EDITORIAL TEAM’S NOTE: Recently, Afrasiab Khattak’s article was not allowed to be published in a local newspaper as it focused on Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement. See more here about their blackout. For safenewsrooms.org, Mr. Khattak recounts his experience of facing such censorship for the first time in his life.
GRAPPLING WITH CENSORSHIP
By Afrasiab Khattak
I have been a political activist for the last five decades and have had active involvement in human rights movement in Pakistan for more than 25 years. I am a lawyer by training and have also practiced law at Peshawar High Court. But I did have active interest in journalism from a very young age. As a college student in late 1960s I worked as a part time correspondent for the English language daily Khyber Mail that used to be published from Peshawar in those days. In 1990s I regularly wrote an op ed column for English language daily The Frontier Post for many years. In late 1990s I also worked with BBC as analyst in regional affairs. I used to comment on political developments in Pakistan, Afghanistan and India in English, Urdu, Pashto and Persian.
In March 2015, after retiring from membership of the Senate of Pakistan, I started writing a regular weekly column for the English language daily The Nation. For close to three years my weekly columns were published and I was able to develop a wide circle of readership. Since I used to post my articles on the social media after their publication in the newspaper, I attracted quite a large number of readers.
My last column was published in daily The Nation on April 14. It was about a rally of Pashtun Tahafuz Movement ( PTM ), a new grassroots movement which is critical of the role played by Pakistan Army in tribal areas close to the Durand Line. My column for the next week was declined by the newspaper under pressure from the intelligence agencies connected with the Army. The so called mainstream media in general and the electronic media in particular has blacked out the three month old PTM under the
instruction coming from the Army.
In Pakistan English language newspapers and magazines have been dealt less stringently even by dictatorial regimes for two reasons. One, English language is understood by a small fraction of the population in Pakistan (mostly middle class and elites) so the impact of these publications is limited. Two, liberal English language publications creat the illusion of free press in the minds of foreign diplomats based in Pakistan who mostly can’t read the censored material published in local languages. But when the authoritarian forces feel the need for tightening the noose even the English language media faces the crude censorship.
The so called democratic transition that has started with general elections held in February 2008 and went through smoothly to a great extent with another general election in May 2013, started facing a bumpy road since mid 2014.
After a series of aggressive agitations by political elements and religious outfits generally known for their connections with security establishment the civilian government has dramatically lost control over the state system. The accountability card, used in the past against politicians by military dictators, is being once again against politicians who are standing on the wrong side of the generals. The contraction of civilian control has seen the proportionate expansion of military control.
Freedom of expression is the main target of the expanding shadows of authoritarian control. Self censorship is the new normal now. If the experience of recent Senate elections is anything to go by, the apprehensions about political engineering in the coming general elections are quite justified. The scariest thing is that the higher judiciary is upholding curbs on media freedoms like they upheld military takeovers in the past.
The writer is a retired Senator and an analyst of regional affairs
He tweets @a_siab