It has not completed its 100 days in office yet, but the PTI government has made it quite clear what it thinks of journalists who dare to appear critical of the party or its leader.
This had been made clear in various unsubtle and frightening ways, first by words of contempt and disdain, then by threatening certain media groups with denial of access to official functions and personalities, uninviting their reporters and editors from meetings with the PM, and then, finally, by their reaction (or lack of) to the court decision of issuing non-bailable arrest warrants for a Dawn journalist.
The Lahore High Court decision was in response to a petition filed against former PML-N prime ministers Nawaz Sharif and Shahid Khaqan Abbasi by ‘a civil society member’ named Amna Malik (civil though perhaps less civilian!). The petition alleged that the two had ‘defamed state institutions’ by what they said in the Dawn interview about the 2008 Mumbai attacks. The court has ordered both Nawaz Sharif and the interviewer in question, Cyril Almeida, to appear before the court on October 8. Almeida’s name was also placed on the Exit Control List (ECL).
The court’s stance was that it was issuing this order because Almeida had ‘failed to appear before the court’ despite issuance of various notices (which Dawn says were never actually received). But really, what had this journalist done except to interview a man who had thrice been prime minister of Pakistan and who merely stated that the Mumbai attackers were from Pakistan? This is the same as residents of Faridkot, the village of Ajmal Kasab, the one attacker who survived, had said to journalists initially — until, that is, certain officials descended on the village and told them to shut up.
Almeida is the columnist whose story, published almost two years ago created the furore known (rather bizarrely) as ‘DawnLeaks’ where the military establishment was incensed by the Dawn story which highlighted reported differences between the Sharif government and the military over the fight against terrorists. Ever since that story both Dawn and Almeida have been labelled as ‘anti-state’, ‘dishonest’and partisan. He has also been portrayed by various right wing ‘patriotic’ platforms as a ‘stooge’ of Maryam Nawaz whose social media presence and media team were apparently a huge threat to national security. (One of the bloggers abducted early last year says that during interrogation he was asked repeatedly if he was working for Maryam Nawaz and whether she was actually instructing him what to write).
Observers will say: but surely we cannot blame the PTI government for something ordered by the Lahore High Court, or even overseen by some other institution or establishment. The response to that is: the government’s behaviour makes it appear acquiescent and looks like it’s merely fronting a show that is not, at all, about civilian supremacy.
The court order follows a series of extremely disturbing developments aimed at silencing critics of the military. These have included the abduction of the bloggers, the detention of Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) activist Hayat Pareghal, the ‘advice’ doled out to tv channels in the run-up to the recent election, and the orchestrated social media outrage against ‘traitors’ and politicians. Dissent it seems is now a crime, critical journalism is now a crime unless of course you ‘criticise’ those the establishment views as enemies.
It is frightfully ironic that an elected prime minister now has to defend himself from accusations of treason, mostly because he has offended the establishment, whereas those intelligence operatives who three decades ago actually tried to destabilise an elected government, and used millions of rupees of public money to bribe legislators, were never found guilty of this treacherous behaviour. The men at the forefront of that effort (the ISI’s Brigadier Imtiaz Billa and Major Amir) have since then portrayed their actions as heroic and patriotic. This twisting of the national narrative continues to this day.
October is actually a good month for us to mull over this narrative, the month when 19 years ago, an elected PM was overthrown by an army chief who didn’t want to lose his job, and who later told us he had merely acted to ‘save Pakistan’. Needless to say, it was the civilian politician who was in the dock, mainly it seems for ‘unpatriotic’ behaviour.
Food for thought…