Fear of truth & transparency

PAKISTANI people’s refusal to face the truth was again demonstrated last Friday when the fall of Dhaka in 1971 and the carnage at Peshawar’s Army Public School two years ago were remembered.

At the meetings held to recall the 1971 debacle two points were generally made — that the people did not know what was happening in East Pakistan and that no lessons have been learnt from the state’s dismemberment.

It was another demonstration of what a perceptive writer has called collective amnesia. If the people did not know what happened in 1970-1971 and what had happened since 1947, they are no longer ignorant about the role played by the government and the people of the then West Pakistan. What prevents them now from owning their guilt? Is it fear of the truth, or contempt for it? The nation cannot go through the catharsis it needs without acknowledging the wrongs done to the Bengali Pakistanis. That the latter also subjected the non-Bengalis to excesses cannot absolve us of our part in the gory drama.

Likewise, there is little evidence that the whole truth about the APS massacre is being faced. The prime minister says no mercy will be shown to terrorists and the new army chief has resolved to avenge the killing of the innocent students. That is good as far as it goes. However, some thought should also be given to the genesis of religiously inspired militancy, because terrorism cannot be overcome without tackling the causes of its birth and growth. Obviously, Pakistan is paying a heavy price for preferring theocracy over the democratic polity it had started out with.

A bigger problem is that the state is abandoning whatever tradition of openness it had. It is devising ever new methods of information control that amounts to concealment of reality. All recent discussions on the subject have confirmed that the space for the media to freely function is shrinking.

The damage caused to national interest by living in a state of self-denial is visible all around.

Further, arbitrary suppression of civil society organisations has increased. Sometimes these CSOs are accused of painting before United Nations representatives a bleak picture of human rights in the country.

This attitude may be justified if a CSO has been indicted by a judicial forum of conspiring to defame the state or communicating secretly with foreign parties. But it cannot be justified against CSOs that tell the administration about its errors, the flaws in its policies, and its shortcomings at public forums within the country. In such situations, the CSOs and the media function as a public accountability mechanism and deserve to be lauded instead of being put in the dock.

It is wrong to presume that CSOs/ NGOs are the only possible sources available to UN agencies to learn of what goes on in Pakistan . Speaking at a full court reference last Thursday, Chief Justice Anwar Zaheer Jamali declared that corruption was rampant in national institutions. What prevents the outside world from reading this statement and drawing its own conclusions? Why should the media/ CSOs be penalised for publicising such observations/ disclosures? Will the government accuse the commission that probed the killing of lawyers in Quetta of painting a bleak picture of the situation in the country?

Many people in government believe that exposure of any wrong done by any authority weakens the state and is therefore contrary to the national interest. They need to be told that states that own their mistakes and keep the tradition of self-criticism alive become stronger and not weaker. President Nixon’s exit from office, after the publication of the Watergate story, made US democracy stronger. When a chief of the army staff punished several senior army officers for corruption, the prestige of the service went up.

These authorities may also recall Quaid-i-Azam’s advice to the colonial government to “protect those journalists who are doing their duty and who are serving both the public and the government by criticising the government freely, independently, honestly — which is an education for any government.”

That the establishment cannot give up its love of secrecy was confirmed the other day when the cabinet secretary issued a 10-point directive to protect the secrecy of his division’s activities.

The cult of secret government leads to the denial mould of which Pakistani authorities are overly fond. When the question of child labour was raised, our first reaction was denial of any such thing in Pakistan. Torture, especially in custody, is endemic in Pakistan, and this has been confirmed in numerous court proceedings, but the denial of torture is becoming a strong habit.

The damage caused to national interest by living in a state of self-denial and repudiating open governance is visible all around. Despite the demands of democratic governance, Pakistan’s agreements with foreign governments/ organisations are not made public. Parliamentary debates on the administration are becoming more and more perfunctory. The devaluation of the role of question hour in parliamentary proceedings is quite evident. More and more, people are protesting against the prime minister’s reluctance to come to parliament or to hold press conferences. All authorities must realise, that, today only states that respect truth and transparency will enjoy the respect of their people and the world community.

What needs to be done is known. The government must make a firm commitment to ensure transparency. All treaties with foreign parties — construction companies, banks, friendly states and international agencies — must be made subject to parliament’s ratification and laid on the tables of legislatures concerned. It is vital to respect the media’s and citizens’ right to know. The changes recently made in the Right to Information bill should be withdrawn. The harassment of media and CSOs for exposing the executive’s excesses and follies, and society’s ugly practices must cease.

Pakistan will be able to ascend to unprecedented heights once it stops being afraid of truth and transparency.

Published in Dawn December 22nd, 2016

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