Real press freedom

Published in Daily Times on May 4th 2014

There is an Urdu columnist whose content is oddly blinkered in its focus on historical revisionism, whipping the liberals for being immoral and chastising women who are not invisible. However, a few days back, he wrote about press freedom and that Pakistan needs all sorts of voices from right to left. Badly written but clever of him to throw in that occasional slow ball to distress his opponent, claiming he too stands for something remotely egalitarian.

There is a difference between press freedom and the open acceptance of hate literature. Pakistan has the latter in abundance — streets and especially courthouses across all cities are embellished with cloth banners that warn of beheading the blasphemer or murdering the sect that does not believe in the finality of prophethood. This is done with such bravado that one would think that the rule of the jungle prevails in the houses of justice and that the broadness of these statements could frame any passer-by who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The record on those in jail for blasphemy supports the fact that this law is flawed and provides a tool to avenge personal feuds. Similarly, Ahmedis in Pakistan live under constant surveillance; their right to congregate or even circulate their monthly newsletters is heavily restricted. No press freedom for them or for victims of an ultra-religious mob.

No matter how many times talks with the Taliban fail and we continue to get humiliated by their strategy of violence, we still continue to drum up support for it in our government and in the media. Again we fail to understand that the Taliban has no interest in negotiating for peace because giving up arms makes them inept. Why would they ever do that? Allowing this negotiation discourse to flood our front pages, our drive times and our prime time news, we have effectively allowed the Taliban authority to dictate the remaining content of our days. This is precisely why, taking cue from the coverage overload on this evasive thing called talks, they released a list of journalists they would target. This list was further divided into categories, one among which was most disconcerting. They named journalists who were responsible for “spreading secular ideas”.

It becomes incredibly easy for the Urdu columnist and television evangelical securely in the right to pen a few words on freedom of expression when there are those with the gun doing their bidding. With bullets being peppered on those who stand for a right to an education for the girl-child, the alternative historical analysis to our national narrative and those who question our holy cows, there is no better moment than now to stand up and yell freedom for all. The fact is that there is no freedom except for those who believe in the positional superiority of the religion they belong to, for those who believe that all power women can express comes from the permission her male guardian gives her and for those who want to avenge some false sense of religious wrong done to their people generations before them. From our textbooks to our newsrooms, the pervading sense of injustice is restricted only to the majority in this country.

If there is any course correction to be done for Pakistan it must start with restoring Mohammad Ali Jinnah. And restoring him not as the picture on the wall but as the secular and egalitarian man he was: a Shia who married a Parsi, a champion for Hindu-Muslim unity throughout his life and, above all, a man with the vision for a modern Muslim country unshackled by conservatism. As we contain Jinnah into the smell of old books that line our bookstores and libraries we are taking away this great superpower that we can fight the forces of obscurantism with. In Jinnah’s life and works we can reinstate those principles that firmly put Pakistan as a leader in equal rights. This is why the “secular values” are so dreadful for the Taliban. The only real press freedom comes from allowing Pakistan to claim that narrative.

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