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Dawn Editorial 2 July 2020

Lack of restraint

THIS past week’s speeches in the National Assembly have showcased emotional outbursts by lawmakers.
As political temperatures soar and conspiracy theories gain momentum, it appears that no one is willing to pull their punches. Rhetoric and personal attacks between political opponents were at an all-time high as speeches peppered with all shades of criticism were delivered.
Among these was one by Prime Minister Imran Khan in which he resorted to remarks that feature so often in his public addresses: he vowed to go after ‘cartels and mafias’; blamed past governments for the mess ‘inherited’ by his dispensation; railed against political opponents for ‘corruption and lies’; and mocked the accent of PPP leader and MNA Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari.
Notably, Mr Khan’s speech was made in the absence of the opposition members, who had walked out of the house after a verbal clash with treasury members following the completion of the budget process. Mr Khan’s verbal onslaught appears to be a tit-for-tat response to opposition parties’ criticism of his governance.
The prime minister must be aware that, while the opposition is criticising him and creating hurdles where it can, it is hardly in a position to oust him. Despite this knowledge, their campaign against him appears to have rattled the prime minister, and he is continuing to spend his energy making tedious, repetitive speeches about how those across the aisle have allegedly failed the country.
Since he came to power two years ago, Mr Khan has repeatedly talked about tackling the culture of corruption that has dogged Pakistan over the decades. With the same gusto, he has decried the huge debt burden he has inherited and has also reiterated his promise to carry out reform and make drastic changes.
The trouble, however, is that despite his two years in government so far, the present reality continues to mirror the time before he took charge. Where are the reforms and development projects that the current leaders have promised? What has been done to revive the economy, reform law enforcement, improve access to sanitation and drinking water — along with the dozens of other goals the PTI espouses?
After listening for a considerable length of time to Mr Khan telling us what others have done wrong, it is high time the people were told what the government is doing right. Two years have already passed, and in three more it will be an election year again.
Mr Khan must save his defensive ‘container politics’ for later and, instead, concentrate on fulfilling the promises he made to the people in 2018. The PTI had a robust election manifesto but political point-scoring and bickering have taken the government’s focus away from the task at hand. Ranting against political opponents and constantly trying to deflect rumours that hound every prime minister is quite simply a colossal waste of time.


ATC cases

AT long last, the legal system is moving towards a more pragmatic approach where the functioning of the Anti-Terrorism Courts is concerned. The Supreme Court has declared that under Section 23 of the Anti-Terrorism Act, ATCs can transfer any case that comes before them to ordinary criminal courts, provided they do so after taking cognisance of it. This ruling, the outcome of a petition against a verdict of the Sindh High Court’s Sukkur bench in 2019, restored an earlier ATC order dated Nov 13, 2018, transferring a case before it to an ordinary court.
The ATCs were set up in 1997 to expedite the prosecution of offences perceived as falling within the ambit of ‘terrorism’. Section 7 of the ATA stipulates that these courts must decide cases within seven days after indictment. In practice, however, even high-profile incidents remain pending for years in ATCs. The Nishtar Park bombing in Karachi, for example, took place in 2006; the ATC concerned had not decided the case until mid-2018, when the federal government transferred it to a military court for trial. In early 2019, it emerged there were 3,210 cases pending in the 53 ATCs functioning in Sindh. The main reason for the backlog in all ATCs across the country is that the ATA has defined ‘terrorism’ too broadly; its preamble provides for “the prevention of terrorism, sectarian violence”, but then expands the scope of legislation to include the “speedy trial of heinous offences”. A landmark Supreme Court verdict in October 2019 sought to define terrorism within more exact parameters. While acknowledging that parliament has arrived at a definition close to the international understanding of terrorism as “a species quite distinct from all other usual and private crimes howsoever heinous or gruesomely executed”, it pointed out that ATCs have sometimes not interpreted the ATA correctly. The law, said the verdict, describes terrorism as a “crime with the object and purpose of destabilising society or the government with a view to achieving objectives which are political in the extended sense of the word”. Therefore, it held, rather than the outcome or potential outcome, the motive is key to determining whether an act constitutes terrorism. The Supreme Court’s ruling on Wednesday should further help streamline the ATCs’ working. When cases are wrongfully filed under the ATA — as has also happened in instances of political vendetta — the ATCs themselves can ensure they do not take on an unnecessary burden.


Harsh sentence

IRAN’S appalling decision to execute journalist Ruhollah Zam once again brings into focus states that curb freedom of expression in the name of maintenance of law and order and the protection of ideology. Mr Zam is the son of a cleric who served in the Iranian government in the 1980s. His website AmadNews ran videos and disseminated information which ‘helped inspire’ economic protests in Iran in 2017. At that time, he was living in exile in Paris. The circumstances of his return to his homeland remain a mystery, but it was reported that he was arrested in Iran in October 2019 and made to stand trial. The death sentence was announced on Tuesday. The journalist was declared guilty under the principle of ‘fasad fil arz’ or mischief or corruption on earth. The annoyance and anger that is demonstrated by governments everywhere against the media often turns into harsh action against the latter. Journalists are the first targets of those rulers who are wary of criticism, even if it is justified. With this unwillingness to be shown a mirror, it is not surprising that governments in many countries make it a point to rein in the ‘troublemakers’ who are out to report the popular sentiment — particularly in places where media protection laws are weak.
In the case of Iran too, it has been difficult for journalists to report freely — especially in an environment where human rights defenders are routinely jailed for raising their voice. There are a number of journalists — 24 of them according to one count in February — who are said to be behind bars. All these cases, topped by the death sentence against Mr Zam, are clearly meant as a warning. This is a strategy that is outdated and ill advised. Journalists are armed with words, and if the state has to respond to them, then it should do so using the same arsenal, ie words — and not bully, beat, threaten and kill them. Ruhollah Zam’s sentence must be revoked.


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