No room at the top

June 08, 2019


LIKE an onion, our nascent democracy is being peeled away, a layer at a time.

Once again, the judiciary is under threat. It took many years and massive street protests to free it from the stranglehold it had been subjected to by other state institutions. Now the empire has struck back.

Supreme Court judge Qazi Faez Isa heard a suo motu case regarding the violence that TLP thugs indulged in during the Faizabad sit-in last year. The dharna resulted in millions in losses and destabilised the PML-N government. Justice Isa was particularly critical of the role of intelligence agencies in imposing ‘self-censorship’ on the media:

“No one, including any government, department or intelligence agency, can curtail the fundamental right of freedom of speech, expression and press beyond the limits mentioned in Article 19 of the Constitution.

“Those who resort to such tactics under the mistaken belief that they serve some higher goal delude themselves.”

The judgement mentions the pressure that the Dawn and Geo media groups are being subjected to. As somebody who has been writing in this newspaper for years, I can testify to the self-censorship contributors and editors are forced to currently exercise. Gen Musharraf, for all his faults, never exerted this kind of crude pressure to block criticism.

Crude strong-arm tactics have cast a chill across a once-vibrant media landscape.

Critical bloggers, even though they have a limited readership, have been picked up by unidentified men, and allegedly subjected to torture before being released. In fact, some have fled the country. Journalists have reported similar tactics. Many newspapers have been deprived of government advertisements, and have been forced to slash costs by making many of the staff redundant.

These crude strong-arm tactics have cast a chill across a once-vibrant media landscape. While I have little time for the superheated gibberish that often passes for reasoned debate in our television studios, at least they provided us with a broad spectrum of views, crazy as some of them were. Now, the TV channels are much more restrained in their criticism of the government.

But the judiciary and the media are not the only pillars of democracy under attack. Free and fair elections are the bedrock of any democratic dispensation. While polls in Pakistan have always been contentious, the results have mostly reflected a rough approximation of the popular will.

However, last year’s general elections that brought Imran Khan to power were widely viewed — here and abroad — as seriously flawed. Foreign observers and journalists reported on widespread electoral fraud. Opposition candidates were allegedly threatened and forced to change allegiance. No wonder the prime minister serves at the pleasure of higher powers who despise democracy, but recognise they have to put up with it. Fed up of Nawaz Sharif and Asif Zardari, they have placed their bet on Imran Khan this time.

It must be said that our politicians have played their part in bringing us to this pass. The PPP and the PML-N, despite their obvious common interest in resisting the rise of authoritarianism, are still squabbling over past grievances. A united front in and out of parliament could serve to check the ambitions of our puppet masters.

The current government’s role has been craven, to say the least. Granted that it owes its electoral victory to non-political forces, but it has been unable to assert itself, and is being used as a rubber stamp on all important issues. After all, it has a significant support base, and should be able to speak to its mentors as an equal. But there’s room for only one at the top of the power pyramid. No prizes for guessing who that is.

Meanwhile, Pemra, the state regulator for the electronic media, has blocked comment on the issue. It has issued directions to the electronic channels not to air any discussion or analysis on the references filed against the judges of the superior court. But bar associations across the country are gearing up to combat this blatant attempt to neuter an institution that, despite its flaws, remains the arbiter of last resort.

The ease with which most of the media has been marginalised underlines the fragility of our democracy. After years of fighting for freedom, journalists thought our independence was now virtually guaranteed. How wrong we were. The assumption that elected governments would protect this hard-won freedom has been upended with Imran Khan in power. Thus far, he has not uttered a word in defence of newspapers and television channels that are being bullied and harassed.

Surely politicians can agree on a platform to protect the institutions that are crucial to a democracy. But given the quality of our leaders, I fear that even this step is beyond them.

Published in Dawn, June 8th, 2019