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Muzzling social media

Updated May 20, 2017


SHOCKING footage this week from Washington, DC showed the visiting Turkish leader’s bodyguards running amok and assaulting anti-Erdogan protesters, apparently on instructions the president gave to one of his aides. This raises an important question: is every elected leader a democrat?

Going by the Washington incident, where the beefy men belonging to the Turkish president’s security detail would have caused much greater bodily harm to the handful of protesters had it not been for the intervention of local police, the answer would have to be an emphatic no.

There can be no denying that Erdogan enjoys just over 50 per cent of support in a country that seems equally divided into those who love him and those who loathe him. His party has won four consecutive elections — and recently the president got a ‘yes’ vote, despite a thin majority, in a referendum seeking to enhance his powers.

If the government’s warning is meant for political opponents, it is unacceptable and condemnable.

The fact that he has built the country’s economy into a major powerhouse from one that was moribund when he first came into power about a decade and a half back has enabled him to strengthen his stranglehold over the country; serious corruption allegations have not dented his popularity.

He also cut Turkey’s coup-prone military to size, using the good offices of his erstwhile ally Fetullah Gulen, currently in exile in the US, and whose supporters tipped off the civilian government about the potential coup-makers’ plan, helping it to pre-empt the coup and to prosecute them.

But having fallen out with him, Erdogan blamed Gulen and his supporters for the attempted coup last year, an affair which remains shrouded in mystery, with many unanswered questions about who and what actually precipitated the attempt.

The government’s handling of the coup and particularly its aftermath, with thousands of alleged Gulen supporters being sacked from their jobs and imprisoned without trial and tortured in jails amid a media crackdown, has drawn criticism from human rights groups and the handful of dissidents who remain free within the country.

This is Turkey’s elected leader. While reading in the media about how the DC protesters were attacked for merely raising slogans against the Turkish leader and watching the videos of the horrendous incident, one shuddered at the thought of how dissenters, particularly in the media, must be treated at home.

Contrast this with Pakistan, where in recent history apart from the draconian curbs on media freedom in the Zia era from 1979 to 1985, the media has fought for and enjoyed freedoms that Turkish journalists under Erdogan would perhaps long for.

No. I am not letting my imagination run wild. What I am saying is valid in relative terms as, with our societal, tribal-feudal, institutional and other biases, we are far — very far — from enjoying completely free speech.

I am also aware that more Pakistanis journalists have been killed over the past decade and a half than since the country’s inception until the start of the 2000s. Recent months have seen a renewed assault on both traditional media and, everyone’s bugbear, social media users.

Where major media houses have come under attack for merely reporting a statement or news story that one institution or the other has taken umbrage at, bloggers and social media activists have also been at the receiving end of the state’s wrath.

In each case, if malicious, slanderous or defamatory material was disseminated, the state would have been well within its rights to throw the book at those responsible and prosecuted them under the law of the land.

Ironically, in the bulk of the cases, the organisations and individuals targeted happened to be in the right inasmuch as it was their right to question state policies where these were demonstrably causing harm to the country and were against its long-term interest.

Where ‘errant’ individuals went missing for weeks (with tell-tale signs pointing to their tormentors) and were subjected to the third degree and warned to mend their ways, other means were deployed to pressurise organisations deemed guilty of crossing the line.

This week, a more sinister tool is being deployed after the warning by the interior minister that the government would act against social media users considered critical of the military and other state institutions.

A fairly high-profile journalist has confirmed a conversation with an official who introduced himself as belonging to the FIA’s counterterrorism wing, and who wanted the journalist to come over and ‘explain your social media activities’.

Before the Dawn story controversy was settled, many PML-N social media users were slamming the military, which they were blaming for overstepping its authority. This criticism reached a crescendo with the (now withdrawn) ‘rejected’ tweet by the military spokesman.

And after the issue was settled, a huge number of disappointed, vocal PTI supporters seemed to occupy the anti-military space vacated by PML-N members, with the latter now jumping to GHQ’s defence with a vehemence hitherto unseen.

Seeing this spectacle, one was left hoping that these two groups of social media users were not reflecting the thoughts of their leaders and rather betraying their own lack of political sense and maturity.

If the government’s warning is meant for political opponents, it is unacceptable and condemnable. If the warning and the use of FIA counterterrorism officials to subdue journalists is part of a mindless plan to shackle the media, it won’t work.

In fact, it would be counterproductive. Particularly, if more known journalists were to be targeted like the one referred to here. All such a policy would achieve is resentment and defiance among journalists who believe in the principle of elected civilian supremacy.

One hopes that the government, which appears determined to score its own goals, can see that to be elected isn’t enough — its conduct will largely determine whether it is indeed wedded to a democratic mindset and if its leaders are worthy of being called democrats.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

Published in Dawn, May 20th, 2017