Our right to know

By Saroop Ijaz

The refusal of the Supreme Court Registrar to render to the Public Accounts Committee any details of the plots ostensibly allotted to the Honourable Judges leaves a distinctive and familiar bad taste in the mouth. The reason put forth by the Registrar is that according to Article 68 of the Constitution, no discussion can take place in parliament regarding the conduct of any judge of the Superior Courts  “in discharge of his duties”. The argument is indeed peculiar since I certainly hope that the Registrar is not implying that the land was acquired in discharge of duties. Let us get a few things clear at the outset; firstly, no allegation has been made against any judge or the judiciary. Secondly, even if an extra plot was accepted, it forms no basis of a prima facie misconduct. In this light, the reluctance or the outright denial seems faintly paranoid and defensive, in any event puzzling. I have a feeling that because the Supreme Court thinks that parliament is made up of incompetent crooks, it (the SC) cannot and should not subject itself to scrutiny by them. If that is so, the problem should be obvious: clichés likes “checks and balances”, “who will guard the guards” etc. The SC is empowered to interpret the law and decide what is permissible, yet the refusal comes too close to ambitiously high-minded self-comparisons with two of the four Caliphs. I am against anyone being held to the standards of the pious Caliphs and quite content with imperfect temporal constitutional standards. Yet, to the cynic it may seem as what can be colloquially termed as a “having-it-both-ways” approach.

This is not merely about the assets of judges but about the fundamentally larger question of freedom of information and its nexus with democracy. We live in a society and a system which thrives on restricted, controlled information. Given the general fondness shown by the SC towards Indian precedent, the Supreme Court of India website contains details of the assets of sitting and former judges and their spouses. Not only rendered to parliament, but for everyone to see. Now that is a precedent worthy of emulating. I see no reason why the National Assembly, provincial assemblies and Senate websites should not have detailed assets of all their members.

Recently, we have seen the SC expressing its ire at members of parliament for possessing dual nationalities and how that makes their loyalties suspect. When asked in Court by a counsel if any of the judges have dual nationality, the terse response was that they do not sit in decision over matters of national security. That could ordinarily be true; yet, what was the ‘Memo Commission’ or the ‘Abbottabad Commission’, if not a national security matter? One would have thought that the SC would have volunteered its assets and dual nationalities (if any) so as not to give anyone a ground for unjustified or malicious criticism. After the insertion of Article 19-A (Freedom of information) of our Constitution, any citizen can petition and demand this information and I hope someone does.

It seems that the Abbottabad Commission report is not going to be made public, at least not the complete report. That would be a travesty and a shame, after all the noise about breach of sovereignty and competence/complicity, some of us are genuinely curious to know what happened. We do not want summarised findings but want to be trusted enough to be given the entire report so we can reach our own conclusions and interpretations. Do not shield us from unwelcome and disturbing information, most of us are big boys and girls and it takes a lot to scandalise us. Also, it is paternalistic, patronising, undemocratic and plainly arrogant.

Remaining on gagging and denying of information, I have been told that an official website of the Ahmadi community has been shut down by the PTA. On hearing of this customary stupidity by the PTA, I checked if the website of the Sipah-i-Sahaba (SSP) is still functional and I regret to inform you it is alive and kicking, with the homepage having the same singular concept phrased differently in varying intensity of “Shias are kafirs”.  If you do not see the trouble here, then there is nothing I can say to convince you. This illustrates the problem of allowing partial information; the distinction between dangerous and harmless is often lost. As a general rule we need no protection from diverse or even unpleasant information with the only exceptions being direct provocation to violence (under which the SSP would fall) and defamation. The greatest classical text on the matter is arguably John Milton’s Aeropagitica which beautifully makes the case that when you deny someone the right to speak, you also deny me the right to hear what they have to say and make my own mind.

Heinrich Heine in 1821 wrote in his play Almansor, “that was merely foreplay, where they have burned books; they will end up burning human beings”. The exhibition of ancient cruelty and superstition in Bahawalpur should shock and depress everyone; equally disturbing is the lack of sustained mainstream coverage and outrage. Ironically, Heine was writing about the burning of the Holy Quran during the Spanish Inquisition. The irony and the prescience is further compounded by the fact that works of Heinrich Heine were burnt by the Nazi regime just before and during the Holocaust. The lynching of probably a mentally handicapped man without a trial for charges of blasphemy should send shivers down everyone’s spine. This is fatal, luckless roulette with a crooked wheel. Holding your peace is not really a relevant consideration. This is the price of not holding that debate on blasphemy laws after Salmaan Taseer’s murder. The Sialkot lynching made us all very mad, and rightly so, Bahawalpur should make us even more made. Selective condemnation, like selective flow of information, is ultimately self-destructive.

We should exempt ourselves from the smug offer of being protected from unpalatable, disobliging and controversial information by the government, media and judiciary for the simple reason that the alternative is infinitely worse.

Courtesy: The Express Tribune, July 8th, 2012.

http://tribune.com.pk/story/405025/our-right-to-know-2/

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