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Silence and chatter

By Afiya S. Zia
What is it with PTI ministers and their fixation with pop music? Is it an attempt to pose as trendy, or have they been cranking up the music to drown out the growing criticism?
The informalisation of governance was obvious when the new government was sworn in and an outlandish guided tour was televised by a journalist who embedded himself in the bathtub of the Prime Minister House. The biscuit austerity drive, selling off of the family buffaloes, and the first lady’s account of a simple old-Mother-Hubbard-living-in-a-cupboard life, have all been props of a new optics policy that is befitting of reality TV rather than political purpose. Such informality has encouraged the casualisation of political chatter.
Meanwhile, in the real world, a select and inept accountability process has undermined judicial authority which, in turn, is wielding unrestrained power. The legacy of the lawyers movement is officially buried. Incessant talk about rolling back the NFC and (treasonous?) TV talk shows attacking the 18th Amendment are in stark contrast to the blackout of people’s resistance movements in the tribal areas and a media that has decided to observe voluntary silence.
Social media is guided more by randomness than democratic norms.
This causes anxiety in those who see things through a longer lens. In these strange times, satire, memes and tweets have become more than supplementary political commentary — they have become parallel drawing room chatter, too. While entertaining, this does not bode well for journalism, activism or democratic norms.
The recent Twitter exchange between Minister for Human Rights Shireen Mazari and singer Momina Mustehsan signifies new-age politics in Pakistan. The minister tweeted her dislike for the “horrendous” Coke Studio remake of a popular old song, which led to the singer’s defensive objection which included a quote from Spiderman. It doesn’t matter if you have no idea what it was about. The point is that this ‘conversation’ itself flags a new mode of constituency engagement with its own specialised references and jargon.
Mustehsan’s objection to the minister’s harsh judgement as a form of ‘bullying’ and ‘hate speech’ reflects the millennials’ sense of quick injury. Any criticism about their choice of clothes, belief system and lifestyle causes offence. However, the singer has a point about whether it is appropriate for a minister to use Twitter to broadcast both her casual opinion and official stances at the same time. Let’s not be lulled by the falsity that social media is some great equaliser — there is a big power differential between ISPR tweets and those of children of a lesser god.
Social media is guided less by journalistic or democratic norms and more by randomness. Responsive politics means that officials tweet that notice has been taken, which leads keyboard warriors to applaud their watchdog role or take satisfaction in venting their daily outrage. The sheer speed of things means there is no patience or interest in following up — either by way of reporting or investigation. Can any of us recall or has anyone followed up on the multiple cases we have tweeted about over the last year?
It is not the efficacy of social media that is suspect, but the wisdom and depth of its politics. Most often, a trail of uncollected debris follows crusaders as they move on to new cases and causes with high-speed clicks. When political crises peak, social media activism becomes akin to armchair chatter or actually silences dissent due to deflection.
Humanising rights in Pakistan is serious work. There is a dire need to rethink the UN-template approach. Fata is at a postcolonial crossroads. All human and women’s rights commissions should be holding mass consultations, drafting policies to maximise legal and economic benefits for women, minorities and the marginalised in the merger. There is a need in all provinces for centres for violence against women like the one in Multan. Special courts or special rapporteurs on sex crimes are desperately needed in an abyss that is the justice system for women.
The judiciary needs specialised training on cybercrimes and how to adjudicate in a way that balances freedoms and protection. The cost benefit of a specialised human rights police requires calculation. Expanding the force rather than burdening a limited one by constant donor-driven ‘capacity training’ is not going to cut it.
Slugging out accusations and online chatter gets attention (just like large ceremonial human rights seminars), but they do not engage or challenge the state directly. It’s time to let the free market take care of consumer products and retain informal chatter in the drawing rooms. Public office should be exclusively and urgently tackling the horrendous record of human rights abuses and rigorously implementing policies at state levels and across real, rather than virtual communities.
Published in Dawn, October 28th, 2018
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