THE ratcheting up of anti-press hysteria has escalated in yet another episode of manufactured outrage against Dawn, purportedly for publishing a news report which was never officially denied and which subsequent events proved was factually sound.
In the past week, angry protesters in Islamabad and Karachi have demanded this news organisation be shut down and its staffers hanged, and have declared it ‘anti-state’. All citizens have the democratic right to peaceful protest without endangering the lives of others. In tandem with veiled and direct attacks by government and other officials, as well as a renewed distribution blockade against this paper in certain localities, it is obvious that these protests are part of a years-long campaign to create a hostile environment for independent journalism in Pakistan and, in turn, to silence all dissent.
The press is by no means unaccountable, yet there are laws and rules governing its conduct — legal instruments that can be used if deemed necessary. It makes little sense why politicians, particularly those in office, would, instead, subscribe to the obscurantist tactic of branding any fact or opinion that offends them as ‘anti-state’ or ‘agenda-driven’ — without substantiating such claims with tangible evidence, and in full awareness of how dangerous such labels are.
Though Shireen Mazari’s and Firdous Ashiq Awan’s recent statements condemning the threats to Dawn are welcome, the fact that Ms Awan’s remarks were qualified with scolding reminders for the media to ‘protect Pakistan’s interests’ speaks to the PTI’s ambivalence towards fundamental rights. Citing vague ‘national interests’ has become synonymous with a systematic effort to erode citizens’ constitutionally protected freedoms of speech, expression and information. Yet it was precisely the exercise of these rights, under a more conducive climate for the media which aided then opposition politician Imran Khan’s rise to prominence.
As our elected prime minister, he ought to declare his full-throated support for press freedom and have his government demonstrate this intent. The undermining of the fourth estate represents a dangerous drift away from democratic norms, away from the very spirit on which this country was founded.
Political dissent and the medium through which it was articulated — journalism — are in Pakistan’s DNA; they played a key role in the emancipation of Muslims of the subcontinent from British rule. A democratic dispensation ought to embrace these intrinsic qualities of our history and identity, if for no other reason than that they might one day find themselves in need of a free press.
Published in Dawn, December 8th, 2019