In Europe, as in some other fortunate parts of the globe, it does not take much for those with a liberal bent of mind inculcated primarily through education in progressive values to relate closely to principles of individual rights and freedoms and to talk about them unhindered, even write about them.
It is a commonplace pursuit here, one that is easy to carry out as the views expressed, even if they differ from and challenge the established or prevalent wisdom, do not invite retribution and violent attack. This freedom to all to express themselves is what drives such societies forward, acting both as a check against excesses and a motivator for positive change. In contrast, across South Asia, but nowhere as markedly as in Pakistan, the contrary – the tendency towards absolute silencing of dissenting voices, especially in the media – is not only deepening, but is also impacting adversely and substantially on the healthy progression and growth of these countries.
The situation has assumed such grim proportions in Pakistan that the Imran Khan led government, not satisfied with the existing impunity for killings and harassment of journalists, has put into motion a draconian new media law, the Pakistan Media Development Authority (PMDA) Ordinance 2021, which seeks to centralize media oversight under one oppressive authority and which calls for media tribunals to mete swift punishment to journalists for violating the new rules. This obvious move to formalize censorship by the State has been termed a “media martial law” by the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), while others have cryptically commented that the new law would make the junta in Myanmar proud.
In Pakistan, every single one of the small section of media persons talking about or writing in favour of human rights and liberties and opposing the rampant excesses by the State, especially by the invisible elements within it, deserves serious respect. The odds are stacked against this small group of brave journalists, and the benefits of their contribution towards an increasingly endangered cause may be felt only by future generations, but they have been perseverant even in the face of sustained, brutal and mostly mindless hostility by the State. One of the most courageous of this brave group has been Hamid Mir. Even the trauma of a 2014 assassination attempt in which he was shot six times, the repeated loss of jobs, and the near day-to-day harassment by those who he averred “everyone knows” but “no one dares identify” have not made Mir any mellower. Quite the opposite, his voice is even louder now and it carries with it a whiff of greater respectability. That is why the 31 May decision by his employer Geo News to take Mir off the privately owned channel after it was pressured to do so by the military establishment came in for stiff criticism, both within Pakistan and from international organizations and rights groups.
Writing in The Guardian, Mir described the events that led to employer’s decision thus, “The ban came immediately after I spoke out at a protest for press freedom in Islamabad. Journalists, lawyers and civil society activists were there to show our solidarity with Asad Ali Toor, a journalist who was attacked last week inside his own home. Three men came in, tied him up, and beat him severely. The attackers, Toor said, identified themselves as being from the Inter-Services Intelligence agency”. At the protest, Mir had “delivered a warning to the attackers”. He told them that “If they continue to enter our homes and attack us, we won’t stay quiet”. He pointed out that even if the media did not possess tanks and weapons, it did have the option of exposing the sordid details of the Generals’ personal lives.
After his banning, Mir remained characteristically combative. He said, “I was banned twice in the past. Lost jobs twice. Survived assassination attempts but cannot stop raising voice for the rights given in the constitution… This time I’m ready for any consequences and ready to go at any extent because they are threatening my family”. Revealing that the management of Geo News had asked him to explain his speech at the protest, Mir said that he had queried in return, “Who is asking you for this?” He added, “I told them if they arrest the persons who attacked Asad Toor then I am ready to apologise, let alone issue an explanation”.
The Pakistani government, meanwhile, sought to deny that it had anything to do with the attack on Toor or the laying off of Mir, and in the process made allegations that bordered on the unintelligible and absurd. Even after Geo News and Mir himself had elucidated the reason behind the punitive action, Information Minister Fawad Hussain Chaudhry tweeted that the government had nothing to do with the working of any broadcast group and that all of them were functioning under relevant constitutional clauses and they independently decided to air their programs and appoint teams for them. Similarly, on the attack against Toor, the Information Ministry said in a statement that the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s excessively powerful spy agency, had “totally disassociated” itself from the attack. The Ministry seemed to veer off into an imaginary haze when it claimed that “Such continued allegations against ISI show that the ISI is being a target of the fifth generation war under an organised conspiracy”.
