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The ‘traitor’ label

July 19, 2019

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DISCREDITING the media seems to have become a national pastime. On Tuesday, it was dialled up a notch when the PTI’s official Twitter account fired off over two dozen tweets in English and Urdu suggesting that some journalists were engaged in anti-state propaganda and that certain reportage could be considered “treason”. In the echo chamber that is social media, several hashtags targeting journalism soon made an appearance, with two of them trending at the top in Pakistan. Analysing some of the data, a report in Dawn on Thursday revealed that besides the PTI’s official account, several verified Twitter accounts of the ruling party’s regional chapters were participating in the campaign. The prime minister’s focal person on digital media described the Twitter campaign to this paper as an effort to “educate” journalists which had been “blown out of context”.

The PTI’s antipathy to a vibrant media that presents diverse points of view has become quite apparent since it came to power last year. The party’s supporters on social media also tend to display a rigid mindset that brooks no dissent, a characteristic that by definition puts them at odds with what journalism stands for — not a public relations exercise but a means to hold the powerful to account. Some journalists have in the recent past been accused of anti-state activities; some are still under a cloud of suspicion, deliberately created to silence them and discredit their views as being dictated by a foreign agenda. However, for the government to imply from an official platform that some media persons are guilty of committing treason is dog-whistle tactics of the worst kind and should be roundly condemned. Pakistan, particularly under authoritarian governments, has a disgraceful history of labelling as a traitor anyone who can act as a check on absolute power or who propagates a point of view that does not conform to the official narrative. Let alone others, even the sister of the nation’s founder was not spared. To conflate journalism — or certain types of journalism — with crimes against the state, even while lauding the concept of freedom of speech as a pillar of democracy, is sheer sophistry. Moreover, in Pakistan’s polarised and hyper-nationalistic atmosphere, the dangerous consequences of being labelled a traitor can never be underestimated. There is a vast difference between critiquing policy — in other words, fair comment — and conspiring to overthrow the state. Perhaps the government needs to “educate” itself.

Published in Dawn, July 19th, 2019