SINCE the Nato incident, the decibel level of Pakistan’s public sphere has been soaring. Politicians, political talk-show hosts, civil society — all have upped the ante to express themselves as shrilly and brashly as possible.
The world has heard a collective Pakistani howl, further amplified by dozens of private television channels, Twitter feeds, Facebook status updates and text messages. But listen more closely, and the silence seems even more deafening than the noise. The more precarious Pakistan’s domestic and geopolitical position becomes, the longer is the list of what not to say.
You wouldn’t think it while surfing channels or the Internet, but censorship is making a major comeback — not only as a political tactic, but also as a way of life.
The decision by the All Pakistan Cable Operators Association to stop broadcasting international news channels that air ‘anti-Pakistan’ material is only the latest shenanigan in a growing list of transgressions aimed at making Pakistanis see no evil, hear no evil. In a different world, the Pakistani public would have been relieved to see the uncomfortable issue of the ‘double game’, addressed in a recent BBC documentary titled Secret Pakistan, taken out of the mouths of Washington heavyweights and placed in the realm of reliable journalism.
In that other world, Pakistanis might have used the findings of BBC journalists to trigger a reasoned national debate about why our country finds its foreign policy in such a bind. Rather than reconsider the wisdom of Pakistan’s strategic decisions, we have chosen to ban the channel, thereby taking one step closer to the deluded isolationism that states such as Iran have perfected.
Of course, the BBC blackout comes as no surprise to those who have been following the proliferation of censorship in Pakistan’s supposedly bubbling media space. It began with the efficient blocking of Baloch websites. Then came the Facebook ban in May 2010, when a controversial page calling upon users to draw illustrations of the Prophet (PBUH) caused widespread offence.
At the time, few were able to argue with the legal fraternity’s claim that ‘un-Islamic’ and ‘blasphemous’ content was unwelcome in Pakistan’s public sphere. But eyebrows did rise a year later when Pemra warned TV channels that it would take action against satirical shows that defamed our oh-so-honourable dignitaries. Last month’s farcical attempt by the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority to block over 1,000 supposedly obscene words from all text messages was the only censoring measure to receive a proper response: universal ridicule and scorn.
Pakistanis may be laughing at our authorities’ clumsy attempts to censor content, but there is nothing funny about a society intent on silencing itself.
The truth is, the government is coming late to the game. While the authorities have been trying to create official mechanisms to censor troublesome viewpoints, society has honed the art of self-censorship. In recent years, Pakistan has proved unique in the ability to use tools that have empowered vibrant and representative discourse elsewhere to foster silence and repression. The private televisions channels and social networking sites that have heralded the spring of other nations’ discontent have helped us articulate our latent authoritarianism.
In September, for example, the music band Laal complained that private TV channels had refrained from airing the video of its song, Jhoot Ka Uncha Sar, because they deemed it to be ‘anti-army’. The ISPR didn’t even have to blacklist the video — our free media acted preemptively on behalf of the authorities. And this is a relatively trivial example; readers are aware that the most difficult questions about terrorism, missing persons, defence budgets, corruption and rampant religious extremism remain unasked, and thus unanswered.
Talk-show hosts banter, bloggers blog, twits tweet, but this active public discourse often seeks to silence, rather than engage, voices of dissent. More Pakistanis are making themselves heard than ever before, but this collective noise drowns out rather than develops multiple perspectives. Say something contrary on the comment thread of a blog and strident voices will rally to label you a CIA spy, Hindu or Zionist.
Some may accuse me of confusing self-censorship with self-conservation and argue that the heavy hand of the authorities is compelling a culture of caution. How can I expect better of a society in which journalists are routinely intimidated, tortured, abducted and even murdered?
But let’s be honest: the strictest censorship is currently being enforced in our most private spaces — dining rooms, office cubicles, private cars. As Pakistani society becomes more extreme, polarised and moralistic, people are becoming equally careful about what they say in private — amongst friends, family members and colleagues — as in public, on air, or in print.
Those who were appalled by Salmaan Taseer’s assassination, but couldn’t denounce Mumtaz Qadri vociferously enough; those who believe an amicable bilateral relationship with the US is to Pakistan’s benefit, but dare not praise Washington in the midst of jingoistic ire; those who think Imran Khan is dangerously soft on extremist groups, but fear being labelled cynics or traitors; those who believe Ahmadis should be allowed to practise their faith freely, but say little for fear of what might be construed as blasphemy — these Pakistanis see the BBC ban as a logical extension of a cultural characteristic.
The most basic criterion for a democracy to function is that all citizens believe they have a voice. As swathes of Pakistani society are silenced, our dream of democracy slips further away. The current situation threatens to be even more regressive than the infamous Zia years. Back then, top-down censorship resulted in press advices and public lashings of journalists, but bottom-up cultures of protest and discourse caused the dissent expressed in private spaces to coalesce as strong, effective civil society movements. Now, speech itself is becoming a tactic of silence.
The writer is a freelance journalist.