The media, the judiciary and, damned if I know

Published: December 31, 2012
The writer is a partner at Bhandari, Naqvi & Riaz and an advocate of the Supreme Court. He can be reached on Twitter @laalshah

The writer is a partner at Bhandari, Naqvi & Riaz and an advocate of the Supreme Court. He can be reached on Twitter @laalshah

The media. The judiciary. And, damned if I know.

In case you’re wondering, the preceding paragraph is the answer to the question, “what makes you optimistic about Pakistan?”

You may ask what the media can do against all the forces combining to hurt this country. Is it not foolish to rest our hopes in freedom of the press when our country is illiterate, bitterly divided and under attack?

The answer to that question is, no. We may not be a nation of geniuses. But we are not a nation of dunces either. And if the rest of the world can manage to deal with the demands of democracy, so can we.

Let me elaborate. Like evolution, democracy works through an incremental process of trial and error. In the case of evolution, the dumb and the slow die out because they become food for the smart and the quick. In the case of democracy, the incompetent and the corrupt get voted out. In each case, there is an accountability mechanism integral to the effectiveness of the process.

For many years, Pakistan’s political process lacked any accountability mechanism whatsoever. The press was toothless, the judiciary was subservient to the establishment and no government ever lasted long enough to worry about losing elections. All of that has now changed.

A mere decade ago, Pakistan had a handful of newspapers, no independent television channels and certainly no private news shows; now, we have more than 50. Each channel gets to select its own agenda, its own guests and its own limits of polite discourse. Yes, the media is a raucous, ravening beast. But, at the same time, it is also fiercely protective of its independence. Within that independence lies freedom of speech. Within freedom of speech lies freedom of thought. And within freedom of thought lies our salvation.

Do I exaggerate? Again, I don’t think so.

Many moons ago, one of my first assignments as a subeditor for The Nation was an APP story about how James Bond liked his orange juice shaken not stirred. That story was duly edited and duly published with nary a response from the reading public. If anyone was to publish something even remotely as asinine in today’s Pakistan, they would get laughed out of the country. Yes, there are plenty of subjects which remain essentially off-limits in today’s mainstream media — the blasphemy law and the persecution of Ahmadis to name just two — but the point is that there is more to the media than the big name television channels. There are mainstream channels, regional channels, city channels, language-based channels and if those are not enough for you, there is the whole world of international media available through cable and beyond that, the Internet. Unlike yesterday’s Pakistan, anybody who wants to find out any information has the option of doing so. And unlike yesterday’s Pakistan, anybody who wants to speak out is free to do so as well.

But what about the apostasy and blasphemy laws? How does one reconcile them with a vibrant and free media? The short answer is that one does not. At this point, the apostasy and blasphemy laws survive unchallenged because they are walled off from critical debate by the media itself — one prime example being Meher Bokhari’s poisonous and sanctimonious assault on the late Salmaan Taseer. What one needs to see is whether this exception becomes the rule in the future or whether the apostasy and blasphemy laws become subject to reasoned debate. The stakes, as always, are high. But, at least in my view, we already recognise freedom of speech as a superior value. Yes, the debates on blasphemy in Pakistan were, and are, very extremely delicately phrased. But those debates did take place. And the blasphemy and apostasy laws still get discussed. And so long as one can openly subject an argument to reasoned analysis, there is the hope of reform.

The counterpart to the bright light shone on our national foibles by the media is the newly energised and newly independent judiciary. Yes, the average man’s average experience of the law is still dispiriting. Yes, our judiciary has a tendency to go overboard as pointed out by all and sundry, including myself. At the same time, for every tale of the judiciary run amok, there are a hundred stories in which a runaway executive branch gets brought firmly and properly to heel. Most of those hundred stories never make it to the front page but that’s the nature of news. What is important is that for the first time in this country’s history, people in power know that their moves are subject to scrutiny and possible reversal. And, as Dr Samuel Johnson once famously noted, the prospect of being hanged focuses the mind wonderfully. I still wish the judiciary would curb its populist streak. But I would also not exchange this judiciary for any of its previous incarnations.

My final basis for optimism is less logical. This is a country that has been written off time and time again. It was never supposed to survive its birth. But it did. It was supposed to disintegrate after 1971. But it didn’t. It has been consigned to financial ruin so many times that there should be a special number in the Dewey System dedicated to “Pakistan, bankruptcy of”. And yet, it survives. Pakistan is a country that has been betrayed by its rulers time and time and time again. Democrats become dictators. Dictators become politicians. Socialists become plutocrats. And all of them — plus their benighted offspring — line their pockets as if descended from a particularly voracious breed of locusts. Yet, this country refuses to die.

