Unbridled freedom of expression
By Khawar Ghumman
Throughout the world, freedom of expression is considered mainstay of fully functional democracies. After the restoration of democracy in the country in 2008, media and other watchdog bodies are enjoying and practicing a great deal of independence. But repercussions here are altogether different. Instead of strengthening democratic process, they are proving otherwise.
A recent report by a foreign-funded non-governmental organisation, Pakistan Institute for Legislative Development and Transparency (Pildat), on the assets of politicians did more damage than serving the cause of democracy. Intentionally or unintentionally, the report’s authors came up with data on politician’s riches from 2002-2003 to 2008-2009 that included full five years of the political set up cobbled together by former military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf. Largely it is believed that during this period, General Musharraf and his cronies wielded real power, and the tenure could not be explained as a true democratic dispensation in the country’s chequered history.
According to a reported analysis of the Pildat report, major jump in the wealth of parliamentarians took place in financial years 2004-2005 (15.6 per cent), 2005-2006 (22.6 per cent), and 2007-2008 (87.1 per cent). The percentage of increase under the current political government (2008-2009) was 9.5 per cent. Therefore, it’s absolutely wrong to band the two set ups in one bracket.
However, the report created an impression as if the present lot of politicians was more corrupt than the previous ones. Not surprisingly after the release of the report, media went haywire with usual bashing of politicians. So intense and one sided was the discussion that the parliamentarians from the treasury and opposition benches got united in their response to the report. Opposition leader in the National Assembly, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, termed the report part of an “unacceptable politician-bashing”. Mr Nisar also announced to bring an adjournment in the house to discuss the contents of the report.
Representing the government, Information and Broadcasting Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira said the government had taken up the matter with Pildat for using what he called “a faulty methodology” in assessing the assets of parliamentarians, without taking into account appreciation in the value of their properties over the years.
All over the world non-governmental organisations, think tanks and watchdog bodies do carry surveys on the performance of governments, politicians and anything which they deem will improve quality of governance. But it would be rare if any of their reports or findings would make a top story for media, followed by unremitting talk shows during prime time on TV channels.
But it did happen after Pildat’s report, which not only maligned politicians, but also strengthened the misperceived notion that elected people are more corrupt than dictators. Already there is no dearth of people who publicly claim that democracy does not suit this country and politicians are corrupt.
During a recent interaction with Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani when I asked him why there was a general perception that the level of corruption had increased manifold under the present government? He was probably right in saying, “it is always easy to criticise and accuse a politician”. In either case – accusations are genuine or concocted — instead of straightway writing them off, politicians should be given a chance to defend themselves, Mr Gilani argued.
Considering current crisis, response of local media is not much different. Over the last few months, if one goes by the mainstream media, it gives the impression as if the government is about to be sent packing. Every day, journalists are coming out with different deadlines.
Early this week when the Supreme Court took up the NRO case, almost all national dailies came up with frivolous headlines. One newspaper carried pictures of the prime minister and chief justice of Pakistan on front page and in between them was the one-word headline, ‘showdown’.
For right or wrong reasons, media hype created around the ongoing face-off between the executive and the judiciary is regrettably keeping this already depressed nation on its toes. Such is the level of uncertainty that everyday people through e-mails, telephone calls, and directly ask: what’s happening, and is the government going?