he Pakistani media has fought long and hard to win some freedoms for itself and survived to tell a tale. It has faced the wrath of autocratic civil-military regimes, militant jihadis, ethnic terrorists, Islamic extremists and anarchist Taliban, suffering stiff fines, public lashings, long imprisonments, terrible torture, mysterious disappearances and even broad daylight assassinations. Not so long ago, when many such threats laid the media low, Pakistan had the dubious distinction of being called “the most dangerous country in the world for journalists”. Unfortunately, there is mounting evidence to suggest that the media is now facing an unprecedented existential threat under the hybrid regime headed by Imran Khan and underpinned by the Miltablishment.
Over the last seven decades, many laws have been enacted by illegitimate, insecure or authoritarian regimes to harass, pressurize, intimidate, manage and control the media. But with the arrival of the electronic age and mushrooming of “live” private television channels, the media was able to push back a bit. That scope for freedom of expression has now expanded significantly in the age of the internet and cyberspace, with global communication corporate giants like Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, etc., and offshoots like YouTube, powering it into overdrive. In consequence, the current insecure hybrid regime is swiftly moving to crush the increasing impetus for free speech and civil rights.
Currently, two institutions representing the civil-military hybrid regime are being manipulated to manage and control the media. The ISPR is the Miltablishment boot while PEMRA is the civilian arm of this joint exercise. The FIA has now been brought into the loop of repression to put down social media activists. Hovering above are the invisible, unaccountable civil-military intelligence agencies obsessed with notions of 5th Generation Warfare in which elements of the independent media are constantly accused of being in the pay of foreign masters and following “enemy agendas”. Together these state institutions account for all the threats, warnings, legal notices, fines, closures, beatings, arrests and disappearances that have now become commonplace.
The evidence of this is piling up and spilling into the international media. The physical assault on journalist Asad Ali Toor last week has opened up all the wounds and compelled relatively independent sections of media and civil society to stand up and resist. The list of brave media warriors who have paid a high, often brutal, price for demanding free-speech and constitutional rights reads like a Who’s Who of prominence. Hayatullah (2003, kidnapped and killed); Umar Cheema (2010 kidnapped, beaten up); Saleem Shahzad (2011, disappeared, tortured to death and dumped in a canal); Hamid Mir (2014, shot and injured); Ahmed Noorani (2017 kidnapped, beaten up, exiled); Taha Siddiqui (2018, kidnapped, beaten up, exiled); Gul Bukhari (2018, kidnapped, intimidated, exiled); Matiullah Jan (2020, kidnapped, warned); Absar Alam (2021, shot, injured) and now Asad Toor (assaulted at home). Shockingly, not a single assailant or perpetrator has been caught by the mighty intelligence agencies without whose permission a leaf dare not stir. The Owner-Editor of the Geo-Jang Group, Mir Shakilur Rahman, has just spent seven months in solitary confinement in NAB quarters for not heeding the advice of these invisible agencies. Now Hamid Mir has been banned from Geo TV following his outburst against an alleged oppressor. In between, several prominent journalists are out in the cold, facing sedition charges filed by faceless complainants.
The hybrid regime is now threatening a Presidential Ordinance to forever gag all manner of dissent and free speech in print, electronic and social media. The proposed Pakistan Media Development (sic) Authority is draconian in scope and intent. Should it be bulldozed, we can be sure it will put an end to all critical debate or commentary on any forum, especially on TV, YouTube, and other social media platforms. But consider the consequences of what is likely to happen when a society that has tasted the fruit of constitutional democracy and yearns for more is gagged and suffocated in this manner?
To be sure, a major part of civil society will likely hunker down, partly because it has no faith in the judiciary to protect it and partly because it doesn’t have the resources for a prolonged conflict. But, inevitably, a significant section will revolt and seek aggressive ways and means to pursue its goals. This is natural. When any state hounds its citizens to the wall, it should expect at least some of them to lash out in desperation, sooner or later, to defend their rights. In other words, when free speech is gagged, one important safety valve in democracy is closed to pent-up emotional and political pressure. The nature of conflict also tends to acquire a personal tone in which the oppressed is not scared of naming the oppressor and discrediting the state institution which is represented. This is what is happening now with state institutions and their leaders in the hybrid system increasingly being exposed in the public imagination. The ice was broken by Nawaz Sharif in the opposition PDM’s Gujranwala rally last year when he targeted the army chief and DGISI by name. There is no going back now. Angry media spokespersons talk openly about culpable state organs and are quick to name names of Miltablishment chiefs.
The unrepresentative, overbearing and unaccountable organs of the state suspect every other journalist and politician who challenges their writ, ideology or strategy of being a “foreign agent”. The irony is that large sections of civil society now believe that these very state organs are waging 5th Generation war against the custodians of constitutional rights like the bar and bench, rights organization and the media. But just as brave journalists are standing up to be counted, judges are also stirring to protect their hard won independence. For every one Justice Qazi Faez Isa there will be two to follow in short order. Indeed, the day is not far when these besieged constitutional institutions will throw away the yoke of oppressor institutions and help society become freer.