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Cross red lines at your own peril in Pakistan: Message to opposition and media

The Asma Jahangir Conference in Pakistan last week sparked a somewhat balanced and much-needed discussion on the issues concerning the country

Asma Jahangir Conference in Pakistan (Photo: Naya Daur)

The Asma Jahangir Conference in Pakistan last week sparked a somewhat balanced and much-needed discussion on the issues concerning the country. The conference-- the third edition of which was organized this year--saw participation from many eminent personalities belonging to diverse backgrounds and drew equally diverse opinions about the current state of the country. But, on the last day of the conference, something happened that made headlines for the wrong reasons. 

During the closing ceremony, former Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who is currently staying in Landon, was scheduled to address the event through a video link. However, he wasn’t be able to do that. Organizers later said the wires were cut at the event venue and the internet, both broadband and mobile network, was blocked for two hours.

On Monday, The News International, a leading English daily in the country, pulled down a piece hours after it was published. The opinion piece was written by Kiyya Baloch, an independent journalist from the restive province of Balochistan. He rubbed the Pakistan 'deep state' the wrong way by writing about the missing Baloch students in Quetta and the protests in Gwadar against CPEC projects--the topics held taboo by the all-powerful military as any discussion on it are not deemed in national interest. 

Both of these two incidents tell something. The days are probably gone when the views critical of the 'deep state' were countered through selected proxies and coordinated PR strategies. Today, the Pakistan intelligence agency has become increasingly intolerant. It makes sure that no views that challenge the military’s vision appear in the media--and it isn’t even shy about letting people know that.       

“Rats do such things,” Munizae Jahangir, the organizer of the conference, was quoted as saying by The News International newspaper when asked to comment on the Nawaz Sharif incident. However, it came hardly as a surprise to those who knew the nature, and working, of the 'deep state' in Pakistan. 

Among many topics discussed in the conference were media freedom and the independence of the judiciary. Some judges, including the former chief justice who convicted Nawaz Sharif, and some media personalities claimed things were fine. Others claimed otherwise.

The former prime minister, who was forced out of office in 2017, in a trial, regarded as one of the country’s most controversial trials in recent history, has lately emerged as a national icon, fighting for civilian supremacy--something that does not fit into the framework of the country’s powerful military. 

The memories of the last general elections in 2018 are still fresh. The elections saw Pakistan intelligence agency ISI openly interfering in that elections. From pressuring the candidates of the PML-N, Sharif’s party, to switch sides, to blacking out the coverage of his campaign rallies, everything was done to ensure the defeat of his party. Media houses that defied unwritten rules set by the ISI were punished, taken off the air, and in some cases even fined heavily. 

Laws governing media houses were amended to make sure that penalties and punishment become so high that the industry players fear challenging that narrative. 

“We all know media is under strict control in Pakistan, and journalists and editors are under great pressure,” Kiyya Baloch, whose article was taken down, said in a series of tweets. He, further added, “Pakistan is very touchy and tries to blackout everything that comes out of Balochistan.” 

Kiyya, who mostly reports on the issues from Balochistan, revealed in his tweet thread that he was under “pressure” from the country’s security agencies which, he claimed, were “unhappy” with his “journalism”. 

A few months back, Hamid Mir, one of the country’s most famous news anchors, was taken off air by Geo news. The move against Mir came a few days after he publicly hinted at the role of ISI in the abduction of a famous journalist. A few weeks after the incident, he was reportedly forced to issue a public apology.

The message from Pindi is pretty much clear: Exercise your freedom--and freedom of expression--in a way that doesn't violate the unwritten red line drawn by them. And, the 'deep state' will go to any extent to firmly guard those red lines. 

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