The vanishing freedoms

Author: Afrasiab Khattak

The fiction of a civilian government has been cracking up under heavy burden of the reality of military control over the system during last few years. That the prolonged aggressive sit-in in Islamabad in 2014 was scripted by elements in the security establishment was beyond any doubt as the sitting defense minister named names after the end of the aborted coup. The putschists had to beat a  retreat, at least temporarily, in the face of a joint call by all political parties in the parliament for unity against anti democratic forces. But the federal government was considerably weakened and it had  to concede vast swaths of governance, national security and foreign policy to the security establishment. From apex committees in all provinces for steering the anti terror campaign to manning checkpoints on the main roads through out the country, the army gradually came to occupy the driving seat in running the country in the era of war on terror. That the second installment of ambushing the civilian government would come from the judicial front was also predicted in advance by Javed Hashmi, a senior politician who parted ways with PTI in 2014 accusing it to be part of a future judicial coup plan.

After 18th Constitutional Amendment passed by the Parliament in 2010 that strengthened constitutional provisions against abrogation, subversion or suspension of the Constitution, removing the sitting prime ministers by judicial disqualification has become a favorite path for security establishment that remains to be the axil behind the change. The burden of constitutional and legal consequences falls on the Supreme Court and being the Apex Court of the country it has nothing to worry about. That it could disqualify an elected Prime Minister for having an “ aqama” (residential visa of UAE) , although he was originally charged for alleged offshore companies of his children leaked in Panama Papers shows the length to which the Court can go. But there is a clear method in this madness.

The Apex Court could not pursue the case against former military dictator General (retired) Pervez Musharraf for abrogating the Constitution with the same zeal although it is almost an open and shut case. The retired General was allowed to leave the country on fabricated medical grounds and there is no sign of any judicial activism to bring him back for facing the most serious charges of high treason.

Br that as it may, now when the almost vanquished civilian government is about to come to the end of its constitutional term, the ever expanding authoritarian control has started targeting the hard earned democratic freedoms of the people. Freedom of expression has been the prime target for obvious reasons. The intelligence agencies connected to security establishment have already established control over most of the electronic media. But a few of tv channels that refused to fall in line were subjected to crude pressure. The Jang group of newspapers which also runs the well known tv channel Geo is a case in point. Cable operators through out the country were asked by the intelligence operatives to take the channel off the air. Neither the civilian government nor the judiciary could do anything against this undeclared censorship. After a month the media group had to accept the terms of the deep state for bringing back its broadcasts on air. This is a glaring example of the domination of de facto over de jure. Clamping a complete ban on media coverage of the activities of Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), a nascent youth movement originating from FATA Pashtuns, is also an open secret. Initially the electronic media wasn’t allowed to cover the activities of this a movement that demands fundamental rights for Pashtuns and opposes war in Afghanistan being fought from Pakistani side of the border. Since the movement challenges the carefully crafted narrative of the security establishment regarding war in FATA and in Afghanistan, it was conveniently dubbed to be “ anti state” despite the fact that it is consistently and totally non violent and demands implementation of constitutional provisions on human rights. English language print media has enjoyed comparative freedom in Pakistan for two reasons. One its  readership is limited so it can’t make much of a difference. Two, foreign diplomats are impressed to see the level of freedom of media by reading English language newspapers and magazines. So, initially reports and articles appeared in English language newspapers about PTM.

But when it was felt that a critical mass is accumulating in the newspapers about the objectives of PTM, blunt methods of pressure were adopted to force the newspapers for taking off reports and articles regarding PTM from their websites. Sixty of the most prominent journalists, editors and anchors have issued a strong joint statement against the fresh curbs on media.

The declaration says, “ media houses management, under pressure, are dropping op-ed columns and removing online editions of published articles. One media house even asked its anchors to stop live shows”, the declaration read further added that growing self-censorship on “given news” rather than real news was synonymous with violating the citizen’s right to information. The joint declaration ended with the following words; “ We strongly protest against all forms of censorship imposed on free media and freedom of information and stand united against it”.

 

Several university campuses have  also seen an undeclared ban on seminars clamped by intelligence agencies on the subjects regarded to be “ undesirable “ by them. This can lead to an explosive situation in a country with a youth bulge in the population and where young people are asserting themselves to find space in sociopolitical life. The dramatic rise of PTM has underlined the potential for youth movement against oppression and tyranny. More than two hundreds professors from various universities have registered their protest against constraints imposed on freedom of expression on campuses. According to them growing suffocation on the campuses can gravely weaken the civil society.

 

So far the role of political parties has been disappointing in defending democratic freedoms. Their silence on the subject is deafening. They have failed to read the writing on the wall about the plan for fully controlled democracy even after the recent engineered Senate elections. Most of them are still busy in striking individual deals with the security establishment without realizing that vanishing of democratic freedoms for all practical purposes means end of democracy.

Afrasiab Khattak

The author is a former Senator of Pakistan and a political analyst of the south and central Asian region. He can be followed @a_siab

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