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Democracy Without Dissent?
Dr.Akmal Hussain
Newspaper: The News
Dated: May 25, 1999

According to Ms. Jugnu Mohsin, the wife of Mr. Najam Sethi, Editor of the Friday Times, at 2.45 a.m. on May 8, their bedroom was broken into by 10 armed men, three of them in police uniform. They hit Mr. Sethi with handcuff chains, dragged him out of bed, and took him away without letting him put on his spectacles or his shoes. On Ms. Mohsin's demand to see the warrant of his arrest, they gruffly told her that she will have his dead body instead, then tied her wrists and locked her in the dressing room.

The detention without trial of Mr. Sethi, follows an interview he gave to the BBC, related with governmental corruption, and a subsequent analysis of the crisis of the State in Pakistan that he presented before a select audience in New Delhi. According to the statement of an official spokesman, Mr. Sethi was "arrested" not for his "journalistic activities", but his "anti Pakistan conduct" in "ridiculing the very foundations and the ideology of the country". Clearly, the government disagrees with Mr. Sethi's point of view, as indeed do a large number of citizens. Yet, instead of giving a reasoned counter argument, the government chose to perceive it as a threat to the State and then proceeded to deal with Mr. Sethi in a barbaric manner. It is barbaric in the sense that the government's treatment of an alleged offender has transgressed the universally recognized norms of civilized governance: Both in the manner of his arrest, and the subsequent failure to bring him to trial before a court of law.

The detention of Mr. Sethi for expressing a dissenting opinion, is not an isolated act. Recently, Mr. M. A. K. Lodhi, another journalist in the Friday Times, was held in illegal detention for two days; Mr. Imtiaz Alam of the daily News, an implacable critic of the government was subjected to threats and then his car was carefully rolled out of his gate and burnt to ashes; and Mr. Hussain Haqqani, a critical columnist, has been held in official detention. Not so long ago, the government brazenly tried to pressurize Mir Shakeel-ur-Rehman, Chief Editor of the daily News, to dismiss nine journalists who were critical of official policy and whom the government found "unacceptable". This series of events indicates that what we are observing is nothing short of an attack on the freedom of expression and the institutions of civil society by an elected government driven by insecurity.

Since the current crackdown on dissent is likely to have important consequences for the structure of State and civil society in Pakistan, it may be useful to examine the nature of the freedom of expression, and its significance for a democratic polity.

To be human is to be free to speak. Through our words we express the uniquely human consciousness of our inner self and of the world around us. Socrates (in 399 B.C.) affirmed this freedom when he chose to accept the death sentence of the Athenian State rather than recant his teachings. Xenophon records Socrates' statement before the Athenian court that echoes through the corridors of time: "I will be choosing to die rather than to remain alive without freedom…"

In more recent times, Noam Chomsky, the American linguist, by means of his multi-lingual experiments on generative grammar, has shown that language use represents a uniquely human, and in born system of integrating information in the brain: It creates extraordinary meaning from very limited information. From another perspective, Roger Penrose, Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University, in his classic work on computers and the human mind has argued that human intelligence cannot in principle be replicated by artificial intelligence because human intelligence unlike computers is derived from human consciousness.

Thus, to be free to speak is to be human. That is why, freedom of expression is a natural human right which cannot be taken away by a government. Indeed one of the defining features of a democratic state is precisely that it guarantees this right. John Locke, the 17th century British political philosopher who laid the conceptual foundations of modern democracy has argued that the right to rule in a democracy is drawn from a social contract between the state and citizens: This contract obliges the citizens to observe the law while at the same time, it obliges the state to guarantee (apart from other rights) the natural right of political liberty in which the freedom of speech is paramount. If this social contract is broken by the government and it fails to protect these rights, then according to Locke, the people have the right to overthrow the government.

