Pakistan’s Democracy, Media and China Model

Shakil Rai
California

Pakistan is a democracy under the law and its current political dispensation led by Prime Minister Imran Khan is believed to have come to power through democratic means of free and fair elections. Its democratic trappings notwithstanding, the current political set up is, in fact, a new experiment in controlled democracy by the military and its intelligence outfits.

Despite universal endorsement of democratic aspirations of the people of Pakistan, efforts have always been afoot to scuttle, undermine, and when necessary, to overthrow democratic order and impose direct military rule.

Political landscape has changed over the last decade to such an extent, that direct military takeover is fraught with complications not foreseen in earlier coups.

One major development has been the initiation of a case of high treason against Pervez Musharraf under Article-6 of the Constitution. The case has lingered in the court without any progress since 2013. Most likely he will never be tried, let alone be punished for treason; because military sees it as an issue of institutional prestige, and not as a question of upholding the Constitution. Yet, the mere fact that for the first time a civilian government had courage and political capital to invest in initiating the trial of an erstwhile military ruler would make the next coup leader think hard before making his move.

Second, social media, which we all thought would be a liberator, has been turned into the most effective tool of suppression of dissent, and surveillance of society. Unfortunately this is true not only of authoritarian states like China but is also prevalent in the so-called free societies where privacy of the citizen is highly valued.

Old style surveillance in the previous century was limited in the choice of targets, and constrained by human resources of the intelligence gathering agency. In the age of social media surveillance has become a way of life for everyone who has a mobile phone, has an account on any social media platform, sells or buys things online, has shared a picture or a video online. All this and more is in the eye of the Big Brother. You just cannot hope to be a “private citizen” as we knew it.

In addition to surveillance of the citizenry, intelligence agencies have become active and aggressive users of social media. They use their resources not only to counter media messages, but also to spread disinformation, popularize conspiracy theories, and instill fear to divert attention from the issues they don’t want to face, and to malign their perceived opponents.

All this was on display in Pakistan in the run up to the 2018 general elections, and has become even more entrenched under the new government. Euphemistically, this arrangement is called civil-military leadership being on the same page. Practically it means the civilians limit themselves to economic, social, political issues, and stay away from every matter deemed security issue. The definition of national security is so flexible that an article in a newspaper, a statement by a political leader, a posting by a social activist, a monologue by a TV anchor everything can be turned into an issue of national security, and taken over by the security agencies.

Security agencies are not just monitoring social media they are actively and directly involved in the operation of the mass media, especially television, and social media. They have a role in the choice of participants in political discussions in TV talk shows. They approve or disapprove of a TV anchor, or a newspaper columnist. To be able to get your column through it is required to use a particular set of vocabulary and avoid another set of words, and more importantly, stay clear of the issues identified by “them”. Phone calls with no-caller-ID from these agencies can endanger the livelihood of working journalists and unnerve ordinary social media users.

Owners of the media houses are kept on a tight leash through financial and administrative measures. State sponsored advertisements and media campaigns have been the traditional tool of influence on media outlets. In the new age even private businesses are “advised” where to place their advertisements and where to avoid.

A number of media houses have been brought to their knees by depriving them of advertisements, subjecting them to aggressive and hostile social media campaigns which painted them as some sort of fifth columnists.

They control the circulation of newspapers and their delivery networks. Dawn and Jang have been subjected to this treatment, in particular. These newspapers cannot be delivered in some areas and newsagents and delivery boys are “advised” not to pick up those publications.

This level of high handedness is unprecedented in Pakistan where military has ruled for almost half of its life since independence. Journalists and social and political activists have been picked up never to be seen again; they have been murdered in broad daylight; many have been beaten on the streets by unknown and unknowable toughies. Not a single case has been taken up for prosecution, and of course, no one has ever been held responsible for these acts of the hidden hands.

In this background when we see the talk of “following the China model” for economic progress and social development in Pakistan, it is alarming. We are being told that Pakistan can become an economic power house if we follow the China model. Needless to add increasing trust deficit between the US and Pakistan on the one hand and deepening US engagement with India is pushing the country to China. Strategic and economic interest of Pakistan and China are aligned more closely than the US-Pakistan interests.

However, if political leadership and security establishment harbor any idea of importing and imposing China-style “efficient” and “high-yielding” model of economic progress and social-political “stability” in Pakistan it will lead to dangerous consequence without delivering any hoped for benefits. There is no dearth of “intellectuals” who believe that noisy-parliamentary democracy is not suitable for Pakistan. Constitution, derisively called “a piece of paper” by some, is the only thread holding the Republic together. Under the China model that “piece of paper” will have to be shredded, and the consequences are not hard to imagine.

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