Hiding the truth

January 25, 2020


IT would need an extremely unintelligent person to launch a large-scale, unannounced censorship campaign in this era of open social media.

Fortunately, there’s no shortage of such people in Pakistan if we go by the spate of examples of this government’s ham-handed attempts to conceal the truth. From books to TV chat shows to films to newspapers, the voices, words and vision of anybody speaking or revealing their version of the truth is immediately suspected of subversion.

Sarmad Khoosat’s film, Zindagi Tamasha Hai, is the latest casualty in the culture wars. Cleared by the censors, it has fallen foul of the extremist lobby who have only seen a tiny bit of the trailer. As usual, this feeble government has caved in and has now referred it to the Council of Islamic Ideology.

Other victims of this campaign against the freedom of expression include Mohammed Hanif, the celebrated author and journalist; Shuja Nawaz, the well-known chronicler of the Pakistan Army who wrote the eye-opening Crossed Swords; Adeela Suleman, the artist who showed the reality of our ‘missing persons’; and, indeed, this newspaper.

For the PTI, good governance appears relatively unimportant.

And these are only a few examples of what’s happening. For reasons of space, I have left out the many incidents involving TV where chat shows and interviews have been abruptly pulled off the air.

When Imran Khan first came to power, the media was asked by his acolytes to give the new government 90 days to find its feet. Many journalists were persuaded to suspend critical judgement for a while. However, as the days turned to months, and the incompetence of the PTI government was compounded on an almost daily basis, critics found their voices again.

Popular TV anchors, restricted by the electronic media watchdog, simply took to YouTube to express themselves. Online, they are just as popular, but no longer face the curbs placed on them by producers and owners. Of course, their viewership has shrunk, but the government has failed to stifle their voices. Articles deemed too risky by cautious editors can be read online, too.

So what’s the point of this censorship? Normally, this compulsion to conceal the truth is a sign of insecurity and incompetence. Rulers realise they are out of their depth, and do their best to block out reality for fear of losing support. But as Abraham Lincoln famously remarked: “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”

When I’m abroad, I am often asked by foreigners how Imran Khan is doing. His image as a sports superstar, a swinging party animal, and an Oxford graduate continues to resonate among the elite. I swiftly correct them by mentioning his mercurial changes and his inability to grasp simple economic truths. So much for Oxford, then.

Instead of taking the nation into confidence to explain why so many of its policies have backfired, the PTI often resorts to bluster, even untruths. More often than not, the prime minister’s advisers misguide the public. But when you tell people they ought to eat less wheat because of a government cock-up, this becomes a hard sell, even for thick-skinned people like the prime minister’s adviser on the media.

Clearly, there is much for this government to brush under the carpet. And we mustn’t forget that a large part of the ongoing censorship campaign is driven by the security state. For this shadowy, unaccountable organ, no criticism of any kind is acceptable. This combination of a self-absorbed prime minister and a hyper-sensitive establishment has led to worse curbs on free expression than any army dictator put in place.

I suppose one reason we are so disappointed is that our expectations were so high: here was an educated, widely travelled politi­cian who called for a ‘new Pakistan’, and spoke of social justice. Of course, many of us saw through this ever since his support for fundamentalists became apparent.

But having been elected — reportedly with help from his uniformed friends — we find that there is very little substance in his words. The seeming inability to focus on issues is proving to be a daily disaster. Like most Pakistanis, whatever my reservations, I wanted him to succeed. But I fear the drift and ineptitude on display provides little grounds for optimism.

Nor, indeed, does his team of ministers and advisers inspire much confidence. There are reports of constant bickering and turf wars while the Kaptaan issues orders that cannot be implemented.

For the PTI, it would appear that the end-all and be-all of power is to hound its political enemies. In its limited worldview, good governance and a thriving economy are relatively unimportant.

But having locked up your rivals, what next? It would appear there is no Plan B apart from silencing critics whether they are writers or TV anchors. But as we are witnessing now, at some point, things start falling apart.


Published in Dawn, January 25th, 2020