THE government’s decision to interfere in citizens’ freedom of expression, lawful association and peaceful assembly is not based on sound advice, and it must be rescinded before vital state interests are harmed.
Although the arrest of an activist for supporting a peaceful call for justice or any debatable transgression of the cyber law constitutes a lesser hazard to the victim than disappearance forever or even for a short period, the damage to the state is the same in both situations. The denial of basic rights amounts to nothing less than making Pakistan a quiescent society at the cost of state security.
Those advising the government to get tough with rights activists usually ask the people to choose between security and human rights. A more flawed equation can hardly be imagined because the formulation always and universally held valid is security through respect for freedom of expression and association.
Pakistan learnt this lesson in 1971 when to a large majority of the people of the then West Pakistan, the dismemberment of the state appeared to be a sudden disaster. They were sorry that they did not know what had been going on for decades and especially during the preceding 10 to 12 years, when the Ayub regime had suppressed the right to freedom of expression for the sake of so-called stability and development. It had done this by bringing a larger part of the press under its hegemony, in addition to the state monopoly over radio and television.
International news channels have made censorship and withholding of news from any people impossible.
When the state disintegrated in 1971, huge multitudes of citizens across the Western part of the state cried out in anguish and despair against having been kept ignorant of how the people of the eastern wing had been alienated from the state in whose creation they had played a leading role. While this was true of perhaps a majority of citizens, those who had been fed by the patriotic media with stories of the East Bengal people’s compact with the devil were beside themselves with shame and remorse. But by then it was too late.
The tactic of keeping the people ignorant of security issues had failed in 1965 too. The regime did not want the people to know about the risk of war with India that the Kashmir push entailed. A couple of days before the 17-day conflict broke out, the information secretary visited Lahore and gave a guarded briefing to local reporters about the possibility of a war. The media persons’ plea for some defence preparations was rejected on the ground of saving the people from panicking. When the assault on Lahore did begin in the early hours of Sept 6, the traffic jam on the Ravi Bridge caused by outgoing vehicles could only be described as a situation of total panic.
When the Lahoris realised they had a war on their hands, they recovered their composure and started watching aerial combats as if they were kite-flying contests. But a heavy price had to be paid for keeping the Bengali Pakistanis in the dark. Their feeling of total insecurity grew into an irremediable grievance.
When the Second World War broke out, the British war propaganda tried to project the reverses suffered by the Allies as their tactical victories — “Qadam German ka barhta hai fatah British ki hoti hai,” said Josh Malihabadi — but this was meant only to prevent the people in the colonies from getting ideas. The plan didn’t work in India though. It was also impossible to keep the people of Britain ignorant. Winston Churchill offered them nothing but “blood, toil, tears and sweat”. The more the Britons became aware of the threat the Nazi war machine posed, the stronger did their resolve become to defend their freedom.
In 1942, the colonial government of India used excessive force to suppress mob violence in the wake of the Quit India Movement of the Indian National Congress. It could not tolerate some truthful dispatches by a reporter of The Times of London. But it could neither gag him nor arrest him. The viceroy told London that his government was hanging by the skin of its teeth and The Times reporter must be told to abide by the national interest. What followed is quite interesting.
The secretary of state for India, Leo Amery, a senior member of Churchill’s national unity government, wrote back to the viceroy that he could not get an appointment with The Times editor, and the assistant editor who agreed to have lunch with him flatly declined to interfere in the reporter’s freedom to work. It was then decided to send a British journalist to India to cover the situation in a manner favourable to the colonial government. After a hard search, Beverley Nichols arrived in India. By then, the disturbances had subsided. Nichols used his time to gather material for his book Verdict on India that mightily pleased the Muslim League leadership. But that is another story.
It might be said that the world has changed a lot over the past 77 years. It certainly has, though not in the way some people might think. Modern international news channels have made censorship and withholding of news from any people impossible. Internet has put information, knowledge and power into the hands of even those living in undeveloped areas such as Pakistan’s tribal belt. Nothing will be achieved by suppressing freedom of expression in any part of the world except for the suffering caused to some journalists and social activists and incalculable harm to any state that relies on archaic devices of thought control.
Any country facing threats to its national security needs the fullest possible backing of the people, especially of those who can offer it the benefit of a second opinion. An informed society by itself offers a strong guarantee of security as knowledge will forever be more powerful than the sword (or the gun).
Published in Dawn, February 14th, 2019