In Pakistan, the rot that has set in was well exemplified by the BBC when it reported that Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry, when asked about the alleged attacks on journalists and activists, had dismissed media coverage of the issue as being agenda driven. He told the BBC that he would only agree to an interview if the BBC also devoted a programme to Pakistan’s “great success in war against Covid”. Earlier this year, the BBC was forced to stop broadcasting its daily Urdu bulletin due to “interference” in its programme.
Chaudhry had also claimed that certain journalists had blamed the military and the ISI only to obtain political asylum in foreign countries. Terming Chaudhry’s claim unfortunate, Mir retorted, “I was attacked but I am still in Pakistan. Matiullah Jan was attacked once but he is also in Pakistan. Absar Alam is also present in Pakistan. I would like to ask the minister why senior military officials like General Musharraf are living abroad?” In any case, as Gulalai Ismail, an award-winning women’s activist and leader of the Pashtun Protection Movement (PTM), who fearing for her life had actually fled Pakistan for the United States (US) in 2019 revealed, Pakistani intelligence agents had resorted to torturing people close to her in an effort to track her down and arrest her. Trumped up charges were lodged against her elderly parents in Pakistan, and court cases were filed against them. Terming this as “collective punishment”, Ismail asserted that the aim was to demonstrate “that if parents are to raise a daughter who will speak truth to power … then this will be the fate. Not just the daughter will suffer but the parents will also suffer”.
Interestingly, Mir had made an observation in his speech at the protest on 28 May that seemed to turn the traditional thinking on Pakistan on its head. He had alleged “You (the military establishment) say that your tanks have rusted and that you want friendship with India, when we don’t help you build the new narrative of friendship with India, you call out media for not helping you”. This is highly revealing about the state of play in Pakistan on relations with India. The reason Mir has attributed to the establishment’s desire for peace with India – rusty tanks – says a lot. The Pakistan Army Chief’s recent publicly articulated pitch for peace lends credence to Mir’s claim of the media being pressed by the establishment to promote friendship with India. A rather convoluted picture then takes shape of the supposedly civilian leaders, Prime Minister Imran Khan and his excitable Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, repeatedly putting unrealistic and constantly changing pre-conditions for resuming engagement with India while the military establishment is purportedly seeking friendship. Something seems amiss in this situation, as it has traditionally been the civilian leadership that has sometimes been open to the idea of peace while the military establishment has invariably been steadfast in rapping the politicians on the knuckles every time it sensed moves to normalize relations with India.
Freedom of the press has long been a problem in Pakistan but the situation has deteriorated markedly under Imran Khan, who has dismissed allegations of attacks on the Pakistani press as a “joke”. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has ranked Pakistan the fifth most dangerous place for the practice of journalism, with 138 media persons there having lost their lives in the line of duty between 1990 and 2020. In 2021 alone, 3 journalists have been murdered and one, Absar Alam, injured in an attempted assassination. Media professionals across the country were targeted with impunity by militants, political actors, and security agencies. As per Freedom Network Pakistan’s latest report on press freedom, at least 148 instances of attacks and violations against journalists and media practitioners occurred between May 3, 2020 and April 20, 2021. The top three categories of violations against journalists were embroiling them in legal cases, verbal threats of murder or other dire consequences, and their arrest/detention by law enforcement agencies.
The punitive action against Mir has drawn sharp criticism, with opposition leader Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari accusing PM Imran Khan of lying to the world about press freedom in his country and of not providing adequate security to journalists. He added, “As the chairman of the National Assembly Committee on Human Rights, I am taking notice of the incidents of attacks on journalists and soon I will convene its meeting to discuss the state of media freedom in the country”. Marriyum Aurangzeb, the spokesperson of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) said, “We condemn such arbitrary decisions against freedom of speech & oppose all pressures to intimidate journalists into silence. We Stand With @HamidMirPAK”. The PFUJ termed the move an attack on freedom of expression and press and demanded that “The Geo management should let the journalist fraternity know what prompted them to take such a decision within 72 hours of Hamid Mir’s speech in front of the National Press Club on Friday where he condemned non-democratic forces for lodging attacks on media persons and Asad Toor… First journalists are attacked and when media persons protest against such attacks, the government employs fascist tactics to silence them”. Absar Alam, the senior journalist who himself was shot in the ribs last month by an unknown person near his house in Islamabad, said, “It’s shameful to threaten anyone’s family. If anyone has a complaint against Hamid Mir, that person should follow the legal path instead of resorting to unconstitutional and fascist acts”. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) said, “HRCP strongly condemns the decision to take @HamidMirPAK off the air three days after he spoke fervidly against the escalation in curbs on press freedom. He must be allowed to resume his professional duties immediately and the threats against him investigated”.
