Sunday July 14, 2024

Dying dissent

By Kamila Hyat
January 07, 2021

Dissent is an extremely important part of any democracy. It is crucial as a means to maintain equilibrium within society. Without dissent, progress is difficult and it is complicated for people to judge what is happening in their nation and with the government that they elected.

Trying to stamp out dissent has been a frequent practice not only in our country, but in many parts of the world. The damage it has caused has taken years to recover from. When dissent is silenced it is most often replaced with fear and crazed conspiracy theories such as QAnon. Of course, we have our own set of conspiracy-based hype. But the fact that so many in a so-called developed country can believe in QAnon and other ludicrous stories is terrifying.

In the case of Pakistan, we saw the worst case of the systematic suppression of dissent – till now – under General Ziaul Haq. Zamir Niazi and others have documented the methods and outcomes in detail. Zia's brutal clamp-down on the voices of opposition meant that people developed an increasingly one-dimensional view of the world they lived in, without being able to build an understanding of beliefs that were different to this view.

Religion and mendacity were used in combination to strengthen this outlook. We still live with the harm caused by these policies today. The intolerance we see, the misogyny that is experienced by women across the country, the attacks on minorities, and the inability to tolerate any kind of opposing voice or simply agree to disagree when no middle ground appears to be available is something we have forgotten how to master. This was not the case in the early decades of Pakistan or in fact, even in the traumatic years that ran up to the events of Partition.

Of course, the issue of dissent has been discussed all around the world and is a factor in many countries. It would be incorrect to say that it is a problem only of the developing world or of relatively new democracies, which have not yet found the stable ground they need to understand how democracy must work and why dissent or the voicing of opinions of all kinds is essential to this. Analyst and academic Noam Chomsky has written extensively on dissent and what happens when it is pushed aside. About his own country, the USA, and the media within it, he has spoken and written at length on the manner in which corporate interests have come to control the media and determine what is right and what is wrong in the eyes of newspapers. The days when ideology determined what view a journal took have vanished. There is now a middle ground occupied by almost all the media around the world, with a few standing towards the left of the circle, a few towards the right and most grouped right in the centre. Very few stand outside the circle either to its left or right. There is, in other words, less and less dissent. A common worldview has been created, essentially by interests which represent big business and big money. These businesses and corporations, after all, today, control the world and all that happens within it. The result is there is almost no room for ordinary people to make their views known or to highlight them in any mainstream form.

We are seeing this today, particularly in India, which for decades had a fairly free, open and divided media, with opinions of various kinds reflected in it. These have begun to vanish, almost entirely, under unrelenting pressure from the Modi government. The result is increased tabloid journalism and a media which represents essentially only one view of the world – a world that is hostile to minorities in India, hostile to Kashmir and its brave freedom fighters, hostile to Pakistan and to other groups within the country and around the world. The manner in which the Indian media has been reduced to an absurdity is frightening.

We are seeing some of the same in our own country. In some cases, the media is being killed softly, with whispered threats and suggestions made to individual journalists. In other cases, the steps taken are harsher, with journalists picked up even if this has usually been for brief periods, and essentially intended to scare them into following one line of opinion and one school of thought. In some cases, the arrest of leading figures in journalism is intended to send home a stronger message.

The larger media houses may be able to hold out to a certain extent, although even this is limited. The smaller ones have been forced into conformity. People then get simply a look at the world that is shot from one angle and depicts only one perspective. But this is carried out with so little subtlety that most people have begun to see through the facade of a free press and a free media. They recognize, just as was the case in the days when PTV and Radio Pakistan were the main sources of knowledge for people, that they are not being told the truth or at least not the whole truth. To use the old term in journalism, more and more material is being spiked. Of course, speaking literally in the form of the modern media, this simply means it is not being run.

Social media has to some extent tried to make up for the loss of space available for dissent. But even social media is under pressure, with new laws and new measures coming in. Even large social media organisations have been asked to crush voices and to ‘cooperate’ with the government in this case. As has happened before, the government and the state are being muddled – without an awareness of the distinction between the two. This is dangerous in any country, and simply breeds greater frustration, greater anger and therefore greater risk to the country as opinion continues to be crushed.

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.