After Faiz | Pakistan Today

After Faiz

  • We are not used to being heard

We never know how much we don’t know.

The highest and the most ominous form of censorship is not only about censoring content, but hiding all indication of the censorship having taken place.

As a reader, you may never know what news item has already been written, objected to on political grounds, erased, and then seamlessly replaced before the newspaper reaches your doorstep in the morning. This form of censorship is particularly effective for the purpose of propaganda, because it leaves the population satisfied with the illusion of being well-informed.

This phenomenon is likened to the Duning-Krugger effect, a form of cognitive bias in which low-skilled or ignorant people bear a tendency to overestimate their knowledge and capabilities. This can be summed up through a popular saying that the more you learn, the less you know. If I question a person on the subject of vascular physiology, he may respond simply that he doesn’t know. If I question someone on the subdivisions of this topic – arterial and venous physiology – he may discover that there are not one but two things he doesn’t know. He’d be confronted with evidence of a new kind of knowledge that exists, but hasn’t been made available to him. Continued questioning in this field would lower his satisfaction with his knowledge.

Leftist activists, who are subjected to heavy-handed censorship by the establishment, are often well aware of this phenomenon. An Indian journalist writing for a mainstream right-leaning newspaper media group understands the unlikelihood of a piece on Kashmiri resistance being published untouched. This is a political skirmish that he has already lost. His next act of resistance would naturally be to inform his readers that there has been a casualty in the battle for freedom of the press.

General Zia-ul-Haq’s era is recalled by most historians as a classic study of state authoritarianism and violation of citizens’ freedom of information. A common method of satisfying the state’s directive on publication was for the media groups to send their pages to the information department for review before going into print. Objectionable articles would then be erased.

If leftist activists are unable to speak at a festival dedicated to a national leftist poet, where else can this dialogue be permitted?

Frustrated editors and journalists resorted to the only form of resistance they could put forth, by deliberately allowing “objectionable” content to slide through to the information department. Instead of not publishing leftist content altogether, editors forced the state to censor written content. Citizens would read the newspapers the following morning, and find large blank spaces as testament to the extent of tyrannical state censorship.

Yes, the voices for democracy, labour rights, religious freedom, and gender equality were being meticulously silenced. But there wasn’t nearly enough noise by dictatorial apparatuses to cover up this silence. The emptiness was always there, staring directly at the nation and reminding them that there was something that they were not being told.

The forces of suppression are nothing if not adaptable. After Faiz, the people’s voices continue being routinely filtered out. On November 16th, we were reminded of this censorship when four prominent speakers were barred from this year’s Faiz International Festival in Lahore. Two scheduled panelists – Dr Taimur Rahman and Dr Ammar Ali Jaan – reported last-minute cancellation of their invitations.

This is a particularly baleful example of violation of free speech. If leftist activists are unable to speak at a festival dedicated to a national leftist poet, where else can this dialogue be permitted? Faiz Ahmed Faiz, the man who penned the iconic democratic poem ‘Bol ke lab azaad hain tere’, could’ve conceived of no better illustration of the anti-democratic forces operating above us. The left responded in a way that they always have in the face of suppression.

“Why is the chair empty?” asked Dr Taimur Rahman, referring to a picture of an empty chair on the stage. The chair was supposedly left on stage as a reminder that interference had occurred, and that voices that contradict the established narrative were being suppressed.

Are these voices worth suppressing? One could argue that this censorship is necessary for political order; but that depends largely on the sort of order one wishes to establish. Forcibly silencing a protest against Nawaz Sharif while he was serving as the country’s prime minister would’ve certainly helped restore ‘political order’, but at the cost of the impinging upon people’s democratic right. Citizens like Jibran Nasir also raised reasonable criticism by asking why professors and journalists are barred from speaking at public events under the pretense of maintaining order, while outright destructive elements and known criminals operate largely untouched.

We may not be heard, and that is okay. We are used to not being heard. But if we are not allowed to exist as free citizens, then at the very least, we will make sure that our absence is noticed.

Faraz Talat

Faraz Talat is a medical doctor from Rawalpindi and an ardent traveller who writes frequently about science, social politics and international relations.