CPEC Marks the End of Free Speech in Pakistan

Source: par.com.pk

The latest provocative Dawn story about the CPEC might as well be a pack of lies but what about things unfolding right in front of our eyes. It is very hard, and almost feels immoral, to remain silent at the Interior Minister’s crusade against dissenting bloggers and social media activists. Since Zia’s period, we have not seen the Pakistani state practice such blunt and open crackdown against free speech and dissent in the countries. What are you to say of authorities who treat their own citizens, whose taxes pay for their livelihood, like the enemy?

It is deeply disappointing.

There is a reason why people are skeptical of China. The Chinese Road and Belt initiative does sound very good to the ears and who in their right mind would oppose economic cooperation beyond borders? But the reason why people find it hard to trust them is because of the political culture and ideology they practice in their country. They do not practice the freedom they have preached in this initiative. There are no Google and facebook in China and that is precisely why I am not too excited about the cross border optic fiber cable network from China border to Rawalpindi. The Chinese ideals are not shared by the Pakistani youth struggling for freedom of expression.

The Chinese cultural push in Pakistan also sounds more than just a rumor, with their political culture seems to be creeping into the country. You see, in Pakistan people like to dissent, even when it comes to the blasphemy law. They like to vote for other parties, speak ill of the people of other sects and ethnicities. And considering the totalitarian trends that are also creeping into Pakistani politics with unanimously passed constitutional amendments, it is important to remind that we are not a one party country and would never be no matter what happens. It is only sad to see that these values of the Pakistani people are not being shared by those cracking down on dissenters.

We can only beg our higher authorities to please think about the people of Pakistan above everything else and stop crackdown on dissenters.

Ever since the CPEC has started, the government has been responding very aggressively and reactively to any criticism, without trying to understand what the concerns might be. In good conscience, you cannot possibly support that, especially when the democratically elected officials stand behind such policies. China may genuinely have a very encouraging vision of the regional economy but the questions that the local Pakistani businessmen and cultural critics have are worth listening to.

The Pakistani dissenting bloggers may criticize or insult the Pakistani armed forces all they want, at least we knew that their higher echelons appreciated finer things in life. At least they valued some freedom for themselves, some of which trickled down to us mortals. But with an authoritarian influencer in the picture, are we even going to have the little freedom that we used to enjoy? The future looks uncertain and scary.

Also, please do not mistake these lines to be a contradiction to the title of this piece. The more frightening aspect is that now the Pakistani authorities do not even fear if their reputation gets affected by openly targeting dissent. And that is precisely the effect of the CPEC.

Consider this and all the pieces to come from hereon to be heavily self-censored.

Long live Pakistan.

 

The post was originally published in The Nation blogs.

The Writing on the Wall

Source: clarionproject.org

Source: clarionproject.org

Well, the writing on the wall is clear.

Now it begins. So much for the days of freewheelin’ secular and leftist bloggers. It’s all over.

Now is the time for the Islamist social conservative and the militant nationalist to reclaim the space on the social media that they probably should never have given up. So that these secular bloggers never should have started in the first place.

Now begins the time to silence our pens and tongues from dissenting.

On the bright side, at least the social conservatives and religious fanatics might stand against the banning of social media websites, which actually comes as second nature to our authoritarian government.

As I said earlier that the Jamaat-e-Islami goons could be the first on the streets protesting a facebook ban.

But I’d understand if you accuse me of too much optimism here. Because the picture on the ground… on the cyberspace, rather… is quite dismal.

We get it. There are some matters which are too sacred and important to be discussed.

But whichever force is behind the sudden disappearance of the three bloggers, could you please return them to safety as citizens of this country?

While we are sadly aware that an allegation of blasphemy is considered verdict in this society, and even though that’s what the fight is all about, could we still hope for some respite for them?

We totally understand. We know that perhaps some of the nationalistic entities absolutely have no regard how the world sees us in terms of our tolerance for free speech.

We would keep that in mind whenever we are going to write. Because we want to live peacefully in the one and only life that has been enforced upon us.

Not only do we assure of good behavior, we would also be particularly respectful of any ideas that is held by our social conservative ideological adversaries. Because there really is no other choice.

