Warl Marx while writing about the coup d’état of Louis Napoleon in 1851, France wrote in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, that people, who are attempting to learn a new language, invariably begin by translating it back into a familiar, mother tongue. Entering almost into the last year of the term of an elected parliament, we find ourselves in a fairly similar translation or maybe a transliteration exercise. The incoherent ineptness is palpable since the comfort of the usual turn of events might be diminishing.
The phrases that have easily been the most overused in our tired, room temperature-discourse in the last four years are “Free Media” and “Independent Judiciary”. These two phrases are now employed unstrenuously and somewhat breezily brought up in contexts, where they are redundant at best and often end up making nonsense of the situation. It is resulting in the dumbing down and numbing down of our national conversation. As is often the case with handy metaphors, very little time, if any, is spent on explaining or reflecting upon the meaning. At the risk of sounding pedantic, what are they ‘free’ or ‘independent’ of or from. At times, they seem ‘free’ from the tedium of critical thinking or sometimes any thinking. The answer might be intuitive to some, yet the question is worth asking.
George Orwell’s best essay is Politics and the English Language and is worth reading and re-reading in the Pakistani context. About the word, ‘Fascism’, he says that the word has now no meaning except, in so far as it signifies “something not desirable”. In our case it is the flip side of the argument, ‘Free Media’ and ‘Independent Judiciary’ signify something desirable and worth having. It would be a travesty if words of honour like ‘freedom’ and ‘independence’ are to lose their bite and become herd words, dead words.
Coming back to Marx and backward translation, the only expression of freedom we have historically been aware of is the licentious impunity with which the establishment has acted against the parliament. Now our media and even judiciary seek to replicate that independence and aggression. The summoning of the Prime Minister by the Supreme Court led to expression of almost indecent euphoria and hysteria by a very large segment of the media, with honorable exceptions of course. The media in Pakistan have consistently conveyed an admirable desire of being brave. The question now remains against whom they can reasonably be courageous. It is certainly not this fragile parliament or the state censorship of that defunct organisation, PEMRA. In any event the state should not have any business telling what is fit to be printed or broadcasted. Yet, they have a lot to brace them up to, the pot belly business or the monopolist media tycoon, the establishment agencies and the advertisers, etc. However most significantly, they probably need to put their guard up against falling prey to pandering to the populist views of their audience. That in many, ways is the most seminal challenge for a free media and the record of our media so far is not confidence inspiring.
The only steady job that George Orwell ever had was writing a weekly piece in a newspaper, incidentally also called the Tribune. Writing in it in the July 7, 1944 about self-censorship by the media, he quotes Hilaire Belloc’s lines: “You cannot hope to bribe or twist, Thank God! The British Journalist, But seeing what the man will do, Unbribed, there is no occasion to.” He continues by saying that it required no bribes, no threats, no penalties – just a nod and a wink and the thing is done. Prophesying the demise of the elected government only because it creates panic and sells better shows how ‘not free’ our media is. Like most arguments worth having, the argument is to be had within themselves.
The ‘independence’ of judiciary is a principle of almost universal applicability now, and is to many the hand-me-down panacea to our ills. The present judiciary has very clearly, and often ferociously, displayed ‘independence’ bordering on contempt of the parliament and most of the executive. I say most of the executive because it has been relatively subdued when it comes to summoning army officers and the Saleem Shahzad commission etc. At any rate, there is another standard of judicial independence, which has not received any attention in our public discourse. That is the lack of dissenting judgments ever since the restoration of judiciary or even concurring judgments now. The test is of ‘independence’ of a judge from the Chief Justice or brethren judges, of the individual from the collective, of identity as a rational moral being. The tendency of the judiciary to put up a front of Spartan solidarity is a dangerous phenomenon. The judges of the Supreme Court cannot take refuge in the tenuous security of consensus and just sign the dotted line. It is either fear or refusal of defecting or changing one’s opinion, which is never an intellectually praise worthy trait and can result in atrophy of reasoning abilities with tremendous swiftness. The fact that a group of people with considerable acumen and diverse experience have agreed on practically everything for the past couple of years is extremely suspect, maybe has a touch of absolutism and in no way indicative of even a semblance of independence.
It is a shame that we failed to notice, the brief but nevertheless shining moment of this past Thursday. The Prime Minister was personally summoned to the Supreme Court to explain why he should not be charged with contempt of court and he came. No attacks on the Supreme Court were made, no angry or hysterical words were exchanged, and no fists were waved or banged by anyone. It was one of the rare instances, at least inside the Court room, where two institutions interacted in a manner fitting of decent, modest and civil adults. The oversight was most certainly deliberate by most of our ‘free’ media, yet there may still be some hope.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 22nd, 2012.
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