I cannot rationally explain either why I care so much for this country or why it continues to stagger on. All I know is that I do and all I know is that it does. Based on that slender epistemic reed, I confidently predict that we are going to survive 2013 as well. And, on that cheery note, a Happy New Year to all of you.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 1st, 2013.

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Reader Comments (17)

  • kanwal
    Dec 31, 2012 - 10:35PM

    I simply love this article and can not disagree with anything. If the system is allowed to work, it will work. Other nations thriving due to democracy are not anomalies. They started from somewhere. We will get there too for sure.


  • sabi
    Dec 31, 2012 - 10:51PM

    You have said it as it is.Kudos.
    Senior most poet come at the end.So is the case with blasphamy or other religious reforms.And indeed these will come under scrutiney.because genie of all evils sits behind the strong wall of hatred.Once the walls of hatred demolished,Pakistan problems will vanish the way,as they say it,like horns on donkey.Pakistan has tremendous potentials.We have seen trailor of progress in past there is no reason not to wait for full episode.No mullah mindeset no problem.
    Happy new years too.


  • Halal Pork
    Dec 31, 2012 - 11:27PM

    @Author: Glad to see you are feeling optimistic.
    However I feel there is a dichotomy in the media of Pakistan, the English media for the elite and the rest of the world and the Urdu media for local consumption. The twain do not converge.
    And yet, there is a third media that is the most influential of all. The textbooks provided to the children to lean their history, and therein lies the biggest tragedy


  • Parvez
    Dec 31, 2012 - 11:28PM

    Its good to know that someone is optimistic……… all is not lost.
    Happy New Year to all especially the fabulous team at ET.


  • Huma
    Jan 1, 2013 - 12:49AM

    great article Feisal… totally endorse it!


  • Jan 1, 2013 - 1:53AM

    You are naturally gifted with ability to decipher complex ideas. Bravo. Loved your article. Thanks for giving us the hope. Together we can and we will make it to the other side.


  • Logic Europe
    Jan 1, 2013 - 1:54AM

    Unusual to read somebody’ saying something good about Pakistan otherwise every one is criticising and letting it down


  • Arifq
    Jan 1, 2013 - 2:02AM

    Nice!!! Happy New Year Feisal, you had a great 2012 helping your readers better understand difficult conditions, may you have a better 2013!Recommend

  • Aneela
    Jan 1, 2013 - 9:36AM

    Feisal Naqvi,you are simply amazing and I simply love this and every single article you write!


  • Mirza
    Jan 1, 2013 - 10:21AM

    “I confidently predict that we are going to survive 2013 as well.”
    Why only for one year?


  • Feisal Naqvi
    Jan 1, 2013 - 11:15AM

    @Aneela: Thank you:)


  • Bewildered
    Jan 1, 2013 - 11:18AM

    @Halal Pork:

    “And yet, there is a third media that is the most influential of all. The textbooks provided to the children to lean their history, and therein lies the biggest tragedy”

    Are you looking into the mirror? Because our text books are OK – read the comments. You better check your own text books, as normal humans don’t have this much capacity for being so hateful.


  • IceSoul
    Jan 1, 2013 - 2:17PM

    Bewildered: No they are not. Pick up any class 9 or college-level history book and see for yourself.


  • TrueBlue43
    Jan 1, 2013 - 4:20PM

    I am going to keep a copy of this article with me as a “motivation” every time i feel down about Pakistan.


  • John the Baptist
    Jan 1, 2013 - 4:55PM

    Vote for PTI and change 2013 into a year when Pakistan broke through the yoke of medievalism into the light of modernity!


  • sabi
    Jan 2, 2013 - 3:04AM

    “I confidently predict that we are going to survive 2013 as well.”
    “Why only for one year? ”
    Adhocism!! (Hahaha)


  • Zainab
    Jan 2, 2013 - 10:00AM

    Democracy can not survive without education. No matter how many years of democracy we get, unless we really free the people by truly empowering them (education), democracy can not bring any change. Two pre-conditions must be met: education and land reforms (without land reform we cannot have education because the feudal class will never let their subjects to ever really be ‘free’)


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