International organizations were no less scathing in their criticism. Amnesty International South Asia tweeted, “The punitive action of taking @HamidMirPAK off the air following a speech at a protest calling for accountability for an attack on @AsadAToor, severely undermines the responsibility media outlets and authorities have to protect free speech in an already repressive environment. Censorship, harassment and physical violence must not be the price journalists pay to do their jobs”. Steven Butler, the Asia program coordinator of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), asserted in a statement that “Forcing a popular news talk show host like Hamid Mir off the air after voicing criticism of Pakistan’s military — and support for a fellow journalist — only underscores the lack of true press freedom in Pakistan. Critical comments about key state institutions are an important component of democracy, not a scourge to be eliminated”. The global media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF), issued a statement in which it averred that “Reporters Without Borders is appalled that Hamid Mir has been taken off the air by his TV channel after saying at a protest that those responsible for recent physical attacks on journalists should be identified”. RSF underlined that “An autocratic climate is steadily taking hold in Pakistan”. The statement quoted Daniel Bastard, the head of the Asia-Pacific desk of RSF, as saying that it was “extremely disturbing that a media group has been reduced to censoring its own star journalist simply because he defended his fellow journalists against violence. In his programme, Hamid Mir nurtured the flame of democracy and pluralism in Pakistan with courage and abnegation. His disappearance from the airwaves is another step in this government’s progress towards autocracy”.
While nowhere as acute as in Pakistan, the menace of attempts to browbeat and tame the media into submission is increasing across South Asia. In Bangladesh, the arrest earlier this month of Rozina Islam raised concerns. An investigative journalist for the country’s largest circulated newspaper Prothom Alo, her incisive articles on the country’s inadequate response to the COVID-19 pandemic led to charges under the Official Secrets Act. These charges could see Rozina being imprisoned for 14 years or even being given the death penalty. Amnesty International found that at least 247 Bangladeshi journalists had been subjected to attacks and intimidation by officials and others in the last year alone.
In India, Telugu TV channels TV5 and ABN filed petitions in the country’s Supreme Court challenging the Andhra Pradesh police’s 14 May decision to frame several charges against them, including that of sedition, for broadcasting the views of a rebel Member of Parliament (MP) Krishnam Raju in which he was critical of the state’s Chief Minister Y. S. Jagan Mohan Reddy’s COVID-19 management policy. The court expressed concern at the regularity with which sedition charges were slapped against the print and electronic media for publishing views critical of the establishment and stayed any coercive action against the TV channels. The court resolved to more closely define the law on sedition in order to prevent it from becoming a tool to silence dissent and political opponents. The court said, “We are of the view that the ambit and parameters of the provisions of Sections 124A, 153A and 505 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, would require interpretation, particularly in the context of the right of the electronic and print media to communicate news and information, even those that may be critical of the prevailing regime in any part of the nation”.
In Pakistan, as elsewhere, the damage to the national fabric that unwarranted and unjustified attacks against free thought and speech are doing is immeasurable. As per media accounts, one recurring question that the shady abductors of the deep State persistently ask their hapless journalist victims in Pakistan is who is instigating them to write against and criticize the government and the military. This question says a lot about the ignorance of the abductors, who, ironically, never seem to grasp that it is they themselves, and more particularly their brutal repression of their fellow country people, that is the core of the problem. They also don’t seem to get it that after all that he has been through, nobody would need to instigate Hamid Mir to speak up against the violence that fellow media person Toor was subjected to, and that hardly anybody would succeed in instigating him even if they attempted to.
The courage to stand up to the violent excesses of a brutal, autocratic State, as Mir and others of his kind are bravely doing, is not only exemplary but is also something that only those with deep convictions and firm resolve will attempt. (Courtesy EFSAS)