But even if we do adhere to these rules and do not wake up the dormant, if not dead, conscience of the nation, we still cannot ignore the damage done. We simply cannot ignore the “disappearance” of the secular bloggers.

And now we hear that all of them have committed blasphemy. How convenient. So, who is the entity that takes such action against such people and how have we decided that they are guilty?

Of course, the ones who get caught are always the blasphemers and the traitors.

Alright, we get it. There are certain lines that we are not supposed to cross. But not everyone is going to agree. There are always going to be some people who are never going to agree.

What are we going to do with them?

Are we going to make them disappear, kill them, or try them all for blasphemy and treason? Hang them on public squares?

And if yes, then what is the message that we are sending to the world about Pakistan? What sort of a country treats its citizens in this way?

The guardians of national security should think about it.

Now this may offend the loyalist of the state and religion, but there is a reason it is our duty to stand up for these missing bloggers.

One of us could be next any day.

The post was originally published in The Nation blogs.

Pakistani Free Speech Hero of the Year 2016: Qandeel Baloch

Source: Qandeel Baloch Official Facebook

Source: Qandeel Baloch Official Facebook

She made a statement by expressing her sexuality in a society where it is considered an abomination. She was predictably accused of vulgarity in a society that has probably even forgotten the meaning of this vague expression.

Forsaken by the liberal media, in the words of feminist academic Nabiha Meher Sheikh, when she needed them the most and condemned by a society of self-righteous savages, model and internet sensation Qandeel Baloch tested the morality of our standards of morality.

Her selfie clip with Maulana Abdul Qavi pretty much realized my dream of watching Mathira and Mufti Muneeb-ur-Rehman do the tango on TV.

The shockwave that it caused not only resulted in his removal from the Ruet-e-Hilal Committee, an insignificant body that performs the significant function of sighting the moon but also leading to the murder of Qandeel at the hands of her own brother because she had offended his honor. Qandeel’s former husband was also said to be involved. To no effect, or without much substance, Mufti Abdul Qavi’s name was included in the investigation of her murder for provoking it on the complaint of her parents.

Yep, death comes that cheap in Pakistan. Or is it life?

Source: Human Rights Tulip Twitter

Nighat Dad – Source: Human Rights Tulip Twitter

Shout outs also go to some other free speech heroes in Pakistan, who are continuing their struggle in the face of brutal opposition. Heartiest congratulations and salute to internet privacy and digital rights activist Nighat Dad who won the 2016 Human Rights Tulip Award from the Dutch government. She has used the prize to establish the first cyber harassment helpline for the people of Pakistan.

A mention of publisher and social activist Abdul Wahid Baloch is also due, who was briefly abducted by unknown entities following his activism to find the whereabouts of the Baloch missing persons. These individuals have been the victim of the crackdown on the Baloch insurgency.  Thankfully, he is safely home.

Journalist Cyril Almeida became the victim of undue state scrutiny, following the daring release of an exclusive news story that revealed that the civilian government of the Sharif brothers had reprimanded the military leadership for inaction against religious terrorists. Almeida was briefly put on the Exit Control List by the Federal Ministry of the Interior following the government’s and the military’s repeated stern denials of his story. Too much fuss about nothing, of course.

Source: pakistantv.tv

Shaan Taseer – Source: pakistantv.tv

Another great Pakistani free speech hero remains to be Shaan Taseer, the son of the slain Governor of Punjab Salmaan Taseer, who was a free speech hero in his own right. Shaan Taseer is continuing the fight against the draconian blasphemy law and for the rights of the minority religious communities in Pakistan.

Source: Sunni Youth Parliament/Shaan Taseer facebook

Source: Sunni Youth Parliament/Shaan Taseer facebook

Qandeel’s antics may not sound serious to some of you, but the fatwa issued by Sunni clerics against Shaan Taseer, which he publicized on his facebook page, is no joke. If only this evidence was enough to convince people how much dangerous people we are dealing with here.

In the guise of peace and love, these religious zealots ensure that no one is safe from their venom. I can only commend people like Shaan Taseer for really taking them on in his bold and fearless manner. Now, I can’t do that for one, and the image of the “legal opinion” I posted above can be considered a death threat to Taseer.

