Is Pakistan's government stifling the voices of dissent?
Since Imran Khan's government began, journalists and activists in Pakistan are not only fighting for the freedom of speech but different means are being used to suppress their dissent.
In August, the Pakistan Digital media wing issued a deep analytics report based on the compilation of hashtags that the government deems as anti-state. The current media asked the CEO of Tweepsmap Samir Al-Battran if the analysis of the report is authentic since it used their app service. Samir told them: “The government of Pakistan is not authorised to use our service. We will investigate how they got access to our analysis.”
After reading the report, activists, journalists and members of the opposition took to social media to share "flaws" they found from the report, subjecting it to severe criticism. Opposition leader Shahid Khan Abbasi termed the report "shoddy, misleading and based on assumptions".
"If enacted, it will erase all critical voices from print, electronic and digital platforms through a system of coercive censorship that will allow only a pliant media to survive"
Currently, the Pakistan government is thinking about proposing an anti-media bill to further crush freedom of speech. If enacted, it will erase all critical voices from print, electronic and digital platforms through a system of coercive censorship that will allow only a pliant media to survive.
Thousands of journalists, members of civil society are protesting to protect the right to freedom. Journalists and activists have faced harassment already whenever they raise their voices for a particular issue.
From unemployment to inflation, battling the pandemic to instability, the current government has faced crisis after crisis in Pakistan, yet it seems to attempt to stifle any form of criticism. The attacks on journalists, and political activists critical of state harsh policies, the crackdown on students asking for their rights, and sedition charges on human rights defenders, shows how the current regime is fuelling the culture of silence.
"The more 'positive reporting' you do, the easier it is for you to survive. Critical voices become invisible in this environment"
Sumaira Ashraf, a video journalist currently working with DW Urdu, has been vocal about gender issues. Having 10 years of experience and working with multimedia publications, she believes that "critical journalism is impossible in our country."
"We must adhere to social media rules and if the government thinks any video is against any department, it will be removed. The more 'positive reporting' you do, the easier it is for you to survive. Critical voices become invisible in this environment," she states.
"There weren’t any stakeholders involved in the implementation of social media rules. Why don't you consider the opinion of journalists while making a regulation for them? You make laws for us and you don’t even take our input into account," Sumaira adds.
Fatima Razzaq is currently working for Sujaag Media as an investigative journalist. While being a critical voice, she covers religious minorities, gender issues and human rights in Pakistan.
She explains how the past few years have been critical for journalists in Pakistan and instead of making it better, she believes the government is making it worse. "The muzzling of the media has been happening for a long time," Fatima says. "Most people have thus resorted to digital media. A lot of young people are now writing for international platforms because their ideas do not get picked up by national platforms."
She goes on to state how the government is trying to put down more emerging voices under the disguise of a regulatory framework. "The problem is that we don’t need a regulatory framework, we need media reforms," says Fatima. "Those reforms could look like unions, organisations, digital dissent journalism as well as allowing dissents to be part of the press club. In the current landscape, there are so many restrictions on the freedom of thoughts that ordinary people are now scared."
Ammar Ali Jan is a historian and a member of the Haqooq-e-Khalq Movement, which describes itself as a 'progressive movement for democracy in Pakistan'. Ammar has been very vocal about injustices in the society and despite several threats and sedition charges, Ammar says he "continues to work for the betterment of society."
"It is also heartening to see multiple nodes of resistance emerging in Pakistan. Students, journalists, teachers, lawyers, and other civil society activists are building resistance from below"
He believes that the deep analytics report is part of discourse against human rights defenders and dissidents across the country. "The current government has popularized the notion of an alleged 'fifth-generation war' against Pakistan in which it claims that the real danger to the sovereignty of the country is 'fifth columnists' within the country who are involved in propaganda against the government. This implies that all those who uphold the sanctity of the Constitution and the right to dissent are viewed as enemy agents, therefore removing them from the legitimate political community," Ammar opines.
"However, while the government wishes to stifle dissent, it is also heartening to see multiple nodes of resistance emerging in Pakistan. Students, journalists, teachers, lawyers, and other civil society activists are building resistance from below. Pakistan is too big and too diverse to be completely run over by an incompetent hybrid regime. I believe people will continue to express dissent and will eventually defeat this hybrid regime," he concludes.
Saba Chaudhary is an independent journalist and an activist based in Pakistan. She reports on human rights and gender issues.
Follow her on Twitter: @SaBa_Ch_