111 510 510 libonline@riphah.edu.pk Contact

A farewell to conscience

In ancient Rome, as the story goes, a slave would stand close behind victorious generals as they were paraded through the streets after returning home, triumphant, from a battle. And his task was to continuously whisper in the ears of the victors: “remember you are a mortal”.

Even as a myth, the moral of this story has been relevant throughout history. Rulers and leaders who get drunk with power do need this reminder. But I am using this reference in a rather tangential sense. In fact, it is one particular act of the PTI government that has provoked my thoughts in this direction.

So, consider the promulgation of an ordinance last Sunday that is an amendment to the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016 (PECA). It is difficult to imagine that a political party, professing its democratic credentials and its resolve to build a ‘Naya Pakistan’ on the foundations of rule of law and justice, would come up with such a measure to muffle the voice of dissent in these times of political upheaval.

Did nobody whisper in the ears of the prime minister, the president, the federal law minister and members of the cabinet that the amendment was entirely undemocratic and was being promulgated in a profoundly dubious manner? The story of the Roman slave came to my mind also because I remembered a quotation that “conscience is the inner voice that warns us that someone may be looking”.

The question, then, is why no one in that long list of wise and seasoned politicians was able to hear the voice of his or her conscience – and raise an objection? It may be argued that not every person’s conscience would be pricked by the move made by the government. But this argument has to be rejected in the light of what the amendment actually means and how fraudulent has been its promulgation.

I realise that we have a lot of things on our mind this week, such as the war in Ukraine, the new crisis of our students stranded in Ukraine and the opposition’s somewhat twisted maneuvers to oust the Imran Khan government through a no-confidence vote. Indeed, today – February 27 – is a red-letter day. The PPP is launching its long march to Islamabad from Karachi.

Yet, I believe that issues that flow from the PECA amendment and the process that was adopted for its promulgation are of seminal importance. It boggles the mind to see that this move was actually made with the involvement of the entire PTI leadership.

Was it some kind of an intellectual paralysis? Or a suspension of disbelief, which means an intentional avoidance of critical thinking. Is there no scope for serious reflection, when PTI leaders debate policies, in the context of promises they had made and the values they have persistently acknowledged? Do they have no memory of how they had reacted to the PML-N government’s legislation on electronic crimes?

With the forever rising score of Imran Khan’s U-turns, there is no point in recalling what he had said on which occasion. But President Arif Alvi should have been more cautious and judicious in performing his official duties. Did he really read the entire text of the ordinance and grasp its meaning before he put his signature on it?

An insolent thought this would be. However, let me quote two tweets of the then PTI leader Arif Alvi. On April 17, 2015, at 11.48 AM, he wrote: “Cyber Crime Bill: Surprising how Govt legislates a hammer to swat a fly & then give it to ppl who can’t differentiate a fly from an elephant”. Again, on September 19 in 2015, at 6.57 PM he tweeted: “Have read Cyber Crime Bill as approved by NA Committee. Clauses are worded with huge license to Govt & open to gross misuse, some r draconian”.

What has now emerged, sadly, is that the amendment is a lot more draconian. It will be instructive to have a glimpse of how quickly the amendment attracted the criticism and anger of the civil society, media organisations, human rights defenders, lawyers and political parties. It is interesting how the tempo was built.

On Sunday, after the promulgation of the ordinance, Law Minister Faroqh Naseem was quick to defend it in a press conference in Karachi. We do not know what his inner voice was telling him, but he warned that no one would be exempt from indulging in ‘fake news’. He said: “Whatever happened in the past is gone, now we are moving in the right direction”.

Two days later, on Tuesday, the chief legal adviser to the government looked, in a sense, in another direction. Attorney General for Pakistan (AGP) Khalid Javed Khan told Geo that the ordinance would be draconian if it comes into force as it is. On Wednesday, the Islamabad High Court restrained the FIA from making arrests under the amended Section 20 of PECA.

On Thursday, Chief Justice IHC Justice Athar Minallah observed that the ordinance was “draconian in nature”, adding that it was even worse than the National Accountability Bureau law. This observation was made during the hearing of a petition against the amendment that makes defamation a non-bailable and a criminal offence.

Incidentally, the word “draconian” appears again and again in statements made by the major stakeholders and opinion against the ordinance is gradually building up. It has become obvious that the move is meant to deal with individuals who criticise the government – or, more precisely, Imran Khan. Justice Athar Minallah said: “It does not look like this is happening in a democratic country”.

One good example of the government’s intentions is the treatment meted out to media personality Mohsin Baig. This may also explain the indecent haste with which the ordinance was promulgated. Is it that the PTI has lost its way, landing in a place where it cannot hear the voice of its own conscience?

Email: ghazi_salahuddin@hotmail.com

Ghazi Salahuddin, "A farewell to conscience," The News. 2022-02-27.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political parties , Political upheaval , Politicians , Democratic , Accountability , PM Imran Khan , CJ Athar Minallah , Ukraine , Pakistan , PTI , PECA