The price of freedom

Dissent is being silenced in Pakistan

By Mehmal Sarfraz
  • Published 15.11.17

Journalism is exciting; the constant news cycle gives one an adrenaline rush. For Pakistani journalists, there is always something to talk about, some new 'breaking news', as there is rarely a slow news day. This is what makes this profession so different. On the one hand, there is the excitement and, on the other, there is - danger. We all know that freedom of expression is a basic right, but we also know that it comes with a price. Those who had forgotten this simple 'rule' were given a 'reminder' last month.

Ahmad Noorani, a senior journalist with a local English daily, The News, was beaten up by unknown assailants in Islamabad. He received serious head injuries during the attack. Thankfully he has since recovered and is out of danger but the real danger still lurks in the shadows. Not just for Noorani but for all others who may have crossed some 'red lines' drawn by the powerful forces.

As Dawn noted in its editorial post-Noorani attack: "The situation for the media in Pakistan, never very amenable, is rapidly becoming intolerable. Journalists, and, for that matter, bloggers who 'breach' the 'red' lines decided by the powers that be are in clear danger."

Noorani had definitely annoyed the powers that be. He was given warning messages. His organization was reportedly told to let him go but they stood by him. He had even deactivated his Twitter account before the attack due to those threats (he is back on Twitter now) but these things don't placate those who want to teach journalists a lesson. I remember talking to a friend from the media a few days after Noorani deactivated his Twitter account in order to stay under the radar. My friend said: " Lekin tum dekhna, inhon ne phir bhi isko nahi chorrna (But you'll see, they will not let him go even then)".

Who attacked Noorani? We may suspect who is behind the attack but we will never find out. Why? Because. What does that even mean? It means that we should not take the names of those who must not be named (Pakistani version of Lord Voldemort if you may). It means that we should always be careful. We should always be on our toes. We should always remain aware of the fact that anything can happen to anyone, anywhere in our country. This is the sad reality.

Just a few months ago, there was an attempt to kidnap Geo News's senior correspondent, Azaz Syed, in Islamabad. He was lucky enough to escape. Geo News is part of the same organization as The News. In September, the vehicle of another senior journalist, Matiullah Jan, was attacked in Islamabad. It was obviously a 'message'.

A week before the attack on Noorani, the only missing woman journalist in Pakistan - Zeenat Shahzadi - was 'recovered' after two years. She went missing in 2015. She was instrumental in highlighting the case of a missing Indian citizen, Hamid Nehal Ansari, who was caught by Pakistani agencies and charged with espionage. Ansari's detention was not formally acknowledged until it was brought to light by Shahzadi. Unfortunately, while attempting to highlight a missing person's case, Shahzadi herself went missing. Again, we will never know who picked up Shahzadi, why was she detained and what she went through in those months. Although she has returned, Shahzadi is understandably not talking to the media.

It seems like this is the worst era for media freedom in Pakistan because dissent is being silenced one way or another. Media organizations are reportedly being told to let go of anchorpersons, reporters and others who are critical of the military and the judiciary. Many journalists have toned down their views so as not to step on sensitive toes. Most of the media are on the back foot and/or ready to play ball as per the wishes of Lord Voldemort.

It's not just journalists who are under attack. Five bloggers went missing earlier this year. A vicious campaign was launched against them on the social media and in certain sections of the mainstream media, accusing them of alleged blasphemy. Then, they were suddenly released. Three of them have talked about their ordeal in detail months after their release but only after leaving the country due to obvious security concerns.

And, once again, it's not just journalists, human-rights activists or bloggers. As I said earlier, it can be anyone, anywhere, who may have irked the powers that be. People are now being rounded up by the Federal Investigation Agency for their tweets. Some of those Twitter users were critical of the military, some critical of the judiciary, and - maybe to give a semblance of 'balance' - some critical of the government.

Freedom is not for those who want to criticize powerful institutions. They will pay a price, face the consequences. Freedom is only for those who are on the right side of the powerful forces. Freedom is only for those who use the religious card and incite violence against others. Freedom is only for those who can take the capital city (Islamabad) hostage because they are a frenzied mob. Freedom is only for those zealots who can even go so far as to ask for the federal law minister to be fired from his post or handed over to them so that they can 'teach him a lesson' (The law minister is under fire from religious sections for an amendment in an electoral law, which was later restored to its original form as the wording was seen to be pro-Ahmadi. The government and the federal law minister apologized for the 'mistake' and maintained it was due to a clerical error).

The government is helpless when journalists are attacked. The government is helpless when bloggers go missing. The government is helpless when people from its own political party's social media team are rounded up. The government is helpless when the capital is under siege. The government is helpless. Period. Just like the media. Just like the people. We are helpless in the face of those with guns and/or those with a pulpit. It's as simple as that. We, the powerless, should realize this. But some of us don't. And then there is a price.

Those who are not afraid to pay the price of freedom continue to say, write or do things that don't go down well with the mighty. They don't back down. Nobody knows when it's going to be his or her turn. Anyone can be next. But history will definitely remember those who stood up for our freedoms in these difficult times. More power to them!

The author is a journalist based in Lahore