Last week the veteran journalist Nusrat Javeed went through multiple drafts of his press diary for the emergency session of the National Assembly. Javeed has been in the media since 1975 and has been a witness to Pakistan’s political adventures . He later wrote in the Nawai Waqt that he was editing drafts as “My main concern was that the writing was becoming too bitter. Not in line with the current climate of ‘freedom of expression’. Rather than writing down the key thoughts in my mind, I was struggling to come up with words that would not cause me harm.”
Javeed is not wrong in being so vigilant. A short time later he received a call that a beloved colleague Absar Alam, who had criticised the country’s military intelligence, had got shot walking in his neighbourhood park. With no clear personal enmities it was evident that this was a warning that there was a limit to how candid he could be in one’s writing.
Absar Alam is also a former chairman of the regulatory body Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA). In March 2021, he had been summoned by the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) over his tweets and social media posts. A lawyer had filed a complaint against him for being anti-state. Absar Alam challenged the summons stating how “attempts are being made to misuse cyber crime laws. I have always raised my voice for the downtrodden section of the society, spoken of the rule of law and the supremacy of the constitution”. The FIA failed to present a copy of the complaint and on March 22, the Islamabad High Court suspended the summons. While the authorities promise to find his assailant, the journalist community does not hold stock in these promises.
In April 2015, Sabeen Mahmud was not as lucky. The human rights activist, techie and feminist had hosted a seminar at T2F on Baluchistan’s missing persons / enforced disappearances when the prestigious Lahore University of Management Sciences canceled on the speakers last moment citing that there was a lot of pressure upon them. Titled ‘Unsilencing Balochistan (Take 2)’ the T2F seminar was organised with the tagline “What makes it dangerous for us to talk about Pakistan’s largest province at one of our most celebrated universities?” Later when Sabeen and her mother drove home after the event, armed assailants surrounded her car at a traffic signal and pumped five bullets into her. Sabeen Mahmud died on the spot.
While on May 20, 2015, an officer at Sindh’s counter terrorism department announced that they had arrested a man, Saad Aziz, in connection with Sabeen’s murder, as “he did not approve of her (Sabeen’s) views regarding Lal Masjid’s cleric Abdul Aziz, Valentine’s Day and burqa (veil)” , there are many who believe that this does not give anyone the complete picture of who the real culprits and motives are.
The Committee for Protection for Journalists puts the number of Pakistani journalists and media workers killed in the line of duty in the past decade at 32. These numbers become more dire if one were to take into account the number of media workers who survived the attack. Then there is the case of journalists and social media activists who have been kidnapped by ‘unidentified’ entities. Matiullah Jan, Ali Imran, Waqass Goraya, Salman Haider, Asim Saeed are just some of these names. There is anxiety about who to blame — leading to dark humour about khalai makhlooq aliens and the infamous black Vigaro — a reference to the unmarked cars the security forces use.
For some activists, even exile has been dangerous. Sajid Hussain who escaped Pakistan in 2012 after receiving threats for reporting on enforced disappearances in Balochistan went missing in Sweden in March 2020; his body was discovered in May 2020. There are fears that it were the individuals he offended who had him kidnapped and killed. In December 2020, Karima Baloch, a Baluch activist who had moved to Canada after being harassed with terrorism charges for her work in Baluchistan, was found dead in Toronto. Later when her body was taken back to Pakistan, her immediate family was threatened by security forces at the time of burial.
The approval of the Criminal Law Amendment Bill 2020 by a National Assembly standing committee this April is seen as extending the gambit of quelling voices critical of the establishment. The bill proposes two years of imprisonment and a fine for those who “intentionally ridicule the armed forces”. Thankfully, in addition to the Opposition, there are members of Pakistan’s ruling party who have criticised the bill. But that is not enough comfort for those who are apologising for their social media posts in the past that may have seen as offending the powerful.
I see here shades of Thailand’s lèse-majesté, where any criticism of the country’s ruling elite is construed as demeaning and insulting the Thai Crown leading to imprisonment. Though perhaps as it is Pakistan, I should start looking closer home and draw parallels with our infamous blasphemy laws — an accusation of causing offence to the demi gods ruling our lives may be as good as a death sentence.