Pakistan’s globetrotting Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Raheel Sharif has been peddling the ostensible success of a military operation called Zarb-e-Azb in assorted world capitals. The director of the Inter-Services Public Relations, Lt General Asim Saleem Bajwa, has unleashed a social and conventional media blitzkrieg that creates a halo 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 tries to ostracise those in the intelligentsia who refuse to buy the military’s version of events. This low intensity, systematic war on the diversity of opinion in Pakistan barely gets local or international attention.
During my morning ritual of going through emails this past Friday (November 27), 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”. As the lead weekly columnist for the liberal Pakistani newspaper Daily Times, I have written extensively about how the dissenters in the Pakistani media, academia and the political class were hounded rel-entlessly; that the undeclared censor’s guillotine had fallen on my hand, was not a shock. What was surprising was that it took six years for it to do so.
My editor, Rashed Rahman, a seasoned journalist and a veteran leftist political campaigner, had insulated me and others like me from the interference of what he calls “the powers that be” — a euphemism for Pakistan’s military establishment — for years. After the assassination of Salmaan Taseer, the high-profile owner of the Daily Times and the then governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province at the hands of a religious zealot, his family continued with his liberal tradition and continued to afford me, and others like the veteran Baloch activist and writer Mir Muhammad Ali Talpur, the space for speaking our mind. It seems, however, that the cushion against the military’s stealthy interference was wearing thin since the ascent of General Sharif, not just at our paper but the media in general.
Along with putting the Pakistani COAS on a pedestal, his media team was actively weeding out his detractors. For example, about a year ago, the editorial staff advised Talpur to take a break from writing on Balochistan since that issue draws flak from the military. After a hiatus, Talpur wrote a sca-thing criticism of the virtual colonisation of Balochistan by the Pakistani military. The owners finally told our editor Rashed Rahm-an this past Thursday to shut down both Talpur’s and my weekly columns.
A six-year association with the Daily Times thus ended under pressure from Paki-stan’s almighty army. I say army because none of the cultural and music pieces or the personality profiles that I did would have offended anyone. It was my criticism of the army’s duplicitous policy vis-à-vis the jiha-dist terror unleashed in Afghanistan that annoyed the army.
My premise has been simple: The Pakistani army has caused irreparable damage to Pakistani society through its patronage of the jihadists since at least the mid-1970s and despite its proclamations to the contrary, it has not changed as far as the use of jihadist proxies against Afghanistan and India is concerned. I have consistently underscored the fact that the biggest price of the army’s jihadist venture has been paid by the Pakistani people, especially the Pashtuns and the vulnerable religious groups such as the battered and beleaguered Shias, Ahmadis, Christians and Hindus. The army’s massive human rights abuses in the restive and resource-rich Balochistan has stoked the separatism there and closed the door on a meaningful political reconciliation with the Baloch seeking independence — or secession — depending on one’s perspective. I have strived to give voice to the voiceless sections of Pakistani society because each one of them has touched my life in some way and enriched it in the process.
When I saw my friends and dear ones being shot, the Pashtun leaders that I knew personally being killed and the All Saints Church where I played cricket, being blown to smithereens — all in my hometown Peshawar — by the Taliban, I wanted to bear witness and chronicle those atrocities, which in my opinion were a direct blowback of the Pakistan army’s jihadist project. After the heinous attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar last year, the army cracked down on what it had described once as the “bad Taliban”, that is, the ones that hit inside Pakistan. While it claimed that it is going after jihadists of all shades, I contended that it was sparing the “good Taliban”, that is, the ones who attack inside Afghanistan.
My last Daily Times column pointed out that General Sharif speaks with a forked tongue, pledging to fight against terror and bring peace in Afghanistan while jihadists infiltrate Afghanistan from Pakistan unchecked. The army and its minions perhaps could not take it anymore and my column was shut down for good.
The media and press freedom in Pakistan under General Sharif’s leadership is a myth. A multitude of media outlets, including the television channels, create the illusion of diversity but are effectively churning out the various shades of army-approved hyper-nationalism that passes for patriotism. One can perhaps slip in a critical column or a show, but to do so in a sustained manner is nearly impossible now. The troubling part is that the political class has abdicated its role to define patriotism. The Pakistani intelligentsia can make a case for wresting back the power to define the national interest, but unless politicians are willing to do the heavy lifting, we’d be fighting an uphill
battle in which many more columns will be shut down and writers banished from the public view.