Increased scandalization: Pakistan political scandals

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by Fawad Kaiser 16 July 2019

With regard to types of scandals, offences related to economic affairs and personal behaviour scandals are the most prominent scandal types. Legislation, which influence what is defined as scandalous, may thus differ radically between South Asian countries that, in most areas, are regarded as relatively similar. The scandals in the wake of the #MeToo movement also sends a signal  that acts and problems that have long existed but have often been silenced may suddenly turn into scandals as moral scales and the political climate change.

All political scandals trigger discussions of trust, but in a competitive commercial media climate, both important and minor legal offences and moral transgressions are regularly treated as scandalous media events. Today, actors in social media and mainstream media organizations can collaborate on cases that might develop into scandal news.

Falling under the media’s scandal umbrella are large-scale corruption revelations, security scandals, sexual harassment, minor fiscal evasions by politicians, private sex peccadilloes, and examples of scandalous talk in television broadcasts. Some scandals, major and minor, result in media hunts for weeks and may force political leaders to resign. Others are shorter in duration, as news stories reveal norm transgressions that are quite trivial and easily forgotten by the public. Most political scandals are linked primarily to individual politicians’ norm transgressions and improper conduct. Another category comprises scandals that can be linked primarily to mistakes concerning public policy or the actions of government institutions. In every case, mediation and public reactions are a constitutive factor.

Events concerning the malfeasance of public officials typically fall into the second category. Politicians may wish to communicate directly with voters about certain matters, such as popular policy decisions, but they clearly have no incentive to advertise their wrong doings. As a result, the mass media have the potential to play a crucial role as watchdogs.

We are a long way from done processing the recent Daily Mail on line scandal—or, given how much has been redacted, from knowing what it really says. But one thing that is clear now is that the questions it leaves open are about a lot more than the sensational Judge Arshad Malik video scandal that rocked the media. They are about whether, with enough money and power, you can get away with undermining judiciary and twisting the rule of law.

That is Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz group leader Maryam Nawaz calling Prime Minister Pakistan Imran Khan flat out for conspiracy to jail ex -Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Although this has been successful in resetting the bar for scandal, it barely rated an “eh” from much of the military establishment. This is the “white tablecloth problem”: When you spill red wine on a clean tablecloth, it’s obvious and embarrassing. Spill on a tablecloth covered in stains and oh well, what’s one more? But that doesn’t mean the tablecloth is clean. It means we need to back up and look at the whole thing.

The Daily Mail on line scandal was never, in the main, about whether current leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly of Pakistan Shahbaz Sharif would be prosecuted for a crime. It was, and is, about a bigger issue: A wealthy politician who hoped to profit from plundering a foreign aid put his own financial interests above those of his country and who lied about it to those he swore to serve. There is a word for this, but it is not political point scoring. It is corruption. And rather than laying off investigating it, as too many are suggesting now, journalism needs to back up and look at the whole thing.

It is an insidious phenomenon because it is self-sustaining: Politicians and bureaucrats benefit from corruption, then run on a platform of fighting it, then take fuller advantage of it once in office. This did not begin with Shahbaz Sharif or Judge Arshad Malik, but the full swamp flowering of administration has made it plain to a point where people across the political spectrum now consider corruption one of the most significant dangers facing the nation.

Tackling corruption systematically is a daunting challenge. But if that all sounds grim, it is not hopeless. First off, there is evidence that more and more people are now diagnosing the problem. “Corrupt government officials”—

Political scandals generally trigger discussions of trust in politicians with individual politicians being particularly severely punished for political hypocrisy. The most scandal-prone politicians seem to be power holders representing parties with government positions.

However, many mediated political scandals concern small sums of money, minor legal offences, and moral transgressions with limited societal consequences. These are treated as major scandals in a competitive commercial media climate and are enhanced through sharing and commenting on social media. From the perspective of democratic institutions, “scandals may erupt around the wrong forms of deviance or, more troubling still, they may erupt over nothing”. In empirical studies of scandals, this complicates analyses of development trends. We run the risk of counting vultures and sparrows as the same type of bird.

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