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Sunday, April 14, 2024

Government’s attack on free speech for Army or for self interest?

On Sunday, in a statement issued by the interior ministry, the media was told that the Interior Minister Chaudhury Nisar has instructed the Federal Investigation Agency’s (FIA) Cyber Crime Wing to take action against “those ridiculing Pakistan Army on social media” in order to protect “the prestige, reputation, and goodwill” of the armed forces.

This is the latest attack by the government on the freedom of the press and expression, which in terms of its liberties has reached a new low since it was freed in 2000 during General Pervaiz Musharaff’s period. The huge number of private channels seen in Pakistan today are the direct result of the Musharaff government during his early years in power allowing private channels (not controlled by the government) to be set up in the country. However, currently, under the PML-N government there is environment which is curtailing press freedom on a daily basis. Guidelines issued by Pemra, on May 4, regarding Ramzan, but also said ‘ Morning shows cannot speak against Pakistan, the law or the armed forces, nor instigate talks which speak ill of the country.’

Read More: How Dawn Leaks ruined Pakistan Army’s credibility

On 12 May, Pemra went on to issue a general statement to the press warning them against discussing ‘unverified’ news or offering analysis pertaining to the country’s civil-military relations. In essence, they are trying to turn all the country’s hitherto flourishing press in state broadcasters, like PTV, that takes the government’s line every day regarding what is acceptable to discuss on TV.

Pemra is a state regulatory authority for the media and the chairman is appointed by the government. The current chairman, Absar Alam has been accused of being given the job because he a PML-N acolyte. Court case also exists against him in the Lahore High Court over his qualifications and his appointment as PEMRA chairman.

Earlier this year in January, a Bol News show conducted by Dr Shahid Masood was served a notice by PEMRA for ‘carelessly and recklessly’ discussing civil-military ties.

“Those found in violation of the new Pemra guideline would be charged under Section 27 of the Pemra Ordinance 2002,” the press release stated.

These latest restrictions come in light of the massive criticism that is appearing on social, print and TV media over the army’s role in Dawn Leaks inquiry and in particular, the condemnation that it was not able to reveal the ‘ alleged leaker’ who had fabricated contents of the civil-military meeting that was held on October 3rd, 2016. The government was under huge pressure from the public and the army personnel to release this name. Criticism has flooded from the media over the ‘resolution’ between the top leadership of the army and the government. It is this criticism that the government is now trying to suppress through its injunctions.

According to the Interior Minister, “As far as the freedom of speech is concerned, the Constitution makes it clear that national security and defense institutions would not be criticized and that citizens would not engage themselves in any activity that causes damage to the prestige, reputation, and goodwill of Pak army,”

“Ridiculing Pakistan Army or its officers in the name of freedom of speech is unacceptable.”

Ironically when the now ‘infamous’ article of Cyril Almedia was published in Dawn it was termed by many including the interior minister as breaching ‘national interest’ and by many others as deliberately maligning the Army. It was in this environment of public pressure that the government had been forced to set up a commission into the matter. Post civil-military resolution, the government is under fire from all quarters over what is being perceived as a cover-up. Government institutions, PEMRA and Ministry of Interior are using the cyber crime laws to quieten these objections by terming them against the ‘prestige of the army’.

The fact that the government itself failed to identify and indict the perpetrator behind the most damaging attack on the prestige of the military and is now actively trying to quell the voices of those who are demanding justice exposes the blatant hypocrisy of this establishment.

Opposition leaders have been very vocal about this issue and several have highlighted it on social media.

The army is currently involved in the Panama case through its presence in the JIT which is investigating the accusations against the Prime Minister. The question is if the government accepts the inclusion of the military in a civil case with an inherent political basis how can they ask the public to not scrutinize the actions of the military? The case concerns the alleged illegal activity of the sitting Prime Minister and his family, the investigation of the Prime Minister has to be conducted in a transparent manner if it is to have credibility and weight. By what logical reasoning did the government arrive at the conclusion that the military must not be criticized when it is now directly responsible for upholding justice in civilian matters?

Basic analysis of the current situation reveals that it is in the interest of the government to appease and support the military now that it is in a position to decide the fate of the Prime Minister and his family.

The recent directives issued by the Interior Minister to the FIA Cyber Crime Wing to take strict action against all those involved in criticizing the most ‘prestigious and disciplined institution’ of the country, “intentionally or unintentionally” show that the PML-N establishment is willing to use its institutional might to suppress all those who may threaten their interests.

Question for discussion: What is your take on these measures?