Abbas Nasir, a former editor of Dawn, describes a new “enemy” of the Pakistan state apparatus — both the civilian government and “its backers in the security establishment” — that will certainly have a resonance across South Asia. The battleground he describes in his December 22 article in Dawn is a familiar one — ideas: “With ideas being the only weapon in their arsenal, the dissidents need a vehicle to air their views and share their ideas. It appears that the civilian government in power and its powerful backers in the security establishment are now ensuring that those who disagree are denied a platform.”
Nasir argues that the establishment has taken a page out of Vladimir Putin’s book, and “regulation” of both traditional and social media is the order of the day. Both officials and “their surrogates in think tanks” instruct the media on how to “report positively”. “Of course, such enforced ‘positivity’ leaves no room for you and I to truly believe that something may actually be against the national interest and vocally oppose it because our conscience so dictates. Your definition of national interest and mine amounts to nought,” writes Nasir. While one can argue that such a state of affairs is the media’s own fault, dependent as it is on government advertising, “the alleged interference of security services in the distribution of TV channels on cable and newspapers through hawkers have also curtailed their reach and affected the commercial advertising market”. Nasir also describes how the government has asked for certain accounts on Twitter to be blocked because the users are “in violation of Pakistani laws, rules and regulations”.
Nasir’s argument is fairly straightforward and important to heed: “At many crucial junctures in the past; grave national debacles happened because the media was muzzled and hence unable to ring the alarm. Pakistan’s long-term interest and the well-being of its people can only be best served via debating the pros and cons of all vital policies.”
The December 23 editorial in The Daily Star asserts that it is “it is worrying that there should be a need to reiterate the call for something as fundamental as creating space for effective election monitoring” just a week before the general election in Bangladesh. The Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL) has been forced to cancel its observation mission for the December 30 election after Bangladesh failed to grant credentials and issue visas within the stipulated timeframe to the majority of its international monitors. The US, which funded the move, has expressed its disappointment at the move, according to the editorial.
EU observers too are not monitoring the upcoming elections, which places the responsibility of monitoring “solely on local observers”. “ But there are doubts if they will be able to do their job properly, what with the unreasonable restrictions being put on them about, for example, taking pictures inside a polling station or talking to the media while monitoring the election,” the editorial says and adds that “All this tends to heighten fears about the EC’s ability to deliver a fair and participatory election. The EC is already facing mounting criticism over its failure to create a level playing field for all the contesting parties and protect the opposition from threats.”
The editorial concludes by asserting that the danger of the election not being fair is palpable and the Election Commission must act fast to create a proper environment for the polls.
The Hindu-Bouddho-Khrishtan Oikyo Parishad of Bangladesh tabled a request for the creation of a ministry for religious minorities in that country, which has been accepted by the government. Syed Badrul Ahsan, in his December 20 column in The Dhaka Tribune argues that such a move would be against the constitution and foundational values of Bangladesh: “n this Bengali republic we inhabit, there are no religious minorities. That, at least, was the principle on which the Liberation War was waged in 1971. We went into battle against the communal-militaristic state of Pakistan on the strength of a few core values, among which was secularism. The state of Bangladesh, all the way from the guerrilla warfare waged by the Mukti Bahini and till the adoption of the Constitution in late 1972, was deemed an entity where followers of all faiths — Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, and Buddhism — were to be regarded as citizens privy to all the rights embodied by a modern nation-state.”
Despite religious minorities being under threat, for Ahsan, it is a return to a legal-constitutional identity that is not based on religion that is the core of secularism in Bangladesh. He asserts: “It is to that land of Bengalis — Muslims, Hindus, Christians, and Buddhists — we need to return if our history is not to get caught in a bad squall. Democracy without secularism is a fallacy.”