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April 11, 2019

A very secret country


April 11, 2019

Our country has many secrets. In some ways, it is an entity coiled into a shell, like a sea creature or other mollusc. The covering ensures that not much is visible to those looking on from outside. Actions take place within this enclosed sphere, and we as observers get to know only the very limited pieces of information that flow out, by accident or sometimes by design.

Since she was arrested and sentenced to death in 2010, the case of Aasia Bibi, the Christian woman accused of blasphemy by people in her village in the Sheikhupura district, has made headlines not only nationally but around the world. The story once again made news bulletins in January 2011, when Salmaan Taseer was shot dead by his own guard after publicly defending the woman, who is the mother of five children.

In October 2018, a court verdict ordered the release of Aasia Bibi. A few rejoiced; many appeared angry. The speculation at the time was that Aasia Bibi would, like others accused of blasphemy and freed before her, be whisked away quickly to a safe haven overseas. But even today, nearly six months later, we simply do not know where she is. There have been no reports of her arrival at any foreign airport and media reports say she is being kept in ‘safe custody’. In other words, she is essentially still a prisoner. Her memory and name have already begun to fade away. Perhaps this is part of some tactic to ensure her safety. But there are facts we know nothing about, details we are not familiar with and the present situation of a Pakistani citizen is not in our knowledge.

Other actions too take place in secrecy. Facebook recently announced it had removed 103 accounts, pages and groups, the content of which originated in Pakistan. We have no way of saying which organization or set of groups may have been behind them. But they produced content which projected a particular line on political events in Pakistan and the region. Essentially, they attempted to mould public opinion in one direction.

At the same time, other pages of various kinds have been blocked by Pakistan Telecommunications Authority. People then have access to only some kinds of information. In some cases, this can be a step which is advisable. Hate speech is banned under our law along with other material which hurts children or the vulnerable. These laws in fact need to be more diligently enforced. But the idea of any group controlling information raises goose bumps. It is too similar to the ‘Big Brother’ state conjured up by George Orwell. In real life, with 1984 long ago having passed, we would like to see something different and live in a world of greater transparency and greater openness.

Other secrets are of a different nature. The realities behind child sexual abuse, with over 3,832 cases reported last year, are rarely discussed and knowledge about the issue lies only on the surface. We still have no real idea of how many children suffer incest or other kinds of abuse within their own homes. The positive change has been an increase in the reporting of incidents, including those of sodomy. Little boys, it seems, are no safer than girls when they are placed in the public sphere. This should be a warning to all parents. But to make it an effective warning, the topic needs to be discussed far more openly and in far more places.

The secretiveness surrounding this hurts children, arguably the most vulnerable members of our society, who depend on adults to protect them. That protection has not been made available. Organized gangs and their operations are too hidden behind thick wrapping. A child sexual abuse case surfaced in Kasur in 2015. It involved hundreds of children victimized and filmed between 2006 and 2014. There have been various rumours and insinuations surrounding the case. But the doubts persist and we still do not know if the whole truth has been disclosed.

Certainly the truth is the biggest victim when people are whisked away from their homes for many different reasons. It is also a victim when other individuals are threatened or bribed into placing on the media material which is in fact engineered. All of us know that this happens and it has happened for many, many years. We have still not found a way to stop it and people in general tend to believe what they see in print or on TV as the absolute fact. They often do not realize that these facts can be manipulated, distorted or simply conjured up.

The lack of an effective Freedom of Information Act hampers us in opening up doors and windows which would bring light into secret quarters. Such a law, which is often associated mainly with the media but in fact gives all citizens a right to access vital information such as that on decisions that directly affect them, has been promised by successive governments but not delivered upon. The right to obtain official materials has been used in other nations by people to protect themselves against health hazards caused by contaminated water, lead pipes or other risks created by industries, government bodies or others. We need more such legislative action to be taking place.

The 1994 case in which Shehla Zia challenged the presence of high-tension electricity cables in residential areas, and won the case, should have been a landmark verdict, inspiring other citizens to follow on a wide range of issues which affect us all. This has not happened. One factor is the lack of access to sufficient information and with this the lack of awareness about the rights of citizens as people who live within an organized state.

We need to do more to make these citizens meaningful, useful members of the society and the state they live in. To act as such, they must know precisely what is happening around them and be able to reach their own opinions as to why this is the case. Lack of knowledge, or in other words, ignorance, creates myths and fallacies which divide people and cause harm. The concepts of feminism or secularism are for example poorly understand. Too many persons reach their own conclusions without justification and without any basis in real fact. All of us need to read more.

We also need our media to play its role in educating and creating awareness rather than merely acting as a colourful box which attempts to put out exciting headlines creating ‘breaking news’ out of events which are essentially insignificant and mean little to people. Much of what really happens is not known at all. This is dangerous for all of us. Democracy should go along with far greater openness and far fewer facts that are kept hidden. This also is significant to any effort to clean up corruption and deal with dishonesty as it exists in various forms.

Perhaps we have not succeeded because we are not open enough. In turn, this lack of openness has aided in the creation of conspiracy theories and other warped facts which circulate through word of mouth, the social media and the mainstream media. We need to examine information as a whole, create for it more room in which to circulate and ensure more of it is freely available in the public sphere.

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.

Email: [email protected]

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