SPOTLIGHT | Is Dissent Dead In Pakistan?

SPOTLIGHT | Is Dissent Dead In Pakistan?
By Hassaan Siddiqui and Zaki Abbas

Additional reporting and editing by Ailia Zehra

Being a dissenting voice in Pakistan seems to be becoming an unforgivable crime. Rights activists say attempts to suppress free speech and crush voices critical of the state's policies have increased in the past couple of years.

Academic freedom, in particular, appears to facing an onslaught. Over the past few months, several progressive academics in Pakistan's colleges and universities have been fired by the administrations without a substantial reason. Many activists are of the opinion that the professors recently terminated have been punished for promoting alternative views and teaching critical thinking to their students.

Pakistan's renowned physicist Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy was the latest victim of this myopia. The distinguished professor was terminated from Forman Christian (FC) College in an unexpected decision. The administration refused to extend his contract saying that he was terminated because he didn’t meet FCC’s 'academic standards or its teaching requirements’, which cannot be termed a reasonable explanation, considering that Hoodbhoy has a long list of honourary degrees and awards in addition to being a PhD in Nuclear Physics from MIT.

When he was informed that his contract would not be extended, Dr Hoodbhoy tendered his resignation letter in protest. In his resignation letter, Hoodbhoy said: “I am resigning because the Administration is not just tolerating academic mediocrity but is actively soliciting and promoting it. It appears to have only one interest at heart – that to have grand graduation ceremonies, mortar boards, pomp, pageantry, processions and parades.”

Although Hoodbhoy has denied the impression that state institutions had a role in his resignation, his exit from the college appears to be another instance of suppression of progressive voices in academia. In similar cases witnessed over the past few years, the suspended teachers preferred not to name the powerful suspects to avoid further harassment.

In Sindh, Sajid Soomro, a literature professor, was arrested on blasphemy charges last month. Activist Arfana Mallah who extended support to the detained professor was harassed by local extremists who also threatened to lodge a blasphemy case against her. She later had to apologise for voicing support for Soomro.

In January this year, the Urdu translation of author Mohammad Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes was pulled from markets allegedly after the intervention of some state institutions. The book, however, was published in English almost 10 years ago and was widely read. In the same month, Punjab Assembly passed a resolution to ban works of Lazely Hazelton and Pakistani writer Mazharul Haq for being ‘blasphemous’.

Allegations of 'treason'

All these omens foretell the advent of a single official narrative—where progressive people have no space. Not only are the progressive academics losing their jobs, there has also been a smear campaign against them on mainstream media, where they were repeatedly labelled as ‘foreign agents’ and ‘traitors’.

Anchor Haroon-ur-Rasheed, during a current affairs program on 92 News, accused Physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy of working “against the interests of state since 1985”. He said that the professor has given several statements against the nuclear program of Pakistan, but didn’t even utter a word against India’s nuclear weapons.

While talking about academic Ammar Ali Jan who was also recently forced to step down from FC College, Haroon said: “He is working for PTM which is funded and supported by America’s CIA, India’s RAW, and Afghanistan’s NDS. The administration of FCCU rightly fired him because the students and teachers of the university protested against his ‘anti-national’ activities.” Jan then announced that he would take legal action against the anchor for levelling 'baseless' allegations.

While talking to Naya Daur, Dr Ammar Ali Jan said that the Pakistani state has no tolerance for ‘progressive elements’.

He said the status quo cannot tolerate critical voices as it sees them as a threat to their dominance, especially after the introduction of the idea of 5th generation warfare. “This [hybrid war] type of mentality has turned schools, universities, and mosques into war zones,” he added.

Jan, who was sacked by Punjab University and Government College University for the very same reasons as FCC, said the FC College asked him to leave because of pressure by the state quarters.

According to the academic, educational institutions cannot take a stand against such blackmail because the management is compromised itself—sometimes because of corruption and often for its own myopic interests.

Dr Hoodbhoy is let go of by people who promote mediocrity and abhor critical thinking, said Ammar Ali Jan. He said the universities use contractual employment as a tool to keep teachers in line. “These contracts are used as carrot and sticks by the administrations,” he said, adding those who don’t please the admin have seen their tenures arbitrarily slashed.

'Society is now resisting authoritarianism' 

However, another academic Zaigham Abbas, who was fired from GC University for progressive ideas– sees these ‘purges’ as a part of a larger picture. According to the academic, post-September 2019, especially after the Students Solidarity March, the university admins have started targeting the teachers who raise their voices against the unjust practices on campuses and beyond.

According to Abbas, the old left is growing rapidly irrelevant and the new left – dominated by students – is taking over. “This transition has created panic in academic and state institutions, who want to see ‘toothless students’ instead of ones who question them.

Ammar agrees. He says if he was fired a few years ago, there would be no reaction. He also sees the recent layoffs of academics as temporary setbacks in the fight against oppressive power. He said the society is waking up and they will win this fight.

Media censorship continues to worsen under PTI govt

Pakistani media has come a long way in its struggle to find the lost freedom of speech, but it still continues to face all sorts of tactics of suppression, aimed at crushing the voices of dissent and denying the masses their right to know and advocate the truth.

The shutting down of 24 News Channel after the cancellation of its license and the arrest of Jang and Geo Editor-in-Chief Mir-Shakil-ur-Rehman, have been termed part of the intimidation to make them fall in line. Over the years, the censorship has been so brutal that it has forced the dissenting journalists to go off-air and run their YouTube channels to have their voice reach the masses.

"Pakistan is facing a very critical time in terms of media censorship," senior anchor and journalist Gharida Farooqi tells Naya Daur. "What's unfortunate is that the incumbent government is being compared with the dictatorship regimes as we can see certain channels and anchors being projected."

"Media, like all areas of governance, is facing an incredibly challenging time," Gharida said and added that this can be gauged by the fact that the Jang and Geo Editor-in-Chief and CEO has been behind bars sans trial in a 30-year-old baseless case.

The objective, she added, which seems to be of such regimes is either turn media into their ally or unleash their fury on it. "Sadly, this has been the case in many of the previous regimes too."

Gharida is of the opinion that the regimes do this to hide their wrongdoings and be free from a check and balance. The senior anchor said and added that the right thing for the government to do is to abstain from shaking the 'fourth pillar of the state.'

The fact is that the media is facing two major challenges. "Firstly, in the context of the overall threats to its existence by the government and, secondly, threats to exist economic independence in terms of the country's dire economic situation", she said.

When asked about the suppression of the voices of dissent, Gharida said, "when you don't let a difference of opinion flourish, then you don't let the process of evolution in the society to take place. This happens when you single out and suppress one particular perspective

To the question about the government's recent move to suppress the social media, the senior journalist states that suppress dissent try to shut social media and YouTube, but fortunately, these mediums cannot be silenced through ceasing the advertisements to newspapers or cancelling the licenses to the broadcast channels.

"The PTI government had to face a backlash by the masses, the opposition parties, and even from those in the government against the move." This, she added, had lessons for the state and it would hopefully discourage it from resorting to such tactics in the future.