It is telling of a country’s affairs when the state becomes a threat rather than a guarantor of freedoms, and when the pen becomes a threat more than any sword.
Democracy may begin with the ballot box, but does not end at it, and if the PML-N government believes otherwise, it is sorely mistaken. Democracy is meant to be demonstrated, but a string of recent actions by the government in Pakistan have only orchestrated a sham of it. The passage of measures such as the Cyber Crime Bill and the move to condemn Cyril Almeida, after much fuss and furore, to the Exit Control List are disturbing signs for freedoms in the country: academic freedoms, press freedoms and civil liberties.
Only last year, a scheduled talk on the “history, complications, human rights abuses, and the struggle for justice that has been going on in Balochistan” at the Lahore University of Management Sciences was forcibly booted out and cancelled after ‘external’ intervention.
It is both interesting and worrying to note that discussions within spheres such as a private (often touted as ‘elite’) university in an urban provincial capital, and a leading English language newspaper, which were previously considered largely off-limits to state encroachment, now risk subjection to the control of a state, a political, military and intelligence establishment, that seems to be growing increasingly intolerant of any sign of dissent or criticism.
A profile of Mohammad Hanif in the New Yorker earlier this year aptly captured the boundaries of the English-language press in Pakistan.
“The Pakistani press corps works with a strange mixture of privilege and constraint. Pick up one of the better English-language newspapers—the News or the Dawn—and you will find penetrating coverage of national security, poverty, and governmental corruption. But, beyond shifting and mysterious boundaries, no journalist may stray without risk. In 2010, Umar Cheema, who had written about dissent within the military, was picked up by men in police uniforms who were widely presumed to be I.S.I. agents. They shaved his head, sexually humiliated him, and dropped him miles from his home, with a warning to stop. The following year, Saleem Shahzad published stories asserting that the armed forces had been infiltrated by Al Qaeda. He was beaten to death and his body dumped in a canal.”
With regards to Almeida’s story, the “PM, army chief and others were unanimous that the published story was clearly violative of universally acknowledged principles of reporting on national security issues and has risked the vital state interests through inclusion of inaccurate and misleading contents which had no relevance to actual discussion and facts”.
What exactly are these grand “universally acknowledged principles of reporting on national security issues” are known to none but the government and military leadership alone. Who defined “national security”? And since when did the common and widely-known matter of civil-military relations and imbalance, which have been a constant theme of tension in Pakistan’s history and a determinant of Pakistan’s domestic and international position, conveniently become an issue of “national security”? It is both a ludicrous notion, and as Shaheryar Mirza (@mirza9) pointed out, the mark of an “insecure state”.
The rejection and denial of the story by the PM Office also stated that the “prime minister took serious notice of the violation and directed that those responsible should be identified for stern action”. It is a strange state of affairs when militant sectarian organizations and their leaders operate freely, spew their venom and continue endangering Pakistan’s standing in the wider world and the security of Pakistani citizens, who may happen to have been born in the “wrong” sect or faith, but a journalist doing his job (and rational person would consider his report to be a positive sign of change in state policy and resolve) warrants “stern action”.
Ironically, the decision to add Almeida to the ECL, has given more weight to his story and thrust it into international spotlight. If Almeida’s story was seen as damaging for the Pakistani state, this move has provided ample fodder for its embarrassment and for the country’s detractors. So much for the state’s attempts to smother and stifle the story. While this decision acts as a confirmation of the reported rift between the political and military leadership that Cyril had written of, it is also, in ways, a confirmation of the political and military establishment’s unity; a unity and unanimity in silencing critics and challenges to state narratives.
The establishment’s increasing intolerance towards challenges to its monopolization of state narratives and towards criticisms of its machinations is an alarming development. It has has no right to impose its caprices and whims by arbitrarily designating issues of discomfort to itself as sacred and holy matters of “national security”, set them off-limits to public discussion and knowledge, and punish and bar people from their right to speak, write and know about them. Have we not enough of one Blasphemy Law? Have we not had enough of the Holy Cows?
It is highly commendable that Dawn has unequivocally stood by Almeida, but it is not enough. Irrespective of our personal opinions and disagreements with the news report at the core of the case, it is important for all to realize the dangers and threats inherent in the following developments that are relevant to all of us, the future of democracy in the country and the future of Pakistan itself.