Muzzling press freedom


By Wajid Shamsul Hasan

In the much promised aura of tabdeli following the last elections in July 2018 the nation had multi-faceted hopes for change for the good of the country. Unfortunately I was one of the sceptics who thought that those promises were too good to be true. Indeed, the peaceful transition from one elected government to another a third time was surely something to be proud of and it ignited a hope that we shall continue to move forward.

Regretfully it did not happen. The clandestinely ‘engineered’ government and its leadership have been proved to be otherwise. Their red carpet of plethora of promises remains an illusion. There are no rivers of milk and honey, no jobs or shelter for the poor. They have been given Sehat Card to provide the needy medicare, there are no hospital beds. One could understand the teething troubles faced by it and that it was indeed passed on a legacy of socio-economic failures for which 100 or 900 days were too short a span to take a spin.

However, the support that the selected government received from the Establishment was unprecedented. Prime Minister Imran Khan made no bones about the fact that his party’s manifesto was fully backed by the military as an institution. Perhaps no better news than this in the post democratic period following the divine fall of General Ziaul Haq from the skies. Not an iota of what he claimed as Establishment’s support to him was ever conceived by previous elected governments.

This being an idle situation for PTI, its momentum to progress should have been phenomenal especially when it had no opposition from the quarters that did not earlier allow smooth functioning of democracy. Natural course for a government firmly in saddle from day one should have been to speed up delivery in various sectors of socio-economic endeavours. While PTI managers could dispute various claims of achievements by previous governments, there is one field in which Pakistan had progressed tremendously and that is the freedom of the press.

It is absolutely right freedom of information and the transparency it promotes, has a direct consequence on fighting corruption, fostering good governance and consolidating democracy.

It is sad to note that Pakistan’s atmosphere of free and unbridled expression has taken drastic u-turn in the last nine months. Not only it has been subjected to volleys of rocks by the Establishment starting from Dawn leaks that had actually opened the Pandora’s box. Soon one after another, attempts were made to muzzle the saner voices seeking politics of consensus, freedom of expression and fostering a democratic culture of tolerance. Contrary actions of the government of the day backed by the Establishment seem to be leaving no ground unturned for sowing seeds of a selective narrative that suits the game of powers that be-be it a conspiracy to do away of the 18th Amendment or re-introduction of Presidential system that led to the tragic break-up of the country in 1971 when it was under both president and an army rule.

Having joined journalism under General Ayub’s martial in 1962, I have been through to know the rigours of suppression of the free press. The worst of course was General Zia’s martial law in which publishing truth in the national interest was in violation of martial law regulations punishable with rigorous imprisonment. Remember scores of journalists were whipped in public, imprisoned for years and denied of their legitimate means of livelihood. He tried through physical torture to castrate the free will of the people and their love for democracy. He did not succeed; people stood up to him and defied him at the cost of their lives.

Now it seems-though having had third elections– we are fast retreating back to square one to where Zia had left. It is all because of the forces that have the final say in their hands want the media to remain puppet on their chains, stop disseminating what is news and discourage independent views on main political issues – particularly something that exposes the predominant role of the Establishment to sustain its hold on absolute power.

Most blatant has been its onslaught on 18th Amendment that it considers as bad as Sheikh Mujibur Rehman’s Six Points forgetting that not accepting them led to Pakistan’s break up. It is also much more to revive General Zia’s legacy of a quasi-theocratic state committed to Salafi Islam, marketing of Mullah-fuelled narrative with non-state actors to carry out its execution in cahoots with an establishment that enjoys running with the hare and hunting with the hounds.

Every year international community observes May 3rd as the Press Freedom Day. It is time for us as a nation to do a stock taking as well as to how far we have been on the track-are we on the trajectory to more freedom or are in the process of doing an about turn ever since we had new government? Pakistan’s founder Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah fought for free expression and stood by it. To him freedom of expression was a fundamental human right as stated in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “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.”

“Indeed, media freedom and access to information are means to wider development of the objective of empowering people–a multi-dimensional social and political process that helps people gain control over their own lives”. This can only be achieved through access to accurate, fair and unbiased information, representing a plurality of opinions, and the means to actively communicate vertically and horizontally, thereby participating in the active life of the community. It is absolutely right freedom of information and the transparency it promotes, has a direct consequence on fighting corruption, fostering good governance and consolidating democracy.

Lately it is noted with concern that the powers that be are seemingly on a course to engineering a new political order in which civilians are on the same page as military and are jointly character assassinating the leaders of certain political parties as corrupt or hostile to national security such as open attack on PTM leaders. This is rightly considered as “decapitation strategy” destructive of the careers of many members of the civilian political leaders such as Mohsin Dawar of PTM.

(Author is the former High Commissioner of Pakistan to UK and a prominent journalist.)