The South Asia Channel
How I Became a Casualty of Pakistan’s Silent War on Speech
As Pakistan boasts about its recent counter-terrorism success, it continues to stifle journalists and other essential voices of dissent.
For a year now, Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif has been traveling the world, peddling the supposed success of the military operation Zarb-e-Azb, an offensive to target the Pakistani Taliban. The director of the Inter-Services Public Relations, Lt. General Asim Saleem Bajwa, has unleashed a media blitzkrieg to support this narrative, creating the illusion of accomplishment, nay, infallibility, around his boss, General Sharif. But in tandem with the military’s media blitz is its undeclared war on dissent, which impugns, maligns, and attempts to ostracize members of the intelligentsia who refuse to buy the military’s version of events. This low-intensity, systematic war on the diversity of opinion and free speech in Pakistan — of which I have been a casualty — barely gets local or international attention.
As the lead weekly columnist for the liberal Pakistani newspaper the Daily Times, I wrote extensively about how dissenters in the Pakistani media, academia, and political class were hounded relentlessly. When I went through my emails on November 27, 2015, I spotted one from my op-ed editor, which read: “It is with an extremely heavy heart that I regret to inform you that Daily Times will be unable to accommodate your daring and conscientious articles. Due to the climate under which print media operates in these times such pieces are constantly being put under scrutiny and so the newspaper with it. It is also my unfortunate duty to inform you that Rashed Rahman has resigned as editor-in-chief due to the same reasons of continued interference in the affairs of the editorial department, and as a soldier for unbiased truth, he is now serving his three months’ notice.” After six years of leveling criticism against the government, I was not surprised that the censor’s guillotine had fallen on my work — only that it had taken so long to do so.
For years, my editor Rashed Rahman, a seasoned journalist and a veteran leftist political campaigner, insulated my peers and me from “the powers that be” — his euphemism for Pakistan’s military establishment. In speaking out for a progressive Pakistan, we knew we were putting ourselves at considerable risk. In January 2011, a religious zealot assassinated Salmaan Taseer, the owner of the Daily Times and the then-governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province. To honor his legacy of supporting a liberal press, his family continued to afford my colleagues and me the space to speak our minds. But despite the efforts of activists since General Sharif’s ascent it appears that military interference in public discourse has increased – and not just at our paper but across the media in general. Sharif’s media team has not only placed him on a pedestal in the public eye; they are eliminating the expression of dissent.
For example, in October 2013, the editorial staff at the Daily Times advised my colleague, veteran Baloch activist and writer Mir Muhammad Ali Talpur, to take a break from writing on the controversial region of Balochistan because of pressure from the military. Talpur stopped writing for the paper for nearly two years, returning in July 2015. Shortly thereafter, on November 22, 2015, Talpur published a scathing piece on the virtual colonization of Balochistan by the Pakistani military and the despicable atrocities it has carried out there. In response, the owners of the Daily Times ordered Rahman to shut down Talpur’s column along with my weekly column, where I frequently criticized the military.
My six-year association with the Daily Times thus came to an end thanks to unrelenting pressure from Pakistan’s almighty army. In my pieces, I criticized the army’s terrorism policy in Afghanistan. My objection has been simple: by patronizing jihadists since the 1970s and continuing to use jihadist proxies in its fight against Afghanistan and India, the Pakistani military has irreparably damaged Pakistani society. Pakistanis, especially the Pashtuns and vulnerable religious groups such as the Shias, Ahmadis, Christians, and Hindus, have borne the brunt of the cost of the army’s jihadist venture. The army’s massive human rights abuses in the restive, resource-rich Balochistan have stoked the separatist movement there and closed the door on a political reconciliation with the Baloch people.
As a columnist, I wanted to chronicle the atrocities resulting from Pakistan’s failure to crack down on jihadists. I have witnessed my friends and dear ones shot and killed, the Pashtun leaders that I knew personally slain, and the All Saints Church where I played cricket blown to smithereens by the Taliban — all in my hometown Peshawar. After the heinous attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar last year, the army cracked down on what it considered the “bad Taliban,” or those who strike inside Pakistan. While the army claims that it pursues jihadists of all shades, I contended in my columns that it was deliberately sparing the “good Taliban” — those who attack inside Afghanistan. My final Daily Times column argued that General Sharif speaks with a forked tongue, pledging to fight against terror in Afghanistan, while allowing jihadists at home to infiltrate unchecked into Afghanistan through Pakistan’s border.
For me, writing about the Taliban’s ties to Pakistan is nothing new. But my recent stories seem to have crossed a line. I reported that the Taliban’s election of its new emir, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, took place near Quetta, and the jihadists killed in Afghanistan were brought back and buried in Pakistan a week ago. Despite Pakistan’s rhetoric about the success of the Zarb-e-Azb operation, my reporting of these stories showed that the Taliban continue to operate openly in Pakistan. The army and its minions, perhaps, could not take the criticism anymore, and one week later my column was shut down for good.
The idea of press freedom in Pakistan under General Sharif’s junta is a myth. In fact, he and his media machine have drawn on the playbook used by Field Marshal Ayub Khan, the first military dictator of Pakistan, who seized control at gunpoint of the country’s largest left-leaning publishing house in 1959. Today, indirect pressure and strong-arming have replaced overt takeover of the government and media outlets, but with the same results: civilian institutions are forced to get in line with the military’s agenda. A multitude of media outlets, especially television stations, create the illusion of tolerance and diversity. In truth, they merely churn out various shades of army-approved hyper-nationalism. Every now and then, the censors allow a token critical column or television show through, but to do so in a sustained manner has become impossible.
The political class has again abdicated to the army the twin powers of defining patriotism and denigrating dissenters who take issue with the army’s vision for Pakistan and its people. Pakistani intelligentsia can fight to take back the narrative from the army, but unless politicians are willing to do the heavy lifting to limit Sharif’s power, it is going to be an uphill battle with more columns shut down and writers banished from public view.
BANARAS KHAN/AFP/Getty Images