Dissent and State Repression

Dissent and State Repression
Let’s begin with the known.

On Tuesday, July 21, a senior journalist, Matiullah Jan, was abducted by some people wearing the Elite police uniform from outside a private school in Islamabad’s G-6 sector. The episode was recorded by the closed-circuit television camera of the school. The footage of the episode was acquired by another investigative journalist, Azaz Syed.

News of the incident and the footage spread through the mainstream and social media and #matiullahjan began trending on Twitter.

Jan was released by the abductors after 12 hours. Syed, who had acquired the footage, tweeted Jan’s return with a picture. Jan himself took to Twitter and wrote: “I am back home safe & sound. God has been kind to me & my family. I am grateful to friends, national & int. journalist community, political parties, social media & rights activists, lawyers bodies, the judiciary for their quick response which made it possible.”

The next day the Supreme Court took note of Jan’s abduction. A three-member bench of the SC headed by Chief Justice of Pakistan Gulzar Ahmed and comprising Justice Mushir Alam and Justice Ijazul Ahsan, is hearing a suo motu case pertaining to ‘contemptuous tweets’ by Jan. The CJP has also asked the Islamabad police chief to present a report on Jan’s abduction within two weeks.

Meanwhile, Jan, who was present in the court, having been released Tuesday night, has been directed by the SC to hire a legal representative within two weeks and submit his reply on the Supreme Court’s contempt notice.

In an interview to Voice of America, Hamid Mir, an anchor with Geo TV, said that the civilian government, civilian security agencies and the police had nothing to do with Jan’s abduction. He said that he would not have known this if his programme segment about Jan had not been censored. According to Mir, when he asked who was getting the Jan segment censored, he (Mir) was told that it was on the directive from a “non-civilian agency”. Mir also said that content on Geo TV and the Jang Group publications was getting censored because the government had the owner of the group, Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman, in custody and was using it as leverage. Rehman was arrested by the National Accountability Bureau in March this year.

This is as far as surface facts go. Let’s now get down to the musty underbelly that makes it so hard in today’s Pakistan to report honestly.

Repression is not new to the Pakistani media. Successive governments, military, quasi-military and “democratic”, have employed tactics to silence dissenting voices. Journalists and political activists have been arrested, sentenced, flogged, tortured and, sometimes, killed. Reporting in Pakistan may not be as dangerous as it is in some other parts of the world, but it is dangerous enough.

The present prime minister, Imran Khan, knows this. As a struggling opposition leader he spoke about enforced disappearances and abductions by security agencies. He is also on record as promising that when in power, he will have zero tolerance for such behaviour. All of this is a matter of record. However, when Khan made those statements, he probably did not know how he will get the Iron Throne. Now that he does, he remains powerless to do anything about a practice that has gone on since this country’s inception.

Khan’s federal minister for human rights, Shireen Mazari, tweeted: “Just informed about @Matiullahjan919 kidnapping. Have taken note and spoken to the IG Islamabad who informed me they are looking into it. Very disturbing.” She later tweeted: “Glad to see @Matiullahjan919 free. Such actions are in violation of our Constitution & our int obligations under HR conventions Pak ratified. Citizens cannot live in a constant state of fear and due legal process is the right of all citizens in any democracy.”

One can be sure that that is all she can do. The Islamabad police can’t do anything either. The Safe City cameras will also not be able to pick up anything. To be sure, Jan knows who his abductors were or what they wanted. Nuts and bolts information will come out. Pieces will fall in place. None of that is an issue here. The real issue is whether those who did this will face the full force of the law? The answer to that is, sadly, no.

I said above that repression of dissent is nothing new in Pakistan. Let me now say that under this government, the methods have become much more effective. Killing people — unless they are in the remote peripheries of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa or Balochistan — is not a smart thing to do. More fear can be instilled through brief abductions and since neither the police nor the judiciary and certainly not this civilian government can move against the perpetrators, the practice will continue. It’s easy to execute and it works. It shows the abducted person how vulnerable (s)he is. It is effective precisely because it is psychological.

The other standard practice now is to get outspoken journalists fired from their jobs. That’s even more easy. In fact, this step is generally a precursor to later, more direct interventions. Once fired, other media houses can be advised to stay away from hiring the person. Some can take to YouTube and other social media platforms, but that doesn’t put much bread on the table. Also, if they do and persist in their “errant” ways, there’s always the effective technique of picking them up, having a word with them, informing them that they have taken the wrong road at the Y-junction and it will be good all round if they were to retrace their steps. And, of course, they didn’t know who picked them up is generally the parting advice.

Media owners are equally vulnerable. If they don’t play ball, income tax and other cases can sprout like mushrooms. NAB, now a simple blunt instrument in this government’s hands, can come knocking and it does. If anyone still thinks that NAB is about honest accountability, I am prepared to sell the Eiffel Tower to him.

Since real life is not a Hollywood flick and since you can’t hide in a warehouse with a disgruntled topnotch hacker, it’s difficult for people to not listen to such advice and follow it.

But these tactical gains are strategic losses. For a state to lose its own citizens is never a good thing and I say it as a deeply ironic understatement. It is also downright sloppy to get this kind of advertisement when we are presumably trying our best to inform the world of the repressive practices in neighbouring India. Jan’s incident has already been splashed across the international press. At least two foreign ambassadors in Islamabad have come on record with their condemnation.

Social media can be an obnoxious place. But for a state to think that tweets by people can endanger it is stupidity at its most stupid. Pakistan cannot become a North Korea or China or Iran. We are argumentative by nature. There’s a lot wrong with how social media is used. But picking up dissenters is not the way to go. Silencing people solves nothing. It just helps put the lid on the pressure cooker. The presumed tactical win is a strategic disaster in the long run.

The writer is a former News Editor of The Friday Times. He reluctantly tweets @ejazhaider

Editor's Note: This article was written before Matiullah Jan put out a YouTube video about the circumstances of his kidnapping.

The writer has an abiding interest in foreign and security policies and life’s ironies.