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Arshad Sharif: Silencing the voice of dissent

An investigation has begun in Kenya after well-known Pakistani journalist Arshad Sharif was shot dead by police at a roadblock on Sunday. He was "fatally wounded" while he was a passenger in a moving vehicle after it failed to stop, according to a police statement.

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In the words of Voltaire, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

We, as a nation are shocked at the brutal murder of Arshad Sharif, Pakistan’s decorated star investigative journalist and famous anchorperson who paid the ultimate price for speaking the truth with his life, embracing martyrdom. The 49-year-old  outspoken vocal journalist, who fled Pakistan in August after multiple cases were filed against him for criticizing and opposing the incumbent government and military, was shot dead in Nairobi, Kenya on Sunday night.

Read more: Mourning the death of Journalist Arshad Sharif

Understanding the matter better

Arshad Sharif with two million Twitter followers was forced to flee his homeland citing death threats and multiple court cases launched against him. Earlier this year, a slew of first information reports (FIRs) were filed against journalists Arshad Sharif, Sabir Shakir, and Sami Ibrahim, accusing them of sedition and propagating “anti-state” narratives. The deceased had an illustrious journalistic career and was awarded the Pride of Performance by President Dr. Arif Alvi in 2019. He hosted a popular political talk show “Power Play” for years on one of Pakistan’s leading television channels, the ARY news, before leaving the country alleging harassment by state institutions as well threats to his life.

Pakistan is ranked 157 out of 180 countries in a press freedom index compiled by Reporters without Borders, with journalists facing censorship and intimidation. Unfortunately, there is a long and grim record of violent tactics to silence journalists. Though Article 19 of the Constitution of Pakistan guarantees freedom of speech and expression and freedom of the press with certain restrictions through censorship of media. A large part of the media sector in Pakistan is facing serious threats as the government has shown increasing intolerance to critical journalism and as radical political actors regularly attack media outlets and journalists. Cases of abduction, physical attacks, and torture of journalists have become commonplace.

Journalists and media persons as human rights defenders suffer the most when the freedom of expression is stifled. After the right to life, the most important right is the right to expression and the freedom of association because all other rights cannot even be articulated without them.

Read more: Flight carrying body of Arshad Sharif to land in Islamabad early Oct 26

Over the past two decades, Pakistan has produced a relatively vibrant media sector that represents a diversity of political views and opinions. However, in recent years, subsequent governments and the military establishment alike have curtailed media freedom in ways that threaten pluralism and journalistic independence in the country There is shrinking space for dissent in the country. Lately, this right has come under increasing threat. Some people hold guns, others carry religious texts in order to stifle and dissent and coerce free speech. Rights in the country are shrinking generally and journalists have been killed in the line of duty with impunity.

Pakistan’s political culture

Targeting and punishing dissenting voices threatens to define Pakistan’s political culture. However, repressing dissenting voices is a self-inflicted wound. It does not make the dissent go away but rather highlights the state’s heavy hand threatening to erode the democratic institutions that are essential for the sustainability of the state in the long term. Therefore, the government in power should avoid making political use of its authority by shrinking the space for dissent as it empowers the anti-democratic forces at the greater expense of freedom of expression. Media too should put the collective threat to journalism in Pakistan above political partisanship to demonstrate and strengthen their essential role in democracy and information sharing.

The impacts generated by media censorship will additionally only undermine the transparency of the upcoming 2023 elections, which are already expected to be fraught with challenges including institutional mistrust and fears of rigging. Instead of politicizing it, the incumbent government should promote greater media freedom by repealing laws that restrain press freedom and protect freedom of expression as the inevitable feature of a vibrant democratic future in Pakistan.

Read more: Kenyan police claim journalist Arshad Sharif was shot in “mistaken identity” case

Some stanzas come to mind as an epilogue to the death of a hero that was Arshad Sharif:

If roses grow in Heaven Lord

Please pick a bunch for us

Place them in our hero’s arms

A hero, a warrior for truth

And tell him they are from us

Tell him we salute his courage

Remembering him is easy

We shall do it every day

But there is an ache within our hearts

That will never go away

He may be lost; he may be dead

But a hero is always in our hearts

Sharif’s martyrdom is a loss for journalism and Pakistan. There are growing calls for Pakistani authorities to swiftly investigate the journalist’s killing and the circumstances that forced him to go into exile. The entire nation mourns his death. The government must pursue an immediate and transparent inquiry into the circumstances of his death. Without Arshad Sharif, Pakistan is poorer. Rest in peace, Arshad Sharif!

 

The writer is an ex-banker and a freelance columnist. She can be reached at tbjs.cancer.1954@gmail.com. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.