Pakistan: Freedom of Speech In A Quasi-Democratic Polity

“The further a society drifts from truth, the more it will hate those that speak it” George Orwell

Shakil A Rai

Press-government relationship is adversarial in nature, is a truism. Freedom of speech is not given, it has to be attained, and then guarded against any encroachment by the authorities. Political powers are always weary of a free press, and a rights-conscious civil society. In a democratic dispensation human rights including freedom of speech are enshrined in the constitution, and the courts and civil society protect these rights against any violation thereof. Institutional balance among the legislature, executive, and judiciary is another layer of guarantee of human rights and freedom of speech. In the case of Pakistan laws are being flouted with impunity and institutional balance is heavily skewed in the favor of security establishment at the expense of all others. 

Pakistan is a democracy and the press is free as envisaged in the Constitution. And yet, we are quite familiar with formal and informal restrictions on the freedom of speech over the decades. Right now we are witnessing a new round of struggle unfolding between the media and the authorities. After a decade of democracy we are now in a quasi-democratic era, where limits of the civilian authorities have been constrained like never before. The press is under siege once again, and the judiciary, despite its activism, seems helpless to assert itself in any meaningful way in this context.   

In its judgment issued this month on the blockade of Islamabad by the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) in November 2017 the Supreme Court of Pakistan said that overt and covert censorship is unconstitutional and illegal. The court said “Nebulous tactics, such as issuing advice to self-censor, to suppress independent viewpoints, to project prescribed ones, to direct who should be hired or fired by media organisations is also illegal. No one, including any government, department or intelligence agency can curtail the fundamental right of freedom of speech, expression and press beyond the parameters mentioned in Article 19 of the Constitution. Those who resort to such tactics under the mistaken belief that they serve some higher goal delude themselves.” (Dawn)

Instead of enforcing the court order the government seems to say with impunity “the Supreme Court has issued an order, now let their Lordships implement it”.

In the past the government in power, be it military dictatorship or a civilian government, never used intelligence agencies, or unnamed, unknown powers to curtail press freedom. “Press advice” was issued from the Press Information Department from an open phone number by an identifiable state functionary. There was an informal understanding between the press and the government that the “advice” will be followed without referring to the source. Sometimes newspaper would ignore the advice and defy the government. Newsprint quota, government advertisements, and duty-free import of printing machinery (including luxury cars for personal use) were used as carrot and sometime as stick to tame the press. In all these cases the media knew the official personnel, as the personnel knew the journalists and newspaper management.

The current situation has become a cloak and dagger operation. Where mafia style tactics are being employed to tame, silence, remove, kidnap, and even kill, those journalists who refuse to toe the official line. Press advice, instructions, and threats are made to working journalists and management of the media houses from untraceable phone numbers, by unknowable and unidentified personnel. A number of newspaper columnists and television commentators have been removed from their assignments on the “advice” of these unidentifiable powers. Strong media organizations like Dawn Group and Jang Group resisted economic and administrative pressure for some time but eventually capitulated and compromised, to avoid extinction, and to make the best of the bad situation. 

In yet another unprecedented twist, intelligence agencies are widely believed to instruct newspaper distribution agents, and delivery boys which newspaper is to be delivered in which areas, and which ones are not to be distributed at all. Similarly some television channels are blocked in certain cities and localities on the order from unknown sources. Electronic Media Regulatory Authority pleaded ignorant in the Supreme Court as to why and by whom these channels were being blocked. The Authority did not take any action as it was supposed to under the law against the violators or in support of the victims. Supreme Court observed that PEMRA abdicated its statutory duty to protect the legitimate rights of its licensed broadcasters. It also failed to take action against those who violated the terms of their licenses. Helplessness of the highest media regulatory authority in the exercise of its mandatory obligations is telling. This leaves everyone in the dark, and the law becomes redundant in practice.

Early this week, Manzoor Pashteen a leader of Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) recorded an interview with Khyber News, a local television station in Pehawar. According to media reports a group of plain-clothed men descended on the studio and ordered the management not to broadcast the interview. The management obliged, without asking what state institution the men represented and under what law they were ordering the blackout of the news program.

This media control mechanism above and beyond the law is creating a sense of insecurity, and fear among working journalists and rights activists. The perpetrator has no law to follow, and the victim has no legal recourse against the unknown forces. Erosion of the rule of law is the sign of a failing state. Where law and customs are trampled over with impunity the state of war-of-all-against-all is not far behind.       

The civilian government is now in the process of enacting a draconian law to control print and electronic media through a powerful bureaucratic set up. The draft law has been rejected by every media professional organization. The draft is a modern day version of the Press and Publication Ordinance-1960 promulgated under the first military regime of Ayub Khan.  The new draft law is being promoted by the government as a benign effort to bring print and electronic media laws under one unified law. A closer look at the draft exposes it as an attempt to bring the whole gamut of print, electronic, and social media under one centralized control.

Supreme law of the land The Constitution says, “Every citizen shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression, and there shall be freedom of the press, subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interest of the glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defence of Pakistan or any part thereof, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, or incitement to an offence.” (Article 19)

This constitutional guarantee under “reasonable restrictions” gives the government enough power to bend the media discourse to its will for reasons not strictly defined in the law. Expressions like “glory of Islam”, “defence of Pakistan” and “friendly relations with foreign States” can be invoked for almost anything deemed critical. It is “reasonable” to assume that it can prohibit a critical review of the criminal laws (Hadood Ordinance) imposed in the name of Islam. It can restrict criticism of the policies of a “friendly state”. It is well know how the Defense of Pakistan Ordinance-1965 was abused by various governments to hound political opponents and to control the press.

