The world has heard a collective Pakistani howl, further amplified by dozens of private television channels, Twitter feeds, Facebook status updates and text messages. But listen more closely, and the silence seems even more deafening than the noise. The more precarious Pakistan’s domestic and geopolitical position becomes, the longer is the list of what not to say.
You wouldn’t think it while surfing channels or the Internet, but censorship is making a major comeback — not only as a political tactic, but also as a way of life.
The decision by the All Pakistan Cable Operators Association to stop broadcasting international news channels that air ‘anti-Pakistan’ material is only the latest shenanigan in a growing list of transgressions aimed at making Pakistanis see no evil, hear no evil. In a different world, the Pakistani public would have been relieved to see the uncomfortable issue of the ‘double game’, addressed in a recent BBC documentary titled Secret Pakistan, taken out of the mouths of Washington heavyweights and placed in the realm of reliable journalism.
In that other world, Pakistanis might have used the findings of BBC journalists to trigger a reasoned national debate about why our country finds its foreign policy in such a bind. Rather than reconsider the wisdom of Pakistan’s strategic decisions, we have chosen to ban the channel, thereby taking one step closer to the deluded isolationism that states such as Iran have perfected.
Pakistanis may be laughing at our authorities’ clumsy attempts to censor content, but there is nothing funny about a society intent on silencing itself. Talk-show hosts banter, bloggers blog, twits tweet, but this active public discourse often seeks to silence, rather than engage, voices of dissent. More Pakistanis are making themselves heard than ever before, but this collective noise drowns out rather than develops multiple perspectives. Say something contrary on the comment thread of a blog and strident voices will rally to label you a CIA spy, Hindu or Zionist.
But let’s be honest: the strictest censorship is currently being enforced in our most private spaces — dining rooms, office cubicles, private cars. As Pakistani society becomes more extreme, polarised and moralistic, people are becoming equally careful about what they say in private — amongst friends, family members and colleagues — as in public, on air, or in print. Those who were appalled by Salmaan Taseer’s assassination, but couldn’t denounce Mumtaz Qadri vociferously enough; those who believe an amicable bilateral relationship with the US is to Pakistan’s benefit, but dare not praise Washington in the midst of jingoistic ire; those who think Imran Khan is dangerously soft on extremist groups, but fear being labelled cynics or traitors; those who believe Ahmadis should be allowed to practise their faith freely, but say little for fear of what might be construed as blasphemy — these Pakistanis see the BBC ban as a logical extension of a cultural characteristic. The most basic criterion for a democracy to function is that all citizens believe they have a voice.
I look forward to hearing more from Yusuf. Read the whole thing HERE.