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October 15, 2016

An insecure state


October 15, 2016

The Pakistani state has so many skeletons in its closet it’s more of an auditorium. The job of journalists is to give the rest of the country a glimpse into this enclosed space, an idea of what is being done in their name. The state is entrusted by us to safeguard the country’s national security but does not give us any say in deciding how to define national security. It further expects journalists to follow the same mission and definition. That their first commitment is to the truth makes journalists who do their jobs properly enemies of the state and champions of the people.

We have also tasked the state with protecting the country’s vulnerable minorities. The state has decided to do so by deciding the country will have a specific identity that excludes those very minorities. It will then use the bag of tricks at its disposal, be it demonisation, exclusion or explicit violence to enforce that identity.

Cyril Almeida’s crime was committing an act of journalism and for that he was placed on the Exit Control List. The story he reported should have been benign, if interesting. His sources informed him that the government had told the military to start taking on militants in all its form, something both the civvies and the khakis have been insisting they are doing anyway.

The response from the government was stunning in its ferocity. Not only was Cyril’s movement restricted – although Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan thought that was fine since Cyril was supposedly free to travel wherever he wanted in the country – he and newspaper Dawn were accused of jeopardising our national security.

There are obviously various rivalries at play – within the government and between the government and the military – that were stoked by Dawn’s reporting. But to take everything the government has said at face value is to expose its absurdity. The newspaper apparently hurt the national interest. Does that mean no one outside of Pakistan should know that the government sometimes follows the constitution and believes in civilian supremacy? Should the rest of the world not know that the government is serious about tackling militancy? Should they continue to believe we coddle terrorists?

The interior minister seemed to be outraged about the possibility that someone was leaking to journalists; but in a country where information is so securely fastened whispers from the state are the only way to know what’s going on.

The entire episode has badly hurt Pakistan’s image but only because a famous journalist is being kept under lock and key, not for any information that was published. As always, it is the reaction that is doing the damage, not the initial action.

Aasia Bibi’s crime was thinking she is an equal citizen of the state of Pakistan who could consume a glass of water with her co-workers. For that she has been on death row for the last six years. No one dares speak out on her behalf. Not after Salmaan Taseer. Now even the Supreme Court – the last chance saloon for Aasia Bibi – is trying to stay away. One judge recused himself from the case because he had heard the Mumtaz Qadri murder case and that apparently causes a conflict of interest. The only conflict in such cases is between a sense of fear and sense of justice.

We often point out that the blasphemy laws may technically carry the death penalty but that a capital punishment verdict has never been upheld by the Supreme Court. That is hardly a reason for pride. It only shows how willing lower court judges are to deliver a guilty verdict even when the lack of evidence forces the Supreme Court to ignore the threats to their lives and overturn the verdicts. And the state hardly needs to execute alleged blasphemers when there are so many willing freelance executioners around.

Many who have been accused of blasphemy have ended up facing the death penalty but it has been delivered by supposedly rogue prison guards or a riled-up mob. A reversal by the Supreme Court does not lift the death penalty Aasia Bibi is facing; she will still have a target on her head. Safety for her can only be found outside the country. Let’s hope that the government doesn’t put her on the Exit Control List.

It may seem perverse to draw any parallels between the situations Cyril and Aasia Bibi find themselves in. One had to miss a vacation and deal with being called a traitor; the other has a literal sword hanging over her head. The plight the two face is in no way the same. But the way Pakistan – and this means its people as much as the state apparatus – enforces a very narrow definition of citizenship on its people is similar.

A journalist must hew to a specific definition of the national interest if they come across any information which contradicts their narrative. A poor Christian woman must know that her place in society is to be subservient to everyone else and should be killed if she dares consider herself anyone’s equal.

Using a technical point of law as an excuse for cowardice shows that as bad as the laws may be it is our attitude that is worse. We look to the state for protection, not oppression.

It was telling how often Chaudhry Nisar referred to the succour our enemies took from Cyril’s reporting and then proceeded to tell us to check out the coverage of every Indian newspaper around. Those who read the stories know that most of them were not about the reporting itself but the massive government overreaction.

Then think of how often we use the same excuse to suppress other marginalised groups. When a woman goes public with being raped she hasn’t actually been raped, she is just maligning the country and trying to get a visa for Canada. Mukhtaran Mai had her passport confiscated; Shazia Khalid was placed under house arrest. There is no better way of showing people they are lower Pakistanis than by telling them they cannot leave Pakistan.

Pakistan shows itself to be an insecure state when it tells the media it can only cover what is in the national interest, when it criminalises someone for being a woman or a religious minority, when minor differences of opinion become proof of treason. The blasphemy law is a colonial hangover we still haven’t shaken off and the Exit Control List is a Zia-era law that we use as a tool of oppression to impose a rigid conformity, often on pain of death. In doing so, we turn ourselves into our own worst enemy.

The writer is a journalist based in Karachi.

Email: [email protected]


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