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Break the silence

February 12, 2018


IT is not possible to eradicate dissent in a nation of 220 million people. On any issue, at any time, there will be someone who takes an opposing view, someone who offers a different perspective, someone who levels a criticism, someone whose values diverge. Denying this is tantamount to insanity.

And yet, the state’s efforts to eradicate dissent continue apace. The recent closure of Radio Mashaal on the grounds that its programming undermined Pakistan’s interests and facilitated a “hostile intelligence agency’s agenda” was only the latest in a series of crackdowns against dissenting voices. Journalists and bloggers are abducted (or nearly so) with alarming frequency. Foreign correspondents have been expelled from the country. And it is not just dissenting voices in the media that are facing pressure; attempts to curtail the activities of domestic and international NGOs are under way, with many of the latter facing expulsion.

These tactics seem excessive given that decades of martial law have instilled a strong culture of self-censorship and caution among those who seek to challenge the state. Starting out as a reporter in Karachi 15 years ago, I remember being told to stay clear of religion, the military and Altaf Hussain — in order to stay out of trouble. Times have changed, but not by much. You can criticise Altaf Hussain with little fear these days. The rest of the advice is intact. Indeed, one can imagine today’s reporters being told to stay clear of Balochistan and CPEC as well.

The state’s efforts to eradicate dissent continue.

A heavy-handed approach also seems unnecessary in an era when co-option works as effectively. The state has learned how to bring dissenters on side by funding projects, facilitating careers, arranging lucrative contracts, providing access in the form of scoops and high-profile interviews, and inflating salaries. Few will bite the hand that feeds them. This is an unnerving shift towards first-world narrative manipulation, much like lobbying, and difficult to pin down as a form of censorship. And Pakistan will lack the tools to counter it — such as transparency, right to information, and media literacy — for decades to come.

Legal instruments are also cynically deployed to ensure dissenters mind their language. Courts are ever ready to cite violations of media regulations and hold troublesome characters in contempt in order to ensure silence. The Anti-Terrorism Act — which ambiguously states that “creat[ing] a sense of fear or insecurity in society” is an act of terrorism — is routinely used to pursue journalists, students or other members of civil society that dare speak out against the state — to the extent that the Supreme Court in August had to urge lower courts to wield the ATA with a tad more finesse.

Growing attempts by the state to quash dissent are echoed by the growing audacity of far-right groups to scare into silence those they perceive to be dissenters. These are groups that, for now, consider themselves to be protected by the state, aligned with its views, in agreement on what constitutes dissent. But their tactics are different, even more dangerous.

As a result, those who take any issue, of any magnitude, with state narratives are either in danger of being accused of treason, terrorism or conspiracy by the state, or blasphemy by the mob. Both are terrifying prospects. Both are sufficient to fuel further silence, stronger self-censorship, extreme caution.

But 220m people will never agree on everything. So while dissent may be stifled, it cannot be eradicated. And it will eventually have to be reckoned with. At some point, individuals and communities decide the silence is no longer worth it — that what is gained in exchange for silence is too unjust, too negligent. That silence gives you nothing in return.

That’s when people take to the streets. One recent example of silence running its course is the ‘Pakhtun Long March’, which reflects a community’s exasperation with stereotyping and persecution. The protests and public outpouring following Zainab’s brutal abuse and murder was another tipping point, which indicated that the horrors had reached unacceptable levels. And once the silence is broken, it is difficult to restore again. That’s because further silence is quickly equated with complicity, and for all our flaws, we are ultimately a nation with some conscience.

The problem with stifling dissent is that you don’t know what will be a breaking point. With no one to point out where you might be failing, with no one to suggest what might be perceived as an injustice, with no one to hold you to account, you start to forget that silence does not mean complacency or even resignation. Dissent helps a society become stronger, by recognising problems and urging improvement — it allows for dialogue and incremental change, democracy rather than revolution. Push for silence long enough and the only response you’ll get is a scream.

The writer is a freelance journalist.
Twitter: @humayusuf

Published in Dawn, February 12th, 2018