The state authorities do not deem “reasonable restrictions” under Article-19 enough to keep the mass media on a steady course. That is because the courts have often interpreted “reasonable restrictions” more broadly than the authorities would like. The new draft law if enacted will impose serious limitations on the freedom of speech, and give enough arbitrary powers to state bureaucracy to impose their will through administrative and financial measures. Needless to add that these media control mechanisms have not worked in the past; and are not likely to silence the dissenting voices, now. The only problem is by the time the current phase of controlled democracy and gagged media come to an end the country would have suffered a lot. Resistance is on and will continue

Pakistan’s Democracy, Media and China Model

Shakil Rai

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.


Pakistan and its Democracy: An Open Letter to Prime Minister Imran Khan

By Shakil A Rai

Dear Mr. Prime Minister,

The truth is known, but must not be spoken in order to avoid the inevitable conflagration. Your ascension to the high office has been made possible through a controversial election. The four-year long campaign, preceding this election is also well known and well documented. But we have little time to settle scores and do to your government what you and your faceless sponsors did to the previous one.

Stability and respect for the vote is paramount. So, we pledge full support to your government and hope you deliver on your promises and successfully face the serious economic, social, and political challenges ahead. Here are a few suggestions to tackle the challenges lying ahead.

  • From now on you will be surrounded by sharks more than friends. Your sponsors, even your friends, are not coming to your rescue. Instead they will come with more and more demands to advance their institutional and personal priorities. Up to the election time your world view dovetailed with theirs; now under pressure from the challenges of governance it will start to diverge, leading to strain and stress. Be prepared for that.
  • Parliament, the institution on which you heaped much insult in the past, is the only place where you may try to find sustainable support to weather the storms ahead. It will not be easy to cultivate enough goodwill to turn it into support against the non-parliamentary forces, but you have no other option, if you want to succeed.
  • The Opposition has cried foul in unison right from the day one of the election. It is important to listen to their grievances, real or imaginary. This will establish your legitimacy and cement your authority.
  • The judiciary and the military have been the traditional neutral brokers (or umpire, as you prefer to call them) among feuding politicians. This election has made both of them complicit in the alleged manipulation and rigging of the electoral process. Ironically this lends strength to the parliament. Please endorse the demand of the opposition that the Senate, and not bureaucrats, hold open and full inquiry into the election.
  • The so-called Bajwa Doctrine primarily aims at undoing, or at least scuttling the implementation of the provisions of the 18th Constitutional amendment. This amendment secured the prime minister against summary dismissal through a single presidential notification. It empowered the provinces more than the advocates of strong Central government would countenance. It was a consensus driven amendment; undoing it through legal means is virtually impossible. Scuttling its implementation will generate resentment against the Center among the provinces, especially the smaller ones. For the sake of the Federation and your own survival stay away from it. Instead make sure to implement it fully.
  • This calls for the Eighth National Finance Commission Award, which is now overdue. The advocates of strong Central government are there among the non-democratic forces and do not like the idea. The PMLN government failed to deliver the Award, and PTI cannot afford to dither and delay. Instead the new government needs to work on capacity building among the federating units to help them fully utilize the Award. NFC Award necessitates consensus among the Center and the provinces. To achieve this consensus the ruling party has to negotiate with the Opposition, and the provinces.
  • Therefore, no more solo flights, and please rid yourself of the notion that you are the only one who can solve all the problems. Reach across the aisle and demonstrate to the opposition and public that you are ready to take all democratic forces on board. If the opposition comes aboard it will establish your leadership beyond doubt. If they balk you still win in the eyes of the general public. The old ways of humiliating and insulting your political opponents will harm you more than anyone else.
  • Pakistan’s economic woes are perennial, and woven into the structure of the economy. Without meaningful structural reforms there is no end to repeated requests for bailouts. Saudi Arabia, China, and IMF have been our traditional lenders of choice. We have been to the IMF for twenty-one times since 1958, and are now ready one more time to request yet another bailout. The Fund like any other moneylender is not known for its generosity and kindness. They offer the lowest interest rate but put tough conditions to disburse the loan. Most likely the Fund would demand privatization of loss making state enterprises like PIA and PSM. They would demand substantial reduction in subsidies. Increase in tax collection can be another demand. The US, the biggest contributor to the IMF wants to make sure you do not use their money to pay off Chinese debt. All together they are tough demands on a political government, but you have little room to maneuver.
  • It’s unrealistic to think of a Welfare State, Islamic or otherwise, when you are living on borrowed money. Unless you undertake structural reforms these bailouts will always be temporary relief measures. Before you can have your promised Welfare State you have to have enough surplus cash in the kitty to disburse to the needy. You have to enact a sufficiently tough tax regime and close the loop holes in the tax code to increase tax revenue. In a country where only 1% people pay taxes solvency, let alone prosperity, will remain a distant dream. Conversely you have to offer tax breaks and other incentives to foreign and local investors. That’s catch twenty-two; certainly not an easy situation for anyone.
  • You are a tough athlete, and a team leader, both these qualities have to come in full display to ensure success for you and the country.

Good luck Mr. Prime Minister we stand united behind your leadership for the sake of democracy and the Republic. I am waiting for an opportunity to clap for you.

Yours Sincerely

Shakil A Rai