Dawn Editorial 15th May 2024

Plague of rape

FLAWED narratives about women — from being weak and vulnerable to provocative and culpable — have led to escalating sexual violence against them. Two disturbing cases were reported recently: a woman committed suicide five days after she was gang raped in Sheikhupura, while five men brutalised a girl from Jhang in Lahore. The former was abducted from a Lahore hospital where she was visiting a relative and raped by three security guards; the latter was lured by a job offer, taken to Sattokatla and violated. A series of incidents highlight the need for concern and action: last month, two men were booked and one arrested for gang raping two girls trapped through online jobs. In 2023, Lahore logged some eight rape cases against suspects who ensnared victims with prospects of employment. Sadly, while no province is free of gender-based violence, the numbers cited for Punjab have been particularly distressing.

Despite legislation to thwart the scourge of rape, over 80pc of suspected sex offenders in the country are acquitted because of deficient investigation, weak prosecution, out-of-court settlements and pending cases in the lower courts. Moreover, apathy and corruption in the police force creates repeat offenders. Often, members of law enforcement themselves indulge in victim blaming. It is no wonder then that in 2022, the gender equality index showed a ‘rape epidemic’ —– a rape every two minutes — owing to a pathetic 3pc conviction rate. The state must step forward to uphold the ideals of justice; it must censure misogynistic mindsets, support victims and enforce the law. Women have to be made aware of defensive measures, and advised on how to ensure personal safety. However, little will change for women in Pakistan unless legal and procedural anomalies and societal prejudices are addressed. Perverse proclivities drive rapists — criminals who commit an offence of dominance and vengeance. There should be no space for either out-of-court settlements, payments to poor victims and families, or victim blaming.

Published in Dawn, May 15th, 2024

Secretive state

THERE is a fresh push by the state to stamp out all criticism by using the alibi of protecting national interests. Monday’s post on X by Defence Minister Khawaja Asif only strengthens this impression, though the irony of a government representative using a platform blocked by his own administration to convey the message is quite bizarre. Mr Asif said that those who leak official secret documents could be tried under the Official Secrets Act, while those who share such information could go to jail or be fined. He specifically mentioned that material on social media, which could harm Pakistan’s “strategic and economic interests” or hurt its ties with “friendly and brotherly countries”, would not be tolerated. Other high officials have of late also criticised ‘harmful’ matter on social media. The Punjab government, meanwhile, is reportedly considering a defamation law to counter ‘false’ news.

The aforementioned efforts are indicative of a state apparatus, which is used to controlling the flow of information and narrative, unable to cope with the flood of information and opinions — some of it indeed inauthentic — unleashed by social media. The defence minister’s threat to haul up those exposing state secrets appears to be an overreaction. Genuine matters involving national security — especially material that may put lives and identities of state operatives in danger — can and should be withheld or redacted. But imposing a blanket ban on releasing all information the state is privy to smacks of censorship. This would effectively be a death sentence for what remains of investigative journalism in Pakistan, while whistle-blowers seeking to expose corruption within the corridors of power will be silenced. The minister’s mention of ‘strategic and economic’ interests is also overly broad. For example, will columns, tweets and posts quoting official sources discussing privatisation or other key economic matters be deemed liable to ‘punishment’ under the new information regime? Instead of bulldozing such laws, the administration needs to consult stakeholders and civil society to ensure that the right to freedom of information, and the right of the state to hold back genuinely sensitive details, are balanced. Checks need to be in place, while the government must jettison opacity by making citizens’ right to access information more transparent. Enforcing blanket bans will only add to disinformation, as conspiracy theories and half-truths will be promoted in the absence of facts.

Published in Dawn, May 15th, 2024

Reserved seats

AFTER the Supreme Court took exception to its decision to hand over reserved seats claimed by the Sunni Ittehad Council-PTI alliance to its rival parties, the ECP has suspended the notifications of 77 lawmakers belonging to the different assemblies. Following the development, any plans that the ruling coalition had about tinkering with the Constitution without seeking the opposition’s buy-in lie dead in the water — at least for the time being.

Also in question is the fate of the senators who were voted in in the most recent round of elections to the Upper House. The 77 lawmakers who have been suspended from office had participated in the senatorial election, thereby colouring its results. Given what is at stake and the consequences for Pakistani democracy, it is hoped that the apex court will not dally on the matter.

Since it has taken up the case as one which requires constitutional interpretation, a bench comprising at least five judges has to decide how the Constitution intended for reserved seats should be divided. The court must announce a bench at the earliest so that the functioning of parliament is not affected for any longer than is absolutely necessary. It is a shame that more than three months after the general election, we still do not have a clear picture of where things stand politically. The stability which, it was hoped, the exercise would bring remains a pipe dream. Though some leader or the other regularly appears on TV to assure the people that the nation has turned a corner and better days are not too far off, it is difficult to put much faith in such words, especially since it is clear that the various institutional conflicts that have shaped our polycrisis are far from being resolved.

The role played by the ECP in perpetuating this sorry state of affairs, in particular, deserves strict scrutiny. Despite being vested with all the powers it needed to responsibly steer the country through a democratic transition, it could only manage an election that fell far short of the promise of being ‘free, fair, impartial and inclusive’. It then bungled the management of election results, which gave rise to serious controversies regarding the ‘fixing’ of final results. Since then, the ECP has been either unwilling or unable to address the deluge of post-election complaints: for example, it defies understanding why it refuses to notify more election tribunals for Punjab despite being in receipt of nominees from the Lahore High Court. Its decisions and actions clearly need to be reviewed in light of the country’s laws, and its controversial decision regarding reserved seats seems to be a good place to start. The nation deserves to understand what its motivations have been thus far.

Published in Dawn, May 15th, 2024

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