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Media, technology, and the state in Pakistan

August 23, 2010

Ahsan at FiveRupees has a customarily thought-provoking post on the Sialkot tragedy, explaining the importance of the state’s role in providing justice and public good in both the theoretical and practical context, and then discussing the implications of ‘180 million mini-governments’ and declining state legitimacy.

There’s no doubt that the Pakistani state has had little legitimacy for a long time. But I think incidents of vigilante justice, almost if not completely anarchist in nature, might help people realize that the state does have an important role and needs to be at least marginally respected. And I think, like he mentions, that media and technology have an important role to play in helping build institutional capacity and give the state the ability to fulfill its social contract.

It’s hard to define the role technology can play – because it can be used both for good or bad. So far it has increasingly empowered citizens, often at the expense of the state (for example the use of mobile phones by terrorists and petty thieves alike). That’s probably because the state itself has never properly used technology. There is MASSIVE potential for dramatically improving government operations in Pakistan through technology – at least in the urban centers, which constitute 36-40% of the population, depending on the numbers you believe. For all the social conservatism, I think (but can’t empirically prove right now) that Pakistanis have been ridiculously receptive to new technology.

Then there’s the potential  for better communication. Just about everyone has a cellphone and Internet penetration has grown almost exponentially in the last decade. How many times, though, can someone remember receiving a message from government? Constantly communicating with the nation over the last few weeks could have done a world of good to the government’s image.

As for the media – I’ve written about it before – I hope that it will, over time, evolve a set of ethics for itself, enforced by an audience that demands better service. (Isn’t the remote control the ultimate vote?) So far the media has played a great role in restoring power to civil society, but it has also manufactured a great deal of consent, and continues to do so. At the very least, it would be a stretch to say that the media (especially television, which remains the most important because of its massive reach and easy consumption) has presented an unbiased view of what’s happening in the country. Most would agree that TV channels often push a predetermined agenda – the hope, really, is that voices across the spectrum are heard and that everyone gets to push their agenda.

Unfortunately it is not that easy to find diverse messages – individually diverse voices, to be sure, but on the whole, the gist of the message remains relatively homogeneous. For example, is it just my imagination, or has the Fourth Estate implicitly developed a case for martial law in Pakistan over the past few weeks? Army is the only thing worth trusting. Army this. Army that. Army saves the country yet again. Army needs to step in. Govt sucks. Govt sucks. Govt sucks. And on. And on. And ON. And today the message from London that to save Pakistan, the army must take over again. Yes, that will build a lot of state institutions, indeed.*

Two questions:

1) Why do people who otherwise display absolutely no faith in government have such huge expectations of it? Where does that tremendous sense of entitlement come from? Especially when most people don’t pay taxes and don’t follow the law to begin with?

2) Why is the civilian government (and democracy) being blamed for mistreatment of funds and inadequate redevelopment in the Northern areas when it’s the army that’s been in charge from 2005 – 2008? Did all the misuse of aid funding happen after the PPP-led coalition** government came in? Is that why ERRA’s efforts were noted, two years on, for being ‘mired in ineptness and inefficiency’?

*I should clarify here that I’m not anti-army by any means, I’m anti-military dictatorship. The army has a very important role and needs to be supported in doing its rightful job (fighting militants for the present) and its work during the floods has been praised by just about everyone. I do not, however, believe that dictatorships can help build strong state institutions that uphold the rights of people – indeed, as in the case of Ahmadis, as covered by Manan Ahmed in a fantastic series, martial law has acted decisively to institutionalize injustice. As Cafe Pyala notes, there is no strong-man shortcut to justice.

**It also irritates me that people continuously blame the PPP alone for the government’s failings. It is a minority government resting on a decidedly uneasy coalition. Stop looking beyond Zardari, and stop accusing people who ask you to do so of being supporters of corruption. The opposition, PMLN and PMLQ, are also part of the government coalition and also have seats in Parliament.

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