The manner of Mr. Najam Sethi's arrest and the subsequent handling of his detention by the government raises three basic issues for the functioning of democracy in Pakistan: First, the right of a citizen in civil society to be treated according to the due process of law in a situation where the government perceives that he has committed a crime against the State. It was apparent from the eye-witness account of Ms. Jugnu Mohsin on May 11, and a subsequent news item in the daily News on May 12 that Mr. Sethi was taken away from their home without a warrant by a combination of policemen, and plain clothes personnel of a civilian agency under the control of the federal government. In the daily News of May 13, a news report quoting an interior ministry spokesman stated that Mr. Sethi was in the custody of ISI (The Inter-Services Intelligence). It appears, therefore, that Mr. Sethi having been picked up by a civilian agency was only subsequently handed over to the ISI.

The government then argued that since the ISI is a military agency, Mr. Sethi cannot be produced before a civilian court in a habeas corpus petition, since the ISI (and hence its detainee) is outside the jurisdiction of civilian courts. The question that now arises is: Can a government brand any citizen whose opinion it does not like, a traitor, then arrest him/her without a warrant, hand him/her over to the ISI, and thereby absolve itself of the obligation of proving its charges in a court of law? This is an issue of the fundamental rights of a citizen versus the power of a government to wield the state apparatus for its political ends.

The second issue emanating from the Sethi affair is the relationship between a political government and the internal balance between institutions of the State. Each institution has certain specialized functions. So long as the institutions operate within their respective domains, they complement each other and give strength and stability to the State structure. However, when a government in the pursuit of enlarging its power begins to impinge upon or extend the use of sensitive institutions beyond their specific domain, their legitimacy is eroded and the balance within the State structure is weakened. The improper manner of Mr. Sethi's arrest by a civilian agency and the subsequent secretive transfer of the hot potato into the lap of the ISI gave a public impression that the government was using the latter to avoid treating an intellectual opponent with due process of law. This public perception was strengthened when an interior ministry spokesman on May 10 (reported in the daily News on May 11) announced quite openly that Mr. Sethi was in the custody of the ISI, while the acting director general of Inter-Services Public Relations, Brigadier Rashid Qureshi, informed the daily News on May 12 that the Army had nothing to do with Mr. Sethi's arrest. He emphasized that "the armed forces had not played any role in this issue", (daily News May 13). While the Interior Ministry announcement may have been necessary to take the political and legal pressures off the government's shoulders, it certainly brought a sensitive and professional State institution into unnecessary public controversy.

The third issue arises from the international repercussions of Mr. Sethi's arrest. Soon after he was taken into detention, a strongly worded press release appeared from the US State Department stating that the "crackdown on the Pakistani journalists is unacceptable". This was followed by similar statements from the European Union and a wide range of international journalists associations. The government of Pakistan chose to stick to its guns and accused the US of "unwarranted interference". This rejoinder was of course in turn rejected by the US government. Regardless of the merits of the government of Pakistan's legal position, the fact is that its crude and ill-advised actions have undermined its democratic credentials and perhaps caused far greater harm to the Pakistani State in the international sphere than Mr. Sethi's contentious presentation in New Delhi.

The question that arises here is whether the government of Pakistan being a member of the UN and signatory to international norms of civilized governance, can feasibly take the position that other members of the comity of nations have no right to object when it is perceived to have violated these norms. In the contemporary world where there is intense economic inter-dependence, and satellite television that enables moral and political responses by the world's citizens to state repression anywhere, no state can act as if it is an island. This is particularly so in the case of Pakistan which is financially so vulnerable, and whose society is fractured by internal conflicts. Pakistan needs more than ever before, the support and understanding of the international community to reconstruct its economy, heal the wounds in its society and enter the 21st century as a mature and responsible State. The first requirement for a responsible government is to think clearly and deeply about the crisis it is in, and act not in a knee jerk fashion but with sagacity. It would be tragic for the country if the government continues to believe that it can run democracy without dissent, and enlarge its power over institutions within the State structure as well as over the institutions of civil society. The refrain from Sshah Hussain, the great Sufi poet may be relevant for this government, which is demonstrating a remarkable immunity to reason: Mian gull sunnee nah jaandi sachi. Sachi gull suneeve keekan, kachi haddaan vich rachee. (Sir, you cannot tolerate the truth. How can you, when falsehood has saturated your bones).

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