As Pakistan heads toward its next democratic elections on July 25, the transition to a new government is likely to be a hazardous one. The main reason: an unprecedented assault by the Pakistani military on the freedom of the press, which is threatening our chances for free and fair elections.
Press freedom in our country has always existed in a delicate state of balance. It is the product of decades of struggle. At the end of the 1970s, to name but one example, a military-run government sent hundreds of journalists to jail and had four of them whipped. Those in power have never liked the idea of unfettered freedom for the press. Yet many newspapers in the country have continued to defy the authorities.
The reason for the current assault is simple. Certain forces aim to prevent the media from providing independent coverage of the country’s central political issue — specifically, a deepening power struggle between the military and the civil authorities. The current campaign against the media involves many elements of overt coercion, including severe disruptions of the distribution network of independent newspapers and the blocking of broadcasts of dissenting television news channels.
Is this “business as usual”? Not quite. Recently, the military has embarked on a campaign to remake the political landscape by depicting the leaders of certain political parties as corrupt or hostile to national security. The result of this “decapitation strategy” has been the destruction of the careers of several prominent members of the civilian political leadership — largely, though not exclusively, confined to the Pakistan Muslim League, the ruling party. Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the leader of the party, was subsequently forced to step down as a result of a Supreme Court ruling in a corruption case. (On July 6, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison on corruption charges.) Pakistan is ruled by a caretaker administration, as stipulated by our constitution. Yet current Prime Minister Nasir-ul-Mulk has not taken any action to respond to the growing clamor in the national media or to persuade the military to halt coercive measures.
So has the military succeeded in using this crackdown on the media to neutralize its civilian political enemies? Once again, not quite. Sharif, though barred from future political life by the Supreme Court, has been addressing mammoth political rallies in his home province, thus posing a clear challenge to the campaign currently pursued by state institutions. This is the main challenge confronting the security establishment as it works to shape and ultimately dominate the environment of the coming elections.
Those in power have devised a new approach for dealing with this apparently chaotic situation. Eager to maintain the facade of caretaker civilian rule, the authorities have refrained from direct censorship. Yet military officials have found other ways to assault constitutionally guaranteed media freedoms.
Moves to disrupt newspaper distribution have been accompanied by a series of attacks on dissenting journalists (including sporadic abductions). In June, unknown assailants kidnapped Gul Bukhari, a prominent journalist, and detained her for several hours. The same night, broadcast journalist Asad Kharal was assaulted in public in Lahore.
A senior military official prepared the way for this by identifying certain journalists, news channel anchors and social activists as enemies of national security. His statement clearly aimed to put reporters in harm’s way, and led immediately to intense campaigns of harassment on social media. Not surprisingly, newspaper columnists have begun to complain that editors are dropping their articles, and several have resorted to publicizing their rejected commentaries through popular social media platforms.
Is this all new for observers of censorship in countries in South Asia and the Gulf region? Actually, yes. We are now witnessing a new form of quasi-military censorship that is astonishingly aggressive in using both threats and coercion. The inevitable result of this program of intimidation is a culture of widespread self-censorship. Zaffar Abbas, the editor of Dawn — one of the leading independent newspapers currently being targeted — has described these self-imposed restrictions as “far more suffocating than martial law.”
As Pakistan works its way toward the July 25 elections, the twin strategy of culling the political leadership and curtailing the electorate’s access to information appears to be paying off for the military. But there are signs that this could backfire. The electorate is feeling increasingly abused. The curtain of secrecy drawn on censorship decisions by military officials is slowly crumbling under the impact of increased public awareness of the intimidation campaign.
Is there a way forward? Clearly, if Pakistan is to function as a meaningful democracy, the country’s security establishment will have to review its policy of restricting media freedom. The caretakers must adopt impeccable conduct, and the military leadership would be well advised to adopt a strategy of restraint. Otherwise the prospects for democracy in Pakistan appear to be decidedly bleak.