In Chains By Najam Sethi

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Last Wednesday the government bulldozed eight bills without debate in a joint sitting of both Houses of Parliament. The government said three bills — Islamabad Capital Territory Waqf Properties Bill, 2020, Anti-Money Laundering (Second Amendment Bill) 2020, Anti-Terrorism (Third Amendment) Bill 2020 — were related to the requirements of Financial Action Task Force (FATF) and were therefore in the national interest; the opposition argued that some clauses in the bills went beyond the scope and requirements of FATF and were aimed at targeting critics of the government. Earlier, these three bills had been passed by the National Assembly but rejected by the Senate.

The joint session is politically significant. The government and its allies do not have a majority. On the day of voting, however, 36 opposition members were absent, enabling the government to field 200 votes against 190 by the opposition. It is reported that many opposition members received mysterious phone calls and advisedly absented themselves. This reflects the pathetic state of the opposition rather than any intrinsic strength of the government. Indeed, in the aftermath, the opposition is more focused on the Speaker’s “undemocratic” attitude than on explaining why it failed to muster its majority and what action, if any, it intends to take against its errant members.

Under the circumstances, Bilawal Bhutto’s threat to launch a no-confidence motion against the government in the National Assembly where the government does have a majority is hollow. Much the same sort of negative sentiment surrounds the opposition’s intent to chalk out a forceful strategy in the forthcoming All Parties Conference to overthrow the government. The PMLN and PPP are both flaccid. Some of their top leaders are strangulated by NAB; others don’t relish the prospect of jail without hope of getting relief from the courts. Despite the widespread public anger at the PTI’s misgovernance, neither opposition party favoursstreet agitation, in sharp contrast to Imran Khan’s aggressive dharnas against the PMLN government shortly after it won a resounding victory in the 2013 elections. The exception is Maulana Fazal ur Rahman. Not only did he galvanise a peaceful “million man march” last November to Islamabad, he is ready to do it all over again if the PPP and PMLN join hands. But he is angry and distrustful. He was let down badly by both earlier and knows he cannot rely upon them a second time round, especially after their pathetic show in parliament the other day.

Meanwhile, Imran Khan is going hammer and nails. The government is constantly threatening Governor’s Rule in Sindh to keep the PPP in line. Now it has launched a full throated campaign against the Sharifs, having succeeded in declaring Nawaz Sharif an absconder from justice, turning the screws on Shehbaz Sharif and his family, and appointing Umar Sheikh as CCPO Lahore to use strong arm tactics to keep Maryam Nawaz and her passionate supporters at bay.

Unfortunately for the opposition, the mainstream media has also caved in. If PEMRA has become unusually aggressive in banning and fining TV channels and anchors, the government has also roped in NAB to do its bidding. The incarceration of owner-editor Mir Shakil ur Rahman of the top media Jang/Geo Group is a dire warning to the others to behave or else. As if that wasn’t enough, the regular, not-so-mysterious, “disappearances” of social media activists have zipped up many budding dissenters. Those who chose not to read the writing on the wall must now contend with trumped up cases of “sedition” for allegedly bringing the government or armed forces into “disrepute” by any conceivable manner. Indeed, PPP Senator Raza Rabbani’s bill in the Senate to remove “sedition” thus defined in the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC) since the days of 19th century Raj has been stonewalled by the government’s counterproposal, via a private member, to legislate a bill aimed specifically at stamping out such dissent by a heavy dose of imprisonment and fine.

The Pakistan Constitution protects “Freedom of Speech” by subjecting it only to “reasonable restrictions…in the interest of integrity, security and defense of Pakistan”. But nowhere is this taken to mean blanket immunity to state institutions and its officers from fair comment in the public interest, especially when their members wade into dirty politics, rendering themselves and their institutions controversial. This proposed bill seeks to amend the CPC and Pakistan Penal Code to punish anyone “who intentionally ridicules, brings it into disrepute or defames the armed forces of Pakistan, or a member thereof”. Considering that unaccountable dictators have ruled this country directly or indirectly for most of its life as an independent country, and some have not exactly been paragons of personal or constitutional virtue, then as now, such a law would not uphold the national interest by stamping a lid on the public interest.

Democracies across the world have learnt to balance the national with the public interest by making good laws for accountability and enforcing them without discrimination. But with the press and opposition in chains, Pakistan under Imran Khan is headed in the direction of fascism.