- No holds barred confrontation
A widespread perception is fast developing that space for a democratic discourse is perceptibly shrinking. Frequent gagging of the media and concerted efforts to tighten the noose around opposition politicians has become the norm rather than the exception.
It is obvious that the government is swiftly losing its patience with the electronic news media. Only during the past week three news channels were taken off the air, only to be restored after a day.
Taking interviews off the air at the last moment is the new normal. At first an exclusive interview with the incarcerated chairperson of the PPP (Pakistan Peoples Party) Asif Ali Zardari was stopped as soon as it had begun.
On Thursday Sharif’s political heir apparent Maryam Nawaz’s interview on another channel met the same fate. Hum news anchor Nadeem Malik promptly tweeted that it was forcefully stopped only a few minutes after it went live.
Unlike GEO News that preferred to remain mum when Zardari’s interview was stopped, HUM News claimed in a tweet that it considered freedom of expression as one of its core values.
But unfortunately this “core value”, is being violated with impunity. Various government spokesmen keep on parroting that it is a firm believer in freedom of expression.
Nonetheless this Orwellian logic does not seem to cut ice with the media owners body PBA (Pakistan Broadcasting Association) nor with international media watchdogs. The government’s recent moves to silence the media has come under severe criticism
Another third-degree method being adopted is unhesitatingly trolling independent anchors on social media. They are being targeted as corrupt and ‘ghaddars’ (traitors) and threatened that they should be ready to get their comeuppance by yet unidentified forces.
Even women anchors are not spared. A delegation of the so-called Coalition of Women in Journalism (CFWIJ) met with Human rights minister Shireen Mazari demanding the government to launch an investigation of the “unknown perpetrators” behind online and offline attacks on them.
This is indeed shameful. But there is little Ms Mazari can do except offering tea and sympathy to her guests.
Danial Bastard, the head of Reporters Without Frontiers has condemned the suspension of three channels terming it as “brazen censorship.” Unsurprisingly Pakistan has dropped 3 points to 142 in the world press freedom index.
In this context PEMRA (Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority) is being made to act as the chief censor officer of the powers that be rather than an independent regulator. It showers offending channels with show cause notices, bans channels that refuse to fall in line and quietly orders cable operators to put some off their listings.
The PTI government adopts a self-serving mantra in the face of all this. According to its claim, PEMRA is an independent body just as NAB (National Accountability Bureau), FIA (Federal Investigation Agency) or ANF (Anti-Narcotics Force).
Hence there is no ownership of the draconian measures now being taken almost on a daily basis to suppress dissent and freedom of expression in the country. The hidden hand of the state remains hidden while democracy suffers.
It does not take rocket science to figure out that the short-term beneficiary of these policies is the ruling party itself. However, the question that begs an answer is why is the government feeling so insecure?
Ostensibly according to its own narrative, it is on top of everything. Unlike its predecessor governments it has the full support of the milt-establishment.
It has a working majority in the National Assembly, Punjab and KP (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa). Then why is it so petrified of Maryam Nawaz that her press conferences and public meetings must be stopped on the electronic media through fiat?
Take the case of producing under trail opposition MNAs in the National Assembly. Suddenly the speaker shedding all norms of impartiality in running the House has started singing the executive’s tune.
In the name of austerity, meetings of various standing committees will not be held when the National Assembly is not in session. Obviously, the twisted logic behind this is not to allow opposition out of jail unless it is absolutely necessary.
Admittedly the opposition in some cases has also tried to misuse this right. But withdrawing it is tantamount to throwing the baby with the bath water.
Just a day before barrister Ali Zafar joined the PTI, I interviewed him for my television programme. He clearly stated that the imprisoned under trial MNAs production orders were in consonance with the sacrosanct right to represent their constituents that elected them. Similarly giving interviews to media persons was also their right under the constitution that guarantees freedom of expression.
With their backs to the wall, the opposition is now on a warpath. The last straw for them was the sudden arrest of PML-N’s most fiery stalwart Rana Sanaullah on drug smuggling charges largely perceived as false and frivolous.
The government engaging in its signature doublespeak claims, that with a major general heading the ANF it is axiomatic that the charges are genuine having nothing to do with them. The fact that all institutions are working seamlessly to prop up Khan is conveniently overlooked here.
But perhaps for the government, the opposition forming an alliance courtesy the out of job Maulana Fazlur Rehman was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Its decision to go ahead with the ouster of Senate Chairman Sadiq Sanjrani has inevitably led to no holds barred confrontation.
A spate of post budget strikes by various sectors of the economy is going to further vitiate the already charged atmosphere. By claiming that “someone else is behind the numerous strike calls”, the FBR (Federal Board of Revenue) Chairman Shabbar Zaidi is clearly hinting that the opposition is creating unrest amongst the business and traders community.
This might be so. The PML-N has considerable influence amongst traders.
But the government in its anxiety to meet IMF conditionalities is bending over backwards to squeeze businessmen and in the process the hapless common man. Why will the opposition not fish in troubled waters under these circumstances?
Following the leaked videotape of the accountability judge Arshad Malik who sentenced former prime minister to seven years jail in the Al-Azizia corruption case against him, the Islamabad High Court has removed him from his post. The controversial judge however claims that Hussain Nawaz the scion of Sharif offered him a Rs500 million bribe to resign after the Al-Azizia verdict.
Whatever the final call of the superior judiciary in the matter, this development has further discredited the already tainted accountability process.
The PML-N wants the verdict against Sharif to be set aside. But this is unlikely to happen soon, if at all.
In the meanwhile, this aggressive confrontation between the government and the opposition is going to lead the country nowhere, except on a path to inevitable disaster.