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The Pakistani minefield

July 02, 2012


THE recent attack on the Aaj TV office in Karachi is another stark reminder of the manner and speed at which the ability to speak and report relatively freely is being eroded in Pakistan.

It was one of the few incidents of its kind even in a country and a city that have become inured to violence. Drive-by shootings and gunmen on motorbikes are no longer news in Karachi, but on this occasion the target was a news outlet; two people, one of them a security guard, were injured. As is usual, the attackers were able to escape from the scene and melt away into the populace. It is unlikely that they will ever be hunted down or prosecuted.

What was unusual, though, was the claim made a little while after by the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, owning responsibility for the attack. The militant group said that more news organisations were to be similarly targeted for not giving enough space to its point of view.

The TTP ‘spokesman’ named in particular a major local news network for using ‘bad language’ in terms of what he referred to as the ‘mujahideen’.

It must be acknowledged here that it is not entirely certain whether or not the TTP was behind the attack. In a place as violent as Pakistan, issues such as copycat crimes or attempts to cover the motives behind a killing by intentionally giving it a different hue are bound to crop up often.

In any case, assessing the actual reasons for which a crime was committed is largely a lengthy process of deduction and finding proof. It would not be surprising if at some later point it were to emerge that the TTP merely took advantage of the fact that persons unknown had attacked that office and turned the situation to what the militants consider to their own advantage. As columnist Irfan Husain wrote in this paper on Saturday, terror can be a weapon in the arsenal of those seeking power.

Yet this doubt over whether or not it was actually the TTP that orchestrated the shooting incident does not alter the fundamental fact that comment and reportage in Pakistan increasingly involves negotiating a lethal minefield.

Journalists here, and elsewhere under dictatorial or oppressive circumstances, have always been aware that their work could cost them. In this country in particular, there is a long history of stifling news and related commentary through tactics of violence and intimidation by both state and non-state actors.

While the suspicions about the identity of Saleem Shahzad’s murderers have not been properly addressed by a craven state, to give just one recent example, there is hardly any doubt that he was killed for his work. And what was Salmaan Taseer killed for but his views regarding the need for a parliamentary review of the so-called ‘blasphemy laws’?

These are high-profile cases involving murdered public figures, but the malaise affects all of us. How much do we not say because of the knowledge that an opinion can get you killed? Quite a lot, I would argue.

The self-censorship is evident in the manner in which poor Aasia Bibi was left in detention and the blasphemy law issue was allowed to quietly disappear from public discourse in the aftermath of Mr Taseer’s murder.

It is evident in the manner in which most, if not all, formal or public speeches begin with a religious reference, a practice which was once ritual but in today’s oppressive landscape has become in effect mandatory.

It is evident in the qualifiers that are used and the carefulness with which any issue that has the potential of becoming controversial is addressed in public, whether on television or the street or in one’s own house with one’s own guests.In Pakistan, after all, matters that can invoke raging controversy range from basics such as whether or not women should have the right to vote or marry of their own volition to whether a group that hides its very serious crimes under the garb of religion can be considered legitimate.

As a society, this increasingly common self-censorship leads to more space being made for extremist or obscurantist views. As the voices of rationality and moderation are hushed, those that promote obscurantism are emboldened and encouraged to roar. But for those in the business of shaping public opinion at large, such as the media or politicians, the act of staying quiet or not countering regressive discourse can in different ways end up making them unwitting colluders in the process of legitimising the forces of darkness.

This precisely is what the TTP’s claim about the motives of the attack on the television station illustrates (whether it is true or not is, in this context, immaterial). Call them what you will — militants, terrorists, insurgents — one of the points where all the various groups of all hue of violent ideology converge is the desire to get their point of view out to the world.

Like any party seeking to win over hearts and minds, they need to be able to explain the rationale — such as it is — behind their actions. Without the ability to advertise their logic and their goals, their acts are rendered a little more meaningless.

The importance, then, of public figures making the effort to counter the backward-looking or extremist narrative should not be underestimated. They are at risk, but so is every forward-looking citizen in the country. In being the people’s representatives, they are also the voice.

The media, meanwhile, also remains aware of its role and align itself with progressiveness — as by and large it has. The extremists’ threats are very real, but the only way Pakistan can dig itself out of this hole is by fighting back.

The writer is a member of staff.