Is Pakistan ready for the twin economic and health care crises from Coronavirus

The Imran Khan led PTI government may keep repeating ad nauseum that Pakistan is well prepared to deal with any consequences of coronavirus but the reality is the opposite.

As an editorial in the Dawn states it is only with the official admission that Pakistan has 2 cases that the government has started to act but it has a massive problem on its hands. “For one, state-of-the-art quarantine and treatment facilities are needed in virtually all districts with special instructions to healthcare staff on how to manage COVID-19 patients. At present, there are only five quarantine facilities in the country — two in Islamabad, two in Rawalpindi and one in Karachi. This is clearly not enough to deal with a potential outbreak. Suspected patients being transported to these facilities from the rural areas will have plenty of time along the way to transmit the virus to others. The pace of diagnosis should also be speeded up, while equipping at least some of the more reputed health facilities to test patients for COVID-19 would ease the burden on the National Institute of Health that is currently conducting most of the diagnostic tests.”

Further, as the Editorial notes “all levels of the healthcare system — national, provincial and district — will have to work in tandem under a clear, comprehensive, globally accepted strategy. Anything less could be a recipe for disaster— and Pakistan, with its myriad health challenges, such as the resurgence of polio, has so far not proved itself adept at tackling crises.”

An investigative report in Dawn looks at the upcoming economic crises. “Dawn’s investigation reaffirmed that no structured exercise to identify the most vulnerable sectors/segments or quantify the possible impact on trade, manufacturing and growth has officially been undertaken so far. Most officers in the Ministry of Planning, industry, Federal Board of Revenue and customs were caught unaware when Dawn approached them.”

Further, “Pakistan is clearly ill-prepared to deal with the possible impact of the epidemic crisis in China that may take time to subside. It can lead to supply chain disruptions, amplify the inflation and suppress consumer and business confidence, rattling the fragile economy and dragging the low GDP growth rate further down. There is an uneasy calm in business circles. Private companies are exploring alternatives to source their raw material and merchandise, despite the price differential as reports of growing global anxieties over the epidemic trickle through media. All efforts are directed to minimising the chances of panic in the retail market, securing the market share and keeping manufacturing units operational.”

Finally, “Prime Minister Imran Khan has offered to assist China in the fight against the virus but back home his government has yet to absorb the gravity of the risk to the struggling economy. There is a halfhearted effort to assess the impact but the requisite strategy is not even in the works. The Planning Commission has yet to initiate an exercise to quantify the possible impact on trade, manufacturing, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and GDP growth. The focus in the finance ministry is on the expected savings in the oil import bill with the price dip and using it to improve the fiscal balance. If that deprives the people and businesses of the price benefits, so be it.”

The Fraud that is NAB is Now Getting Exposed

Pakistan’s Establishment loves to live in the shadows and hates it when the light is shone on its work or its institutions. The National Accountability Bureau (NAB) is one such institution that is notorious for being harsh on those who oppose the establishment and soft on those who side with the deep state.

In the recently released report by the European Union (EU) Special Incentive Arrangement for Sustainable Development and Good Governance (GSP+) on Pakistan covering 2018-2019, the Commission has denounced the NAB ”for being partial against the opposition politicians and soft on government leaders and deterioration of media freedom and underlined the necessity for proper investigation and prosecution of cases of intimidation, abduction, and killing of human rights defenders, lawyers and journalists in its joint staff working document.”

The 33-page document cited by The News, “said to-date there have been no prosecutions for enforced disappearance or extrajudicial killings. Despite the publicly expressed position of elected representatives of the government and active consultations and discussions on the matter, there is no progress in this area. “Shrinking space for civil society, a crackdown on freedom of expression, curtailing media freedom and impunity for crimes against journalists and human rights defenders are areas of serious concern.””

Below are some excerpts from the document, cited by The News:

“The majority of complaint investigations being conducted by the NAB are towards opposition leaders. Very few cases of the ruling party ministers and politicians have been pursued since the 2018 elections, which is considered to be a reflection of NAB’s partiality. The leadership of the two main political parties as well as the second tier (former ministers) are in prison mostly for interrogations.”

