If anyone was under the impression that a shift in government also brought about a shift in the state of press freedom in Pakistan, the murder of journalist Arshad Sharif proves otherwise. Killed while in exile in Kenya, his death proves that if you’re on the wrong side of the powers that be, then you really can’t hide for too long. And perhaps the most concerning aspect is that Arshad Sharif is only the latest in a long line of journalists who have been harassed, tortured, intimidated and killed at the hands of the powerful. And although his journalism may have raised questions of ethics and credibility, the fact remains that any attempts to silence the media, especially through violence, will always be unwelcome and condemnable.
The story doesn’t end with Arshad Sharif. If we look at events from this last month alone, from MNA Ali Wazir getting booked in a fifth case after getting bail in the other four, or Senator Azam Swati getting arrested over a tweet that named the army chief, to Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) founder Manzoor Pashteen being arrested just this Sunday over charges of terrorism, the situation is alarming. ‘Dissent’ —if being critical of the state can even be called as such— cannot be squashed like a pestering fly buzzing incessantly in your ear on a hot summers day. It cannot be killed off by hitmen hired in far off countries, or by beating your opponents into submission. The story doesn’t end with Arshad Sharif, but perhaps his death can serve as a wake up call for those who were still under the belief that freedom of expression is not under threat in Pakistan.
The long chain of succession of targeted journalists and activists
Naya Daur Editor-in-Chief Raza Rumi said as much during an interview with journalist Rabia Mahmood on a Naya Daur TV show on Tuesday. Talking about how some people were accusing Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) stalwarts of condemning the extra-judicial killing of Sharif only because he was ‘on their side’, Raza said when it comes to loss of life and curtailing of freedom of speech, there are no sides. “I’m glad that the PTI and the youth brigade is realising the importance of freedom of expression as of late,” he said.
Recounting his own harrowing experience of surviving an assassination attempt in 2014, he said that when he heard about Sharif’s death, he was in a state of shock. “Everything kept replaying in my mind; I had hoped that things would get better, after Saleem Shahzad, Hamid Mir, myself, but no, this is a never-ending ordeal,” he said.
But Rumi was one of the luckier ones, in that not only did he survive, but his case ultimately saw some sort of resolution. The police identified members of a religious extremist group, and through forensic analysis, were able to arrest the five perpetrators who were then sentenced to death by a military court. Since the dissolution of military courts, they have been challenging the status of their case in the court, but at the present, they are still very much behind bars. For others, it hasn’t been the same.
Hamid Mir survived two assassination attempts on him, once in 2012 and another in 2014, both of which he had blamed on the country’s intelligence agencies. A judicial commission was formed to investigate the matter, however eight years on, no conclusion has been reached.
Thank you very much PM. Please remember that a judicial commission comprising three Supreme Court judges was announced in 2014 to investigate assassination attempt on my life in Karachi. I got six bullets. 8 years have been passed and I am still waiting for the commission report. https://t.co/Bgas2VXvx1
It’s not just journalists who can’t escape the ire of the agencies. Human rights activist Gulalai Ismail was forced to flee the country in 2019 after she was hounded by Pakistani authorities who accused her of ‘anti-state’ activities. Three years later, the criminal cases against her are still being battled by her family members. Gulalai’s crime? Speaking up for women experiencing harassment and assault at the hands of security forces. She was also the victim of malicious campaigns, her parents are still being persecuted.
امی ابو کی آج انسداد دہشت گردی کی عدالت میں پھر تاریخ تھی،وکیلوں کی ہڑتال تھی۔اگلی تاریخ تین دن کے بعد کی ہے۔حقیقی آزادی کے دعویدار عمران خان کے دور حکومت میں بنے جھوٹے مقدمے حقیقی جمہوریت کے دعویداروں کی حکومت میں چل رہے ہیں۔ سپریم کورٹ کی اس عدالتی استحصال پر آنکھیں بند ہیں۔ pic.twitter.com/5GYog9xHfq
To a degree, one can, at least emotionally, understand the State’s fear of dissent. Anything that threatens their power and shakes public sentiment is bad for them. Harder still is understanding the correlation between criticism and being ‘anti-state’. No institution in Pakistan should be given collective impunity; and anyone pointing out the excesses made by the State should not be shunned, ostracised and harassed. A core tenet of a truly democratic country is the ability to freely express yourself, even in the absence of clear-cut evidence of state excesses.
Are Pakistanis destined to find themselves perpetually caught between the mullah and the military? Criticise one and you get lynched by a mob accusing you of blasphemy, criticise the other and you end up in court, abducted, or dead. How can journalists and activists, and even regular citizens be expected to voice their opinions, express their thoughts and exercise their right to expression, protest and speech, if even the slightest hint of critique will have them labelled a traitor?
The government now more than ever needs to ensure that it implements safety mechanisms to protect journalists and activists, and safeguard their right to freedom of expression. Disinformation will always be a threat, but that should only further incentivize the development of increased and more accurate fact-checking mechanisms. The solution to countering ‘slander’ and ‘defamation’ of state institutes is not to target media personnel and activists, but rather to challenge the narrative through evidence. It will only strengthen the public perception of the State if it presents itself as available, approachable and amenable.
Khadija Muzaffar is the culture editor at The Friday Times. Previously a Fulbright scholar at NYU, she enjoys writing about society, culture, music and food. She tweets at @khadijamuzaffar, but is far more interesting on Instagram.