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.