Journalists, media persons, authors, poets and intellectuals have faced repression in Pakistan throughout its history. Whether dictatorial regimes or democratic governments, one or another form of coercion has been used to stifle the dissent.
In the past, critics of governments were flogged, imprisoned and booked in concocted cases to make them fall in the line. Media persons were also terminated from their jobs for speaking against the sledgehammer tactics of successive governments.
With the mushrooming of private television channels in recent decades, everyone – from all institutions of the state – was open to scrutiny. But it seems that this much-vaunted freedom was ephemeral. Due to the ensuing environment, many defiant critics turned into sycophants. Those that chose to be adamant were targeted financially – which ended up in journalists losing jobs and media houses being pushed towards insolvency.
Curbing dissent during dictatorial tenures is expected and inevitable, but people are flabbergasted when such fascist tactics are employed by democratic governments or political parties that champion the cause of democracy and freedom of expression. All parties – the MQM, the JI, the PPP, the PML-N and a number of other political and religious parties – have been accused at some point or the other of employing heavy-handedness in a bid to stifle dissenting voices.
The rise of the PTI created a ray of hope, since it is credited for politicising hundreds and thousands of people who considered politics to be a forbidden tree. They arrived at polling stations in droves to cast their votes in the 2013 polls. Imran Khan is also hailed for bringing thousands of women into politics besides mainstreaming the issues faced by the people. He also succeeded in turning corruption into a major crisis that plagues the country.
Unfortunately, his detractors have pointed out the negative precedents that the PTI has set by encouraging a culture that harasses critical voices in the media, lambasts opponents ruthlessly, and coins vulgar terms to denigrate political rivals. It may be mentioned that the PTI is not the first to introduce such mediocre language in mainstream politics. Z A Bhutto, PNA leaders, Nawaz Sharif, Shahbaz Sharif, Altaf Hussain and a myriad of other political personalities also used abusive or inappropriate language. However, many believe that the PTI has taken this form of politics to new heights.
It was expected that the party and its supporters would tone down after they assumed public office. But the recent campaign against senior journalist Saleem Safi indicates that the critics of the PTI aren’t going to have any respite at all. It is unfortunate that Imran Khan’s supporters seem to have ignored his video message urging PTI workers to counter critics with cogent arguments in an intellectual way.
Safi merely reported what he saw or was told regarding the expenses of PM House during Nawaz Sharif’s tenure. The new government could have refuted it and come up with evidence to prove the claims wrong. It is true that Saleem Safi has in the past challenged a number of claims made by the PTI and the KP government, but to say that he ran a sustained campaign against the party flies in the face of reality. Any reader of his columns can see that he spared no one. He came down hard on Nawaz Sharif, lambasting Achakzai and Fazlur Rehman for opposing the merger of Fata with KP, criticising Asad Umar and Zubair Umar, and censuring the MQM for its fascist tactics.
If the PTI claims that hundreds and thousands of children have left private schools to rejoin government schools in KP because of the improved standard of state-run schools and if Safi challenges this claim, the easy way to counter this is by making the details of such students public. If he accuses PTI leaders of hatching conspiracies to privatise some profit-earning departments of the KP government, the solution lies in demanding proof or taking him to court. If he claims that tons of money was wasted by PTI leaders on tea and biscuits or Imran Khan used a helicopter to travel to Bani Gala, then the PTI can easily hold a press conference to refute all these claims and substantiate their assertions with documents.
No one has a right to disparage those who have invested the precious years of their lives in doing grassroots reporting or run malicious campaigns against someone who is simply stating facts.
Imran Khan’s address to nation was excellent. The populist leader addressed the issues that matter in the lives of over 200 million Pakistanis. From the plight of slum dwellers to the ordeal of millions of hapless creatures whose children face the risk of stunted growth – every issue is close to the heart of the people. But such sentiments need to be translated into reality. The PTI shouldn’t assume that a few good sentences can assuage the haggard masses of this land of the pure who have always been fooled by their leaders.
Any dichotomy between what the prime minister says and what he does won’t be tolerated. If the Kaptaan claims to bring ordinary people into politics but ends up handing the posts of the chief minister of KP and Punjab to a billionaire and a sardar, respectively, then he should be ready to face the wrath of critics. If the PTI makes tall claims about education and its improvement, but appoints a person who has merely passed his intermediate exams as the governor of Sindh, then the people aren’t going to sit back and clap. They will definitely take to different forums to expose all these contradictions.
It is encouraging to see that the PTI-led government has allowed state-run radio or TV stations to follow an independent editorial policy. We can only hope that such freedom will also be given to the PTI’s detractors and that notice will be taken of the slanderous campaign against critics like Safi.
The Kaptaan ought to live up to his promises, pulling millions out of poverty besides making the basic necessities of life accessible to 200 million Pakistanis, who have been craving these benefits for decades. It is the delivery of such services that will help the PTI win the hearts and minds of the people.
The writer is a freelance journalist.