“The opposition leader in the National Assembly and former Punjab chief minister has also been in custody for charges against corruption and is on bail now. The opposition parties have expressed intention to do away with the accountability laws once they come into power.”

“NAB intends to continue with its anti-corruption drive by strengthening awareness with a strong focus on the youth. It plans to establish an exclusive Anti-Corruption Academy for which financial allocation has been requested to the federal government. It also plans to form an anti-corruption forum in collaboration with countries in the region to enhance and strengthen anti-corruption activities across borders. In December 2018, the Supreme Court of Pakistan asked Parliament to amend the accountability law allowing voluntary return of plundered money or else the court would pass an appropriate order in this regard. The process to propose the amendment has already begun.”

“There has been a serious deterioration of media freedom in Pakistan, a trend that began in the lead up to the general elections in 2018. A draft proposal by the government to establish media tribunals has not been pursued. Materialisation of these tribunals would be a worrisome development.”

“The national security is widely used as a pretext for cracking down on freedom of expression. The increasing pressure by security forces, with the tacit approval of the government, on those with dissenting views, including media representatives and human rights defenders, is worrying. Critical opinions of the armed forces are especially taboo, as well as topics considered to be of high security and strategic interest, eg the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Intimidation tactics are diverse, sometimes extending to family members and in the case of media often lead to self-censorship by journalists and publishers to be able to continue to function.”

Another Pakistani Journalist Gets Murdered and State Does Nothing About it

Pakistan ranks 8th on the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)’s 2019 Global Impunity Index, with 16 unsolved killings of journalists in the past 10 years. Of the 61 journalists murdered for their work since 1992, when CPJ first started keeping detailed records, partial justice has only been achieved in three cases.

On February 16, 2020, Aziz Memon, “who worked for the privately-owned Sindhi TV channel KTN News and the Sindhi-language Daily Kawish newspaper, was found strangled to death in an irrigation ditch yesterday near the town of Mehrabpur in the Naushahro Feroze District of Sindh province.” “The tragic murder of Aziz Memon deserves swift justice, which is something Pakistani authorities have repeatedly failed to deliver for journalists,” said CPJ Asia Program Coordinator Steven Butler. “Given the victim’s previous allegations of threats from local officials, it is essential that the investigation be free from political meddling.”

According to news reports “Memon released a video, now circulating on Twitter, in which he said officials of the opposition Pakistan People’s Party and local police had threatened him over his reporting. His reporting included allegations that individuals were paid to attend a widely publicized 2019 “train march,” in which PPP Chair Bilawal Bhutto Zardari stopped at train stations to give speeches. PPP Chair Bhutto Zardari issued a statement condemning the murder and called for a swift and impartial investigation.”

After Mainstream Media, Pakistan Decides to Bring Social Media Under Control

Pakistan is one the deadliest countries for journalists and now we have also become one with one of the strictest social media regulations. On January 28th, the Pakistani federal cabinet, made it “compulsory for social media companies and platforms to get registered in Pakistan and open offices in the country.

According to a story in The News “The rules and regulations have been included in the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016 and that senior officials in the Ministry of Information Technology confirmed that the cabinet has given the green light to the legal document. Hence, the rules and regulations do not require to be presented in parliament for approval. According to the law, all global social media platforms and companies will have to register in Pakistan within three months and open offices in Islamabad within three the same timeframe. The law requires the companies and platforms providing social media services to appoint a representative in Pakistan who will deal with a National Coordination Authority. The authority will be responsible for regulating social media companies. It requires social media companies to make data servers in Pakistan within one year. The law makes it compulsory for social media companies to provide data of accounts found guilty of targeting state institutions, spreading fake news and hate speech, causing harassment, issuing statements that harm national security or uploading blasphemous content, to intelligence and law enforcement agencies (LEAs). Authorities will take action against Pakistanis found guilty of targeting state institutions within Pakistan and abroad on social media. The law will also help LEAs get access to data of certain accounts found involved in suspicious activities.”

