Muckraking as accountability

Babar Sattar

The writer is a lawyer.

SOMETHING strange has happened in Pakistan over the last few years. We have started to view muckraking as accountability and cathartic judicial structures as justice. Can publicly naming and shaming those suspected of corruption be a replacement for accountability? This public-vilification model of accountability is a gift of the Iftikhar Chaudhry era of justice. Media would break stories and the Supreme Court would take suo motu notice. It was neither justice nor accountability, but it was cathartic.
With Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry gone, the vigilante partnership between the media and the Supreme Court might have come to an end. But the model has survived. The harangue from Courtroom No. 1 has been replaced by the harangue from atop containers. Accusations of malfeasance are freely hurled, fat numbers representing the quantum of booty are thrown about, integrity of not just individuals but groups (ie journalists, judges) is besmirched without exercise of discretion, and all without any tangible evidence.
Imran Khan is now doing to anyone who attracts his ire what Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry was doing to all and sundry before him. This model of defamatory accountability is not without its advantages. In a country where abuse of pelf and privilege in public office is the norm and not the exception and where systems of accountability and governance have broken down, the model has popular appeal. The average Joe, in his state of desperation and with no hope of witnessing dispensation of justice, is willing to settle for catharsis.

For the weak, in the case of loss of reputation due to malicious charges, losses lie where they fall.

And calling everyone who is in public office or can influence those in public office (such as journalists) a sell-out or plunderer is cathartic indeed. Day-to-day life in Pakistan has become a burden and the average citizen is unhappy with the direction our state and society have taken. He needs someone to blame. The formal systems of accountability and justice, that are meant to affix blame upon those individually responsible, are dysfunctional. As trying the accused in courts bears no result, running media trials has become the fall-back option.
The problem with catharsis as accountability and justice is manifold. One, it is neither remedial nor an effective deterrent. In the absence of due process of law resulting in convictions, those who are actually corrupt get off scot-free. They keep pointing out that they have never been found guilty by a court of law. But those who are wrongly accused have no means of redeeming their sullied honour or reputation in the public eye. To the corrupt, reputation means little. To the honorable, nothing else means much.
Two, this model of accountability takes the focus away from formal structures of accountability. Painting everyone black with one stroke of the brush is easy. But trying to fix the rot not so much. What became of mega corruption scandals that formed breaking news during the PPP’s time? Remember Steel Mills, Haj corruption, Ogra, ephedrine, NICL, rental power, EOBI, Arsalan Iftikhar-Malik Riaz scandals etc? Years later, have we gotten to the bottom of any of these cases? Will we ever be able to distinguish those caught in the crossfire from those actually guilty?
There was general political consensus since the return of democracy post-Musharraf that NAB had served no useful purpose and needed to be replaced with a non-partisan, autonomous and effective accountability body. In 2010, PML-N locked horns with PPP over the latter’s Public Office Holders (Accountability) Bill, calling it an effort to condone corruption as opposed to weeding it out. What has happened to the PML-N resolve since? Does the good-for-nothing NAB suddenly seem up to the task now that PML-N is in power?
What is the fix if PPP and PML-N are complicit in keeping Pakistan accountability-free? We have had the Prevention of Corruption Act since 1947. We have had a NAB ordinance since 1999. We have provincial anti-corruption laws (most recently introduced by PTI in KP). We have tax laws that mandate filing of income and wealth tax statements. Living beyond known means of income is a crime here. And yet corruption is alive and well. Can loud rhetoric about looters be an alternative to effective accountability structures?
In 2011, during the heyday of Justice Chaudhry and his proclaimed bulwark against corruption, Transparency International found that the judiciary was perceived as the fourth most corrupt institution in Pakistan. In 2013, Pakistan was ranked at 127 amongst 175 countries in TI’s global corruption perception index. And yet we have no considered plan to fight corruption, either within institutions or across the spectrum. The rhetoric of accountability by itself diverts attention from the need for serious institutional and behavioural reform.
What is worse is that it fights a wrong with a wrong. In a democracy, the right to privacy and dignity can often find itself in conflict with the right to free speech. Stringent defamation laws can have a chilling effect on free speech, and defamation going unpunished can militate against the right to dignity. By relying on media as the paramount accountability watchdog we have swung the pendulum in favour of defamatory content at the expense of individual dignity and media ethics.
But this imbalance has not transformed Pakistan into a marketplace of ideas. The powerful control free speech inimical to their interests through the use of coercion, resulting in censorship. But for the weak, in the case of loss of reputation due to malicious allegations, losses lie where they fall. When Geo was accused of slandering ISI, it was banned and taken off air instantly. When Mubasher Lucman was seen as slandering the judiciary, he was also temporarily banned and taken off air.
But the allegations and their veracity in neither case were considered. There was punishment of the underdogs but no accountability. Our prevalent approach to accountability has neither held anyone to account for wrongdoing nor promoted free speech devoid of slander. But it has effectively induced an utter loss of faith in our ability to possess integrity. While no one ever gets punished for being corrupt, we now have a shared belief that everything and everyone is up for sale.
The writer is a lawyer.
[email protected]
Twitter: @babar_sattar
Published in Dawn, November 24th, 2014