Silencing opposition

Published December 2, 2021
The writer is director of Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum for digital rights.
The writer is director of Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum for digital rights.

DESPITE a democratic Constitution, there seems to have been a move towards authoritarian rule in Pakistan with a concerted effort to silence and delegitimise any voices of opposition, political or otherwise. These efforts have been augmented through regulatory directives, undemocratic ordinances, extra-legal measures, and aggressive public messaging. The only capitulation by the state seems to be in the case of opposing parties that direct violence towards it under the pretence of religion.

Whether it is media, social media, human rights movements, political leaders, or even judges, there have been concerted efforts to silence them and get them to toe the line of the state.

Through attempts to put restrictions on the media, first through covert pressure on media houses to fire columnists and TV anchors who do not toe the state line, and then by proposing draconian ordinances such as the Pakistan Media Development Authority (PMDA), press freedom guaranteed by Article 19 of the Constitution is routinely violated. This was also seen when channels and newspapers with critical opinions were relegated to the end of the channels list by cable operators and banned from circulation in cantonment areas respectively. The government also stopped its advertisements for media groups that were critical, violating the right to information of citizens as guaranteed by Article 19-A as they were deprived of public messaging.

The state response to human rights movements has been even worse. The peaceful Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) has ruffled feathers due to young and unarmed Pakhtuns demanding basic rights and protections guaranteed by the Constitution in a region ravaged by the war on terror brought to their lands by a reckless dictator. Instead of embracing the young of the former tribal areas, even their popular elected representatives have been imprisoned by the state with complete disregard for the democratic mandate they hold.

It is time that Pakistan cut away from its royal, colonial and dictatorial legacy.

Ali Wazir still remains incarcerated despite being granted bail by the Supreme Court on Tuesday, with other cases pending against him, while members of the movement and others have contrasted the treatment meted out to them with the olive branch consistently extended by the state to the violent TTP that killed thousands, and the violent TLP that on many occasions has held entire cities hostage. Such capitulation should only be extended to peaceful groups and certainly not to those who commit grave crimes including mass murder.

Similarly, the state has cracked down on NGOs by introducing stringent registration requirements that make functioning almost impossible under the excuse of foreign funding, overlooking the fact that the most foreign-funded entity in the country is the state itself. This was seen again last month with the government officials’ outburst at the Asma Jahangir Conference in Lahore where thrice-elected prime minister Nawaz Sharif was invited to address the closing ceremony in line with the tradition of the annual conference.

Even if he is considered a ‘convict and absconder’, despite the partiality with which the National Accountability Bureau targets opposition politicians, there is nothing in Pakistani law that prohibits convicted political leaders from addressing gatherings. However, the high-handedness and paranoia of the state was apparent in the suspension of internet services by the Pakistan Telecommu­nication Authority in the vicinity of the conference in the centre of Lahore, something that ought to be seen as illegal, disproportionate and excessive.

This is not about Nawaz Sharif. This is about selective attacks against civilian politicians whose ability to compete in a democratic system is constantly undermined through all sorts of innovative tactics, ranging from blasphemy insinuations weaponised through extremist groups to the all-time favourite accountability laws that only seem to apply to opposition politicians to the use of treason clauses of the law that are used to accuse everyone that the state is displeased with, with the exception of those whom they should actually apply to for abrogating the Constitution. But these attacks haven’t even spared the apex court for raising questions regarding interference in politics by those who are meant to guard our borders.

The onslaught on social media freedoms has been building since 2015 with Peca being passed the next year, and the latest social media rules, despite constant questions over their constitutionality including by the Islamabad High court, being incorporated. TikTok has been banned four times, most likely out of fear of the digital inclusion it enables for people at the margins and how it lends them the ability to have a voice with the viral factor. And Peca continues to be abused to silence journalists, activists, young citizens and political opponents for daring to exercise their guaranteed freedom of speech on the internet.

It is time that Pakistan cut away from its royal, colonial and dictatorial legacy to become the completely democratic state that its Constitution envisages. This is not possible without the pressure of its citizens that have always been eager to resist attempts to put them under control, and political parties that must learn to mobilise without considering backroom deals to save their slice of the power pie that history shows always gets eaten by another eager entity.

Enforced disappearances, bogus cases, dictatorial tactics and online attacks to skew narratives have to be controlled. It is crucial that the independence of the judiciary is upheld, which may not be possible if the press is not free. Constitutional protections exist for a reason, and the roots are in our history of resistance against anyone who tries to impose their will on us.

Presidential systems or one-party systems do not belong in our vibrant democracy with a diverse populace, which is why the autonomy that the 18th Amendment gives to provinces was welcomed across the board. Let us work together to reap its benefits rather than try to upstage one another.

The censorship of opposing voices cannot continue, and the future belongs to an inclusive democratic system. If the government insists on burying its head in the sand, it must realise that the grains of sand around its head belong to the people who lend them legitimacy, and the people are not fools.

The writer is director of Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum for digital rights.

usama@bolobhi.org

Twitter: @UsamaKhilji

Published in Dawn, December 2nd, 2021

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