Dawn Editorials 1st June 2023

Missing anchorperson

It gives insight into the obduracy of those in whose custody Imran Riaz Khan is being held that multiple appeals from various quarters have not had even the slightest effect.

The anchorperson was arrested on May 11 from Sialkot airport by law-enforcement agencies on charges of hate speech, two days after violent protests erupted countrywide in the wake of Imran Khan’s arrest. Released later that day, he was immediately picked up by ‘unknown persons’.

Since then, despite court orders, condemnation by rights groups and journalists’ organisations, and his father’s emotional appeal before the Lahore High Court, nothing has been heard of him. His lawyer has stated a few times that he has learnt through his own initiative that Mr Khan is alive and well and may soon be released. One hopes this is indeed the case, though that cannot be allowed to deflect from the brazen illegality of his abduction and his detention beyond the reach of his family and legal counsel.

The pattern of Mr Khan’s disappearance is the same as that of others before him — flat-out denials by law enforcement and intelligence agencies of any knowledge of his whereabouts, as though feigned ignorance when a citizen vanishes into thin air is a fitting, or sufficient, response.

On Monday, the IG Punjab’s submission before the LHC that Afghanistan-linked phone numbers were involved in the media personality’s disappearance further muddies the waters in what is a clear case of extrajudicial disappearance. Mr Khan had been articulating sentiments unacceptable to the powers that be, so his right to due process and several other constitutionally protected rights were blithely violated.

Anchorperson Sami Abraham encountered a similar fate, except he was released within a week. However, with the examples of journalists Salim Shahzad in 2011, not to mention Arshad Sharif very recently, Mr Khan’s safe return cannot be taken for granted. But it must be demanded, and his enforced disappearance condemned in no uncertain terms.

Published in Dawn, June 1st, 2023

Virtual SCO summit

HOSTING multilateral summits is a matter of great prestige for states, as world leaders gather at the same table to talk global politics and discuss the pressing issues of the day. While the Covid-19 pandemic shifted many of these meetings online, a worldwide drop in cases means that face-to-face interactions have resumed. Yet it is strange why India, which was due to host the in-person SCO summit in July, has decided to organise the event virtually. The fact is that personal interactions between world leaders can have a far greater impact than a Zoom meeting. The Indian external affairs ministry has not explained the decision, though some media outlets in India have observed that Delhi may have had second thoughts about hosting the Russian, Chinese and Pakistani leaders in person. Unless the organisers clarify, these speculations may have weight.

Where Russia is concerned, though India continues to trade with Moscow, perhaps hosting Vladimir Putin may not have gone well with India’s Western friends, hence Delhi’s decision to shift to virtual mode in an effort to not further offend Washington and Brussels. Regarding China, relations have been frosty, with a border dispute high in the Himalayas descending into deadly confrontations between troops several times over the past few years. In fact, Narendra Modi recently told a media outlet that “peace and tranquillity in the border areas” was required in order to foster normal bilateral ties with Beijing. Therefore, moving the SCO summit online may be a subtle snub targeted at Xi Jinping. It remains to be seen whether Mr Putin and Mr Xi attend the G20 summit later this year, also due to be hosted by India. As for Pakistan, the BJP leadership would not have felt comfortable with a cordial exchange between Mr Modi and Shehbaz Sharif in Delhi under the SCO aegis. India is due to hold a general election in 2024, and the BJP will want to continue to appear ‘tough’ on Pakistan in order to please its most rabid voters. Besides, the reception given to Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari during the SCO foreign ministers’ moot in May by the Indian side was quite cold, and there is no indication the prime minister would have received a warmer welcome. Ultimately, the presence of such key world leaders in Delhi would have made headlines. The virtual summit is unlikely to make ripples.

Published in Dawn, June 1st, 2023

Free, fair & timely

THE Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf has been made to suffer a steep price for the events of May 9. It appears deflated in the wake of a sweeping crackdown against its most ardent supporters and sympathisers, and has been depleted by the exodus of several key leaders from its ranks. However, it would be a mistake to write the party off just yet.

It may be diminished, but it is not defeated. Imran Khan enjoys remarkable public support for his cause. The PTI chairman recently told his supporters that, despite whatever they may be suffering today, they have already won the narrative war.

He believes his party’s message has resonated so deeply with millions of Pakistanis that it will remain alive in the hearts of a vast cross-section of the citizenry. This majority may have been forced into silence, but they will not so easily forget this message. He may not be wrong.

Mr Khan, his party and its supporters may have made some grievous missteps and mistakes in recent weeks. The right way to punish them would be to do so through the criminal justice system.

We are living in an age of unprecedented hyperconnectivity, where every act of oppression and resistance gets documented, disseminated and archived for future reference. Excessive measures by the state will only turn them into bigger martyrs in the eyes of ordinary people.

One cannot put a lid on the brewing storm by rounding up a few thousand PTI supporters or arresting and re-arresting the party’s leaders. With the challenges the country is facing, especially those arising from its fast-sinking economy, the situation represents a ticking bomb. Very soon, the hungry and the desperate will be joining the political workers on the streets.

Against this backdrop, the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency has offered the authorities sage advice. “Only a free and fair and timely election can bring back desperately-needed political stability in Pakistan,” Pildat has said.

It has asked for the prosecution of lawbreakers involved in the May 9 violence, but through civilian courts; urged the armed forces to steer clear of politics, reminding them it’s not their place; and underlined the need for urgent political dialogue between the government and the PTI. Those words should be heeded. Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif may not be interested in talking to the PTI, but he must for the sake of the country.

The anger, resentment and frustration that are building up in the body politic can only be released safely through a fair fight at the polls. This is no time to repeat dangerous experiments that can only end in ignominy and regrets. The stakeholders need to take a step back and let democracy take its course. All of Pakistan should not suffer for their egos.

Published in Dawn, June 1st, 2023

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