly offering condolences to the nation or the family either. The laziness of the mainstream media in missing this glaring omission is deviously suspicious. Similarly, the abduction and murder of journalists and political activists in Balochistan is accorded less space than silly frolics of second-rate cricketers. I do not for a moment suggest that the journalist community is to be blamed in any way for this vicious attack. However, selective courage perpetuates hegemonies, rather than destroy them.

One dearly hopes that the realisation is present of what is at stake here. Not to romanticise it too much, but it is an assault on our basic integrity. The murder of Saleem Shahzad should be insulting to all of us at a very individual, personal level. It is not only the crude threat of physical violence by a demagogy but also a stab on the extremely private prerogative of individual opinion. The cynic will say that we never had that right. Well, the cynic is wrong, and Saleem Shahzad proves this, only the price, of that right is outrageously high.
Source: The Express Tribune