Killing dissent slowly

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers” — Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

In Pakistan, we love to give examples of people like Arundhati Roy when she challenges the Indian state and talks about atrocities in Indian-held Kashmir or student leader Kanhaiya Kumar when he talked about freedom to protest in India. More recently, the controversy surrounding students of the Aligarh Muslim University and Republic TV made headlines in Pakistan. We heard many an analyst criticising India for its sedition laws. While one agrees with the criticism and hails those challenging state narratives, one must always look inwards also. Unfortunately, when it comes to dissent in Pakistan, we suddenly take an ostrich-like position and turn a blind eye when our own freedom of expression and right to protest is curbed.

Dozens of protestors were arrested earlier this month outside the National Press Club in Islamabad for raising their voice after the death of Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) leader Arman Loni in Balochistan. One of those arrested was rights activist Gulalai Ismail, who was picked up and nobody knew about her whereabouts for more than a day before she was released, and that too – some say – after an intervention by the prime minister himself. Then we saw that in the wee hours of the night, Dr Ammar Ali Jan was arrested from his house in Lahore. His crime? Speaking up for the rights of activists and condemning the murder of Arman Loni. He was released on bail after a few hours.

In an op-ed piece published in The News, Dr Jan wrote: “…while I was able to come out of this ordeal with my head held high, I am forced to wonder what the consequences would have been if I were from the ‘wrong’ class or ethnic background.”

For some reason, our state feels threatened by an ethnic rights movement while we romanticise the same kind of movements elsewhere around the world. The right to protest is a democratic right but if it doesn’t fit into the state’s narrative, a crackdown is launched against anyone and everyone who so much as raises their voice for PTM.

Pakistan is going through one of its most suffocating times in terms of media freedom and right to dissent. We thought we had seen it all during military dictatorships but today, under the garb of democracy, Pakistan has launched a massive crackdown on dissenting voices. It seems as if the powers-that-be do not want to have an independent media putting spokes in its works by presenting objective reality and pointing out aberrations. If this is the kind of the regime the media is going to endure for the next five years, it is indeed in for a bumpy ride ahead. We are now hearing of a crackdown on social media as well by the government. The mainstream media in Pakistan has already been muzzled. We know how we cannot criticise certain ‘holy cows’ and how we cannot cross certain ‘red lines’ in the name of national security. Social media was a place where one could vent. But not anymore.

Senior anchorperson and journalist Asma Shirazi wrote a beautiful and deeply moving piece for BBC Urdu recently where she talks about this suffocation – how one can’t speak freely, how one can’t express his/her views freely, how one can’t even think freely! Is this ‘democracy’?

On Press Freedom Day back in 2006, under General Musharraf’s rule, I wrote that the strongest impediments to an independent media are in countries where there is an absence of mature, civil institutions – such as a democratic political system and functioning and credible judicial institutions. I wrote: “It is hard to develop independent media without complementary institutions, and that is the major hurdle in the way of press freedom in Pakistan. The only solution to this grave problem is through democracy, which is necessary for independent media to thrive, and in which an independent media can in turn contribute to the consolidation of a democratic culture.”

Today, almost 13 years later, I think we are still searching for a truly democratic culture. In recent years, we saw what happened with the Jang Group and Dawn media group. The state found ways to financially cripple these organisations because they allegedly crossed some ‘red lines’. Most other media organisations fell in line. It is understandable that to survive in these tough times, the media industry gave in to self-censorship but what is beyond understanding is how easily we have given up our rights, how easily we have succumbed to censorship, how easily we have let the powers-that-be silence us without putting up much of a fight. And this is what’s worrying.

When people like Dr Ammar Jan are arrested just for speaking up at a protest or when dozens of protestors are arrested and/or picked up for staging a protest demanding an inquiry into the death of a fellow activist, we should question the direction our state is taking. These are truly dark days for dissenting voices, for those who believe in democratic principles, for those who question the state’s flawed policies only because we want a better future for our country.

Can we allow things to spiral out of control and allow our state to take away our freedoms? We should not. We must raise our voice or else we will be left with a deafening silence. Yesterday, it was Ammar or Gulalai or someone else…tomorrow it can be you or me. Civilised democracies shouldn’t function like security states. We must not allow that to happen. Last year, we lost an icon – Asma Jahangir – in February. Had she been alive, she would have been out on the streets fighting for our freedoms. We cannot let her down. We must follow in the footsteps of Asma ji. Let’s reclaim our freedoms!

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