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*** This is an edited article that can be found in its original format on Ayesha Siddiqa’s website ***
Was it even possible for Pakistanis to think that their space to speak and express themselves will be curtailed so much that speaking would become a matter of life and death? I am of a generation that saw both the enforced silence under Zia and the ‘glasnost’ and ‘perestroika’ of the later years. Having survived the 1980s, many of us academics were eager to talk and vent our frustration. And we did talk and express themselves.
One thing that was great about being in Pakistan was undefined boundaries of state censorship – if you wrote in English academic journals and newspapers abroad, or even English newspapers, no one really bothered you. I do not want to sound ungrateful for these small mercies because that gave the country relatively more freedom than many other Muslim countries.
This is not to argue that pressures weren’t there, however. I was personally ostracised and chucked on the margins of academic life after writing the first edition of my book Military Inc. This oppression was a clandestine operation and there wasn’t the blatant effort of hounding “free thinkers” like myself as there is in countries like Saudi Arabia.
I am part of a class of writers that you could call ‘elite’ writers. Our reality was for a long time disconnected from those that tried to voice similar views in Pakistani and Saudi Arabia – and we would get hounded in return.
The personalities who tried to report the truth – even in recent times such as columnist Jamal Khashoggi and prime minister Benazir Bhutto – were killed for it. In Urdu media, it was almost impossible to stray away from the ‘party line’, which basically becomes the dominant political and social narrative.
The Urdu media was probably disciplined after the fiasco in 1956 with King Saud bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (in the featured image) who was so angry with a Pakistani article against him that he was ready to recall his ambassador from the country. Iskandar Mirza had then assured the Saudi ruler of appropriate action.
Then, many years later, something happened that compelled the state to impose similar curbs on English press that, until recently, was viewed as free. Several attacks on Pakistan’s press by Saudi officials and military institutions forced many papers to be cautious about religious-militant groups. Other than Dawn, a flagship for relative freedom of press in Pakistan, others felt the crunch. The Express Tribune was first to sink. The paper, which had once carried my review of General Kiyani, was no longer ready to print anything about the military or its successors.
According to a research paper by Huma Yusuf and Emrys Schoemaker, military institutions place most pressure on press censorship in Pakistan. I have explained in greater detail the purpose and method of mind, media and narrative management by the military in the 2nd edition of my book Military Inc.
The years 2012-2013 were watershed years in which a gradual clamp down began on freedom of expression was happening. While some relate it to General Raheel Sharif, in reality this shift was a policy change at an institutional level catalysed by Saudi attitudes towards press.
The army chief may have contributed to the policy but this was certainly part of a broader decision that “screws had to be tightened” from the 1950s onwards.
On the one hand, technological advancement opened greater avenues for people to speak and voice their concerns about policy and state. This was nothing odd given that Pakistan has always been a restless society due to disagreement between various minority groups regarding the social contract and commitment with the state.
The ethnic divide is a real issue that does not necessarily threaten the state but remains an issue that requires resolution. There are separatist movements but none is strong enough to break the state, especially after 1971.
Yet, the state remains paranoid about social group mobility, as well as about the less threatening issue of sectarian divide that probably adds to the state’s insecurity.
India and Pakistan, in terms of strategic design of discourse management, both look similar. One is trying to firm up the Hindu identity of the state, thus targeting minorities and suppressing any dissent. Pakistan seems to be following suit, but in a way that seems protect an odd blend of secularism and conservative Islam.
A similar dynamic is now emerging in Saudi Arabia under Mohammad Bin Salman. In the process, India, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are targeting freedom of speech and forcibly framing the thought process in a certain direction.
Interestingly, while liberals in India can claim that they have just begun to experience such curbs and repression on free press, what might give them some comfort is that their counterparts in Pakistan are not in a different situation.