At daggers drawn
WHILE it is true that the government may not be directly responsible for the arrest of Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly Shahbaz Sharif, the timing of his detention will surely feed into the opposition’s narrative of persecution and selective accountability.
NAB arrested Mr Sharif after his bail was cancelled by the Lahore High Court. His incarceration a week after the opposition’s multiparty conference had raised political temperatures at a time when the opposition is all set to launch its protest campaign against the PTI government.
The opposition had also boycotted a meeting convened by the speaker of the National Assembly to discuss elections in Gilgit-Baltistan and the meeting scheduled for Monday had to be cancelled. PPP chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, while announcing the boycott of the meeting, had said the federal government should not be interfering in the GB elections.
The political situation has become tense since the MPC and the opposition’s announcement of its public campaign. It was less than two weeks ago that leaders of all political parties had attended a meeting with army chief Gen Qamar Bajwa and forged a consensus on giving GB provincial status after the elections scheduled for Nov 15. All leaders had also agreed to ensure that these elections are held in a free and transparent manner. However, this consensus is under strain as evidenced by the opposition’s boycott of the speaker’s meeting. The war of words has once again heated up. Things will get even more acrimonious with the arrest of Mr Sharif.
Pakistani politics is fast turning into a zero-sum game. The PTI leadership continues to call the opposition leadership a ‘mafia’ while the opposition has branded the government as a ‘selected’ one. Neither appears to accept the other’s democratic credentials, and yet both are locked into a system that has to function till the next elections in 2023. It is, therefore, unfortunate that a normal working relationship between key stakeholders is almost non-existent.
After the speech of PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif, it appears that the establishment will also now face a barrage of criticism in the weeks to come. A system in perpetual conflict faces the danger of becoming dysfunctional. Pakistan cannot afford this. The only way to avoid dangerous instability is for the government to provide the opposition the democratic space that its mandate provides it. Fiery rhetoric and inflammatory accusations may suit the government politically but it is ill-suited for a system that is struggling to find stability.
The opposition for its part needs to keep in mind that it also carries the responsibility of ensuring that its protest and planned long march do not push matters to the brink. Personal dislikes should not be allowed to translate into official witch-hunting. All institutions must respect their constitutional limitations and work within the boundaries that have been clearly earmarked.
No press freedom
THE situation is bad enough if the press and citizens of a country are denied freedom of expression. It is at its worst if there is a system in place to ensure they are deprived of this right. Pakistan is passing through such a phase, according to the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists. The union’s Federal Executive Council on Sunday pointed a finger at the PTI government as it registered its “serious concern” over the “complete” denial of press freedom and freedom of speech and expression in the country. Its meeting in Quetta was among the most significant of its kind in PFUJ’s history given the number of serious issues that it had on its agenda: freedom of expression, large-scale lay-offs and reductions in the salaries of workers in news organisations, the economic squeeze as a result of non-payment of dues and government policies, kidnapping of journalists, harassment of women journalists, the prolonged incarceration of a media house owner caught in a vicious accountability cycle. This is a long list even by the standards of a country where journalists’ unions have been up against one challenge after another. It is quite clear from the questions raised that the government is not the only one on the list of those the PFUJ must be pursuing in an effort to get Pakistani journalists a better deal. But the government appears to be the chief offender.
A single sentence from the declaration issued at the conclusion of the three-day meeting says it all: “A systematic war has been launched by the government and anti-media forces to curb the freedom of expression and force the media houses to toe the official line or face the government’s wrath.” There could not have been a stronger call for the government to respond to this extremely distressing situation for both print and electronic media. The financial squeeze blamed on the government and an unabashed resort to old-style censorship by those who would never have been in power but for a vibrant media figured prominently in the PFUJ charge-sheet against the Imran Khan set-up that claims to draw its principles from the most tolerant of orders. They are there in the list along with the comparatively less highlighted kidnappers of newspersons. The kidnappers have been let off lightly with the mild sobriquet of ‘anti-media forces’. Others in power have a serious job at hand to address PFUJ’s concerns.
DURING the past couple of weeks, there has been an uptick in Covid-19 cases in the country. According to news reports, 74 new cases surfaced only in Islamabad on Sunday. This is the highest increase in the number of cases for this month and is more than twice the total number of cases reported in KP for the same day. A few days after the reopening of schools, 34 children in three towns of central Punjab also tested positive for Covid-19. Moreover, the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences put off reopening its private wards after five doctors contracted the infection since the hospital’s out-patient department started functioning again last month. Meanwhile, in Sindh, the provincial government’s spokesperson held a news conference on Monday to share his concern over the rising incidence of Covid-19. He said that in the past two weeks alone, the ratio of coronavirus-positive patients had risen from 1pc to 2.6pc, and lamented that the public had mostly stopped taking all precautions. Balochistan has also seen a sharp increase with Covid-19 cases tripling between August and September to reach May levels, while in KP, seven teachers tested positive for the infection earlier last week.
This resurgence in cases can indeed be attributed to the public’s complacent attitude after lockdowns were lifted. It appears that with the easing of restrictions and resumption of educational and business activities, people are under the impression that the pandemic is now a thing of the past, when in fact the global death toll from Covid-19 has crossed the million mark. Some government officials believe that the increase in the number of cases is a reflection of ramped-up testing. This can only mean that earlier figures were hugely undercounted as a result of less testing. The authorities need to be just as proactive in the implementation of SOPs now as they were about enforcing lockdowns when initial cases were reported — that is, if they want to prevent a second wave of Covid-19 in the country.