The global media watchdog Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) asked that the government “immediately roll back a set of social media regulatory measures that were passed in secret. “These stringent but vague rules approved by Pakistan’s federal cabinet threaten the ability of journalists to report the news and communicate with their sources,” said Steven Butler, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator. “The cabinet should immediately reverse course and seek broad consultations with legislators and civil society, including the media, on how to proceed with any such regulations.”

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) expressed concern “that the federal government has approved a set of rules designed to regulate social media platforms. Such a move – which has been made without consulting civil society stakeholders – has no credible justification. While the government has said that these rules are intended to prohibit ‘unlawful’ online content, HRCP is concerned that they will enable the designated authorities to control freedom of expression and opinion in the guise of protecting ‘religious, cultural, ethnic and national security sensitivities.’ Such broad parameters could well be used to justify removing online content deemed critical of state policies or to access unencrypted user data, making ordinary users vulnerable to the misuse of personal data. Political dissent will be the first to suffer. Given that the print and broadcast media are increasingly subject to implicit censorship, instituting such stringent rules will contract the space that exists for citizens to access information that the mainstream media does not, or cannot, provide. HRCP supports the statement issued by the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, criticising this move, and urges the government to reconsider its decision.”

Case against Sedition: Why a colonial-era law should go?

The sedition law, section 124-A of the Pakistan Penal Code, that is being used by the PTI government against both students as well as any protestors, including the PTM, is a colonial-era law that must go.

As lawyer and advocate, Babar Sattar, states “Our criminal justice practices are a product of part-apathy, part-inertia and part-malice. The system is designed to punish the accused. So pray to God you aren’t caught on the wrong side of the system.”

This particular section states that, “whoever… excites or attempts to excite disaffection toward the federal or provincial government established by law shall be punished with imprisonment for life…” Sattar argues “There are two sorts of bad law: laws blatantly oppressive to fundamental rights and settled principles of democracy, fairness and justice; and overbroad and poorly worded laws making them liable to be abused. Sedition law falls in both categories. It conceptually belongs to a time when rule of men reigned supreme and rule of law hadn’t yet evolved. Monarchs ruled by force and not by consent. Citizens were subjects, who neither had a role or say in installing government nor were allowed to criticize or remove it. They needed to be kept in check.”

Further, “The absurdity of the literal interpretation of sedition law was obvious even during colonial times. Back in 1942, CJ Gwyer of the Federal Court held while deciding Majumdar vs Emperor that, “the time is long past when mere criticism of governments was sufficient to constitute sedition, for it is recognized that the right to utter honest and reasonable criticism is a source of strength to a community rather than a weakness. Criticism of an existing system of government is not excluded, nor even the expression of desire for a different system altogether.” In a nutshell, as far back as 1942 courts established by our colonial masters held that only incitement of people to violence that could breach the peace and create disorder (and lead to overthrowing of government by force etc) would qualify as sedition. Our constitution allows for a mechanism to change the government. We have a coalition government at present. Why should it be an offence for example, for someone to advocate to coalition partners that they should withdraw their support for the government leading to its fall?”

Finally, “Section 124-A should be declared unconstitutional in its literal form, unless it is read down to mean criticism of government aimed at inciting violence. Why is it still being used to haul critical voices over the coals? Because citizens are still viewed as subjects. Their right to speak critically is to be controlled, as is their right to protest. If the criticism of the state by rabble-rousers begins to resonate, the state might feel accountable to the citizens and hence the need to control and shape public opinion. We are so accustomed to abuse of arrest power pending investigation and trial that we find nothing wrong with it. When you enter law school you are taught in Criminal Law 101 that an accused is arrested if s/he is: (i) a threat to society (often repeat offenders liable for heinous crimes); (ii) capable of destroying evidence; and (iii) a flight risk. (Monitoring and use of technology is now used to manage the flight risk bit instead of keeping accused under arrest). But this common sense approach is alien to us.”