One of the most important acts of patriotism is dissent — because it takes courage and determination to improve the status quo to enable a populace to speak out against all odds about injustices, state excesses, corruption and policies formulated by the powerful.
Dissent is also one of the cornerstones of democracy, as the right to freedom of speech ensures that those in power — they are there because of the taxes and votes of the populace — are accountable and stick to their assigned role and duty of serving the people rather than themselves, especially when they are in control of the all-powerful state information apparatus. This goes for all institutions in the trichotomy of power — the legislature, the executive and the judiciary — and any institutions within the three no matter how much more powerful they consider themselves.
In the current status quo in Pakistan, stifling dissent seems to be a high priority for the government despite its claims of having a popular mandate. And this seems to be the modus operandi for anyone, no matter what institution or branch of the state they are part of. And for those who are not part of the state, several tools have been employed and strengthened to silence them. The worst off in this list are those who have the misfortune of belonging to the peripheral areas — Balochistan, the newly merged districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, rural Sindh, Gilgit-Baltistan. They are at the bottom of the priority list.
The regime and its backers have started using insidious and innovative means. Take, for example, presidential ordinances. The latest Peca amendment ordinance that introduces special protection against criticism of public officials — an unprecedented feat in a country that has seen several military dictatorships stifle dissent — continued to be defended by the prime minister in his address to the nation on Monday when he said this measure will curb ‘fake news’ by ‘bad media’, and wouldn’t harm ‘good media’. In this ‘I-can’t-believe-this-is-not-satire’ story, the regime is out to determine who is good media and who is bad, after having jailed media owners, pressurised media houses through financial means to fire critical analysts and journalists, and attempting to disappear journalists with impunity. And yet, the prime minister has the nerve to try to gain the confidence of the nation by portraying himself as a neutral arbiter of ‘good’ journalism. Luckily, the amnesia among the citizenry is not strong enough to forget these excesses yet.
And when those abusing Section 20 of Peca against women who speak up against harassment are given national awards, what protection can women expect from this regime? If the current regime is really elected by the people through popular mandate, then why are amendments to already draconian provisions being brought in via presidential ordinances when parliament is very much in place?
But then again, parliament hosts the largest halls of disappointment in the saga of letting down citizens. The Islamabad High Court chief justice disposed of petitions by the PML-N and PPP challenging the Peca amendment ordinance by asking the parties that have ruled Pakistan three times each to use parliament to challenge laws, and not ask the judiciary to overstep its role and do what should be the job of parliamentarians.
The opposition has been unable to block government bills despite opposing them and despite holding a majority in the Senate due to seemingly the most absurd of reasons — lack of quorum, including the absence of the leader of the opposition in the Senate former prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani. How can this opposition, despite its large numbers in the Houses, be expected to challenge draconian amendments? The PML-N must especially realise its mistake in refusing to listen to citizen groups and experts on how the draconian Peca would be used against them once they were not in government, a mistake that the current PTI-led government is repeating.
This government has been determined to muzzle free speech, and it is clear that as it nears the end of its term, efforts to solidify this legacy are picking up pace.
The state’s resolve to monopolise the truth is obvious in a lot of its legislation. In the bill to criminalise enforced disappearances, families found to be making a false claim of disappearance are liable to be jailed; under Peca, those found to be deliberately peddling false information about public officials or institutions will be jailed without bail. But who is determining the truth? What is the test for a false claim? This is nothing but a pretence of protecting rights while effectively strengthening the state’s impunity in committing crimes against the citizens.
While we are on the topic of rights and the truth, let us not forget our Baloch and Pakhtun citizens who seem to exist outside the realm of the Constitution. Ali Wazir, an elected member of the National Assembly from Waziristan, continues to be incarcerated without conviction under colonial clauses of sedition. The message is clear: it does not matter what the people think or their representatives say; you speak against the powerful, and you will be jailed.
Students and activists peacefully protesting in Islamabad on Tuesday and Wednesday against the disappearance of Baloch students from Quaid-e-Azam University were manhandled, beaten up, their phones stolen, and some picked up right outside the Islamabad Press Club, where protests are routine. If those being disappeared are so guilty, why are there no legal charges filed against them? Has the state not twisted enough laws to abuse citizens that disappearances are still routine?
It is clear that political parties need to get their act together and behave in an effective manner both inside and outside parliament, and not only make statements and then negotiate the next deal to come to power. People’s voices and grievances — inflation, disappearances, extrajudicial killings and arbitrary arrests threaten our right to life, right to freedom of speech, right to freedom of association, and the right to information. Muzzling dissent threatens all rights.
@UsamaKhilji is director of Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum for digital rights. Views are personal.
The article originally appeared on Dawn website. It has been republished with permission.