The writer is a senior journalist.
In a rather physical sense, the barriers have been set by the coronavirus emergency. Like in so many other countries of the world, our freedom of movement is drastically restricted. Our social life is aborted. We breathe an environment of anxiety and gloom.
But metaphorically, the limits that are being imposed on our freedom of thought and expression are so much more disturbing. Besides, they are not time-bound. And on both fronts, darkness suddenly descended on the same day this week.
On Thursday, Editor-in-Chief of Jang-Geo Group Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman, was arrested in Lahore by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) on a 34-year-old property matter. The message this delivers is loud and clear. In fact, it creates a new precedent in the recent history of the suppression of independent media, with the largest media group of the country bearing the brunt of it.
As the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan put it in a tweet: “There remains a strong suspicion that such actions by NAB are selective, arbitrary and politically motivated”. Human Rights Watch noted that “the space for dissent in Pakistan is shrinking fast and anyone who criticises government actions can become a target”. The point is that this arrest has prompted deep concerns, including at the global level, about media freedom in Pakistan.
As for the Covid-19 spectacle that has turned billions of lives upside down, our authorities were almost in denial until Thursday night. We were happily playing cricket, a national pastime that seems to camouflage our setbacks on numerous other fields. Huge crowds were cheering a PSL match at the National Stadium in Karachi, leaving the city in a traffic mess.
But that night, everything changed. I see this as an example of the paradigm shift, when ground realities that are for long ignored become critical all of a sudden. We have seen how everything has changed and we feel plugged into the global cycle of lockdowns and isolation and social distancing.
My younger daughter lives in Italy, in the region that was first put into a lockdown. On Tuesday, watching the scene in Pakistan, she posted this tweet: “Looking at tweets as people react to the arrival of coronavirus in their countries, it’s a textbook formula. It begins with jokes, memes, becomes fear and panic and then, as now in Italy, it’s just deep sadness. 827 dead.” I have many stories to tell about how Italy is living through its present life-changing predicament. They show the spirit of the people and their zest for life even in dire circumstances. There is a lot on social media.
One example is how cities choose a time when all citizens open their windows and sing a song or play some music in unison. Voices and melodies meander through curfewed streets. When I called my daughter yesterday, she was having coffee with a friend, on a video link.
Now, this coronavirus will be with us for a number of weeks. But the suppression of the media is something that we will have to live with for a long time, unless there is a paradigm shift in our political affairs. Thoughts that have been triggered by Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman’s arrest demand deep and serious examination. Here is an instructive intimation of how our rulers can ride roughshod over constitutional, legal and moral dictates that are integral to a democratic system.
Look at this glaring contradiction. On March 7, the Islamabad High Court clarified that an accused should not be arrested by NAB at enquiry stage, if cooperating with the investigation. Mir Shakil was arrested on March 12.
In this context, we have other, very telling references to how the superior judges have looked at the two issues that have come together in the case of Mir Shakil’s arrest.
On the solemn occasion of the beginning of the new judicial year in September last year, CJ Asif Saeed Khosa, respected for his erudition, talked about the media as well as the existing process of accountability. Let me briefly quote him. He said: “Voices being raised about muzzling of the print and electronic media and suppression of dissent are also disturbing”. He added that a voice suppressed or an opinion curbed generates frustration. Frustration gives rise to discontent and increasing discontent poses a serious threat to democratic system itself.
About accountability, Justice Khosa said: “We as a relevant organ of the state also feel that [the] growing perception that the process of accountability being pursued in this country at present is lopsided and part of political engineering is a dangerous perception and some remedial steps need to be taken urgently so that the process does not lose credibility”.
It has been said and I have repeated it a number of times that this is positively the worst time for the media. That dark night of General Zia’s martial law was not this oppressive. But I also regret that we do not have a fearless chronicler of these times. During Zia’s era, we had Zamir Niazi whose book, ‘The Press in Chains’, is a landmark study of the suppression of the media since the creation of Pakistan. It was published in 1986.
The media scene has changed and is so much more complex because of its electronic and digital dynamics. When the media is in chains, can the society as such be unfettered in its social, political and economic development? This symbiotic relationship between the freedom of the media and the growth of a society is, sadly, not properly understood.
One reason why Pakistan is lagging behind other South Asian countries in terms of the internationally recognized social indicators could be that the media is forever suppressed in this country. As a corollary, we do not have academic freedom on our campuses.
It seems obvious that when ideas cannot be openly explored and a rational debate becomes very difficult, society does not remain very creative or innovating in meeting its challenges. It only means that when the media is in chains, the country too is in an intellectual lockdown. Who has the capacity to even think about this bondage?
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