All of these free speech heroes are important. Freedom of Press is important. Fighting for religious minority rights is important. But perhaps nothing is more important than a woman challenging the norms of a society that collectively hates women and is abusive to them. Pakistan remains to be one of the countries collectively abusive to women in the name of culture and religion, and apart from my own hometown of Rawalpindi, I have seen glimpses of that in various parts of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, such as Swat and Lower Dir. So, I am pretty sure of what I am talking about here.

For that reason alone, Qandeel Baloch is my Pakistani free speech hero for the year 2016.

As Nighat Dad herself said, every time a woman stands for herself somewhere, she is standing for all the women.

Read about the last year’s Pakistani free speech hero, Sabeen Mahmud, here.

The Bored Baby With the Dangerous Toy

Source: telecompk.net

Source: telecompk.net

While I did expect that it would happen one fine day, but just when I was done with an overdose of patriotism with the March 23 parade, I found out that my blog was not a safe surfing area for people living in Pakistan anymore.

Of course, I was not receiving any special treatment and it was wordpress.com which was blocked, and along with it hundreds of other Pakistani blogs. From what I read in the papers, it was because of national security. No confirmation from the PTA, but apparently it was just another of those switch on and off episodes. Nothing to worry about.

Perhaps the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority is either incompetent, or is being malicious on purpose.

The PTA has become an out-of-control psychotic. Or if that sounded too harsh, probably more like a bored baby with a dangerous toy in his hands, with rather juvenile and cute, but obnoxious antics, only with potentially dangerous consequences. The idle and overly concerned bureaucrats in this government body, which probably should not exist in the first place (at least the department of censorship), must invent new things to keep themselves occupied and feel purposeful about themselves.

We often hear political parties make big fuss about public infrastructure and welfare projects being a waste of money for partisan reasons, but no one ever bothers considering these bureaucratic agencies, not to mention completely useless organizations such as the Islamic Ideological Council, a burden on the poor taxpayer. They are just drawing salaries out of your tax money, and they need to be there because, well, they are a part of the government.

But there is an even more dangerous question to ask.

How far will our government go in curtailing our civil liberties and access to information in the name of national security?

Sadly this question remains as unanswered in advanced democracies such as the United States and the EU, as it is in countries with almost theocratic preoccupation. So why bother.

Despite the tendencies among the Pakistani people to accept every single state absurdity in the name of national security, they do come across as pretty freedom loving. So would they be willing to give up facebook one day in the name of national security, decency or for the protection of all things that are holy?

Or would that trigger a riot for the demands of their beloved social media platform one day, with the likes of the Jamaat-e-Islami leading it? Only time will tell.

I really do hope we live to see that day. Wishful thinking.

Though the question of the temporary blocking of wordpress.com should not go unanswered. We should demand a response from the PTA, who should explain to the Pakistani people why they take them for an intellectually challenged group.

Why do they believe that blocking words of dissent on one platform would prevent the people from its harmful effects?  And that if they are curious, they can always find ways to reach such information.

Why is Pakistan trying so hard to become China?  I am not even sure if our other horrible ideal, Saudi Arabia, practices this much internet censorship.

The post was originally published in The Nation blogs

The Blaspheming Hilarity

Source: Pakistan Today

Source: ARY Digital/Pakistan Today

Never before in the history of Pakistan has the political tool of Blasphemy ever been used in a more hilarious and ridiculous manner.

Because never before an obviously reverent religious piece has been turned into a perceived blasphemy. And never before the adherents of the sect that would otherwise hold the work of art in honor out of religious fervor would be resorting to lodge complaints of blasphemy against it.

It is just like crying blasphemy for a hymn honoring Allah and the Prophet and calling for its ban. It makes no sense to a casual observer.

But it would make perfect sense when seen in the context of the campaign against GEO TV, after it launched an attack on the DG ISI in the aftermath of the assassination attempt on Hamid Mir.

More than Shaista Lodhi’s “blasphemous” show, the following show by Mubasher Lucman, created all the stir. Ironically, the same song had run on his own channel.

 

Never before have two media groups been at odds with each other for committing a blasphemy. Never before have prominent anchors and artists been the targets of the blasphemy police in this manner.

