Notwithstanding Imran Khan backtracking on election promises regarding key foreign policy and internal issues, for which his detractors derisively call him Mr U-turn, the first 100 days of his government can rightly be called the proverbial smooth-sailing so far as his relations with the hyper judiciary and an overarching military is concerned.
But the ‘smooth-sailing’ has already taken and continues to take a toll not only on the authority of the elected representatives and governance by the executive, but also freedom of speech, freedom of dissent and freedom of association.
While the role of an ‘unseen’ hand in Pakistan’s politics is not a secret any more, the past few months have witnessed it further creeping in and taking over the areas believed to be the sole domain of the elected authority. Regulating the media, for example, has also been virtually usurped by that very hand.
In the same token, the judiciary has overstretched its involvement from taking suo motu notices ranging from rates of daily commodities to observing water schemes, raiding hospitals, deciding school fee, ordering removal of illegal encroachments from markets and roads, and playing an overactive role in long-term projects such as developing and expanding the country’s water resources by generating funds for the construction of dams.
One wonders what is left for the elected government to do. The forward push by the two major state institutions has forced the executive and legislature on the back foot while the fifth pillar, a free and independent media, has already resorted to the worst-ever self-censorship under pressure from losing corporate interests.
Journalists raising questions and criticising the prevailing situation are being forced out of the pages and their television programs either censored or shut down to end criticism.
Recently, the Pakistan military spokesperson, addressing a news conference, asked the media to report positive news for six months. Days later, the country’s media supervisory body, called Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority or PEMRA, circulated an order titled “advice”, asking the media offices not to report sexual abuses and crimes, etc, because, this is allegedly creating a negative image of Pakistan abroad.
Eighteen international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) have already been asked to close their offices, web pages of the Voice of America Pashto and Urdu language services have been blocked, while other media groups, both local and global, are under severe scrutiny for whether they are reporting “positives” and avoiding “negatives”.
The latest step to achieve the goal of “positive image” includes strict surveillance of social media accounts with a focus on Facebook and Twitter. Reports and personal experiences shared by social media activists suggest their activity on the sites is closely monitored and often bombarded by trolls for raising voices against the faux pas of the newly elected government.
Pakistani authorities have already written letters and sent notices to Twitter about social media activity by a number of organisations and individuals. One must remember that YouTube had already gone through a ban in Pakistan. Under fear of intimidation, even common people think twice before posting on social media.
But where does all this lead to? Can Pakistan afford 1949 China-style “thought reforms”, re-education of people through “xinau” or brainwashing to know the “right ideas and the right questions and answers” and to convert themselves into the “New People”?
Notwithstanding the ideas of “New Pakistan” and “tabdilee” or change, by Prime Minister Imran Khan, the answer, to any sane mind, would be a certain ‘no’ because Pakistan is a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural society with people strictly bound to their religions, faith and ideologies, and any adventure to put them in a single frame will not be without repercussions.
Keeping in view the worsening relations with the United States, long-term disputes with much bigger neighbour India, an unending war in Afghanistan, terror threat in the tribal territory, an insurgency-like situation in Balochistan and the emergence and expansion of new religious extremist groups in the mainland Pakistan, one may gauge the level of concerns in the security circles. But warding off such threats by favouring some and bashing and side-lining others will only exacerbate the problems.
From the pre-election season to election day in May this year followed by the formation of the new government, a majority of the political parties have expressed serious reservations about the whole process. Except for the ruling Tehrik-e-Insaaf party of Prime Minister Imran Khan, the rest have lodged their protest, raising accusing fingers at the security agencies.
Now, that the formation of the new government is over and the country’s “most favourite” prime minister is in the driving seat, the opposition parties are still feeling the heat of being pushed to the corner through what they call “a discriminatory attitude”.
The former ruling party, Pakistan Muslim League, is in hot water due to unproven cases of corruption and misuse of authority by the anti-graft National Accountability Bureau, or NAB. Ex-prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam, the two most vocal leaders against the judicial activism and military’s role in politics, were swiftly put behind bars days ahead of the election. The duo is now free but still facing the courts and maintaining a meaningful silence.
Another top leader, former president Asif Ali Zardari, who is also co-chairman of his late wife’s Pakistan Peoples Party, openly expressed his anger against the judiciary and the army without naming a particular individual or institutions.
In a thinly veiled reference to the military, Zardari said those who have a fixed service tenure of three years have no right to take decisions about the future of the country. And in yet another line the same day, he warned the hyper judiciary against involvement in matters relating to the executive or parliament.
Nawaz Sharif, the three-time elected prime minister, when questioned by a journalist about his silence and that why he does not smile during his court appearances, replied that “What can we say about smiling, we can’t even cry if we want to”.
Be it politicians, journalists or common Pakistanis, there exists a sense of frustration the way they are losing their group and individual freedoms.
Whether this effort on curbing individual and group freedoms is planned or otherwise, the more likely result will be more dissent and polarisation in the society which has already witnessed an unprecedented level of schism during the May 2018 election.
The author is a Pakistani journalist currently working as a senior editor of Radio Mashaal for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Prague