Is it a coincidence that a talk show anchor forges a blasphemy out of thin air of a hymn that is frequently used by the adherents of a certain sect? Not only was this an effort to wrongly accuse of blasphemy, but one that could have deepened the sectarian rift in the country.

What is actually even worse is that the Shia scholars have joined the ranks of pro-establishment commentators in accusing the network and participants of the show for committing the blasphemy. They have joined forces with the Sunni Ittehad Council, which has issued a fatwa against GEO that watching the cable network is haraam or forbidden.

All of a sudden, there are rallies and protest marches all over the country. None of it seems to be a coincidence or a spontaneous reaction. But it could actually be, as nothing else unites this nation of religious harassers more than blasphemy.

A couple of days later, the Islamabad High Court issues notices to not only the GEO Network, Mir Shakeel ur Rehman, Shaista Lodhi, Veena Malik and her husband, but also to Mubasher Lucman, ARY Digital, Nida Pasha, singer Amjad Sabri and the poem of the hymn Aqeel Mohsin Naqvi. All in a bid to ban the Shia mankabat or religious ode or hymn or whatever it is.

Now how come the idea of banning a piece of religious music is not blasphemous? Why are the Shia scholars quiet about this piece of sacrilege to something that they would otherwise revere.

As a matter of fact, the Shia folks pretty much have no choice when it comes to the GEO Network Blasphemy controversy. On one hand, there is the pressure from the state establishment, and on the other, there is the vicious Sunni blasphemy police.

But one thing is for sure.

Never before has the phenomenon of blasphemy appeared so clearly as a political tool as it has in this controversy.

Especially when there clearly was no blasphemy. And an alleged one that was noticed all of a sudden by everyone when an anchor spots it on a network against which he spews venom every night and still continues to do so.

And a network that just committed blasphemy against the most powerful intelligence agency in the country.

Only today, PEMRA has announced the suspension of the license of GEO Network channels for airing the blasphemous content. To be further confirmed on May 28.

So which blasphemy is greater?

The one against the family members of the Prophet or the one against the ISI and the military?

Banning the Anti-State Cable Network

Source: The News

Source: The News

Politics of the Jang group is such a mixed bag.

At times, the news group is said to be in the pocket of the ruling Sharif brothers and at others, it is considered to have operatives in a hostile India.  Sometimes, it is serving as the bullhorn of the Chief Justice and sometimes it seems to be the voice of Islamist bigots.

At times, its channel is said to be the mouthpiece of the establishment. At others, it is apparently perceived to be accusing the ISI of all the ills in the world, especially shooting its senior anchor Hamid Mir, and asking its head to step down.

But everyone can agree that the channel Geo News is sensationalist at best.

We have a problem in Pakistan, which by the way, exists all over the world too. A problem that needs to go. We are ever prepared to penalize people for saying things.

Therefore, the currently ongoing silent censorship of the news channels of the Geo Network, which may or may not materialize into license cancellation. The backlash came after the ISPR decided to file a libel lawsuit for false accusations over Mir case, followed by the Defense Ministry forwarding an application to the PEMRA for its ban. (Really Khawaja Asif? Oh I get it.)

OK, so why is everyone quiet over it?

Because clearly they have crossed the line. Nobody likes it, neither do I even though I didn’t catch what is said to be the worst of it, and it is hideous. Typical Geo TV. And yes, an example must be set to teach the channels to report responsibly.

But how? And who would do it?

And why do bans need to be enforced for the same purpose?

The government can’t shut a channel up just because it had an unfavorable broadcast for a few hours. Then there is no free media if that is the case, and certainly no free speech.

Libel lawsuits are all good, so are penalties on violating code of conduct. But does this kind of reaction mean that anyone criticizing certain public institutions will be met with such a reaction from the government? What are we aspiring to become? Soviet Union or Nazi Germany?

In any case, the government must not penalize speech and any such law should be deemed unconstitutional. Surely, not the case in Pakistan.

I believe the right way to penalize an irresponsible channel is to impose a monetary fine instead of banning it altogether. Even though I would never support even a monetary fine for speech.

We need to stop shutting people up to feel secure. Not sure if that kind of security ever worked.

Or perhaps just let people change the channel.