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No Criticism Of Saudi Arabia Was Allowed During Crown Prince’s Visit

No one in Pakistan was allowed to utter a word of dissent against Saudi Arabia during Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman’s visit.

Pakistan gave Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman a heroic welcome upon his arrival in the country this week. Preparations for the Saudi monarch’s visit were made well in advance and educational institutions in the capital remained closed on the day of his arrival. The benefit Pakistan got from his visit is a separate subject which is being discussed duly by talking heads on media. But there’s something about this visit which is not being discussed for reasons quite obvious.There had been some criticism within the country over the Crown Prince being given an extraordinary reception, but all forms of dissent in this regard were blacked out from media. Some journalists and activists reminded the government of the Crown Prince’s alleged involvement in the brutal murder of dissenting Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the human rights abuses by the Saudi regime, but the protests were limited to social media. The small protest demonstrations that were held prior to the visit by civil society activists, were all censored and no media organisation dared report any kind of opposition over Mohammad Bin Salman’s visit.
When some journalists changed their social media profile pictures to photos of Jamal Khashoggi as protest against MBS’s visit, they were asked by their organisations to refrain from engaging in criticism of the Crown Prince online. The said journalists were forced to remove Khashoggi’s photo from their profiles. While a few freelancers and activists managed to retain the slain Saudi journalist photos as their profile pictures to record their protest, most journalists who are otherwise vocal against Saudi Arabia as well as the Pakistan government, remained tight-lipped over the issue.
Pakistan’s Interior Ministry issued a notification and singled out the said anti-MBS protests as being staged by the ‘disgruntled’ members of the Shia community, while ordering action against the protesters. The notification sparked outrage on social media and users said the move would serve to spread sectarianism, after which Prime Minister Imran Khan took notice and clarified that he does not endorse the notification. In a tweet, Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry suggested that the PM was not aware of the said notification issued by the Interior Ministry. What makes the development strange is that the PM holds the portfolio of Interior Ministry himself, and if the head of a ministry is unaware of a notification issued by the ministry on such a sensitive matter, the orders must have been from elsewhere.
Meanwhile, Pakistan’s Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry had announced a countrywide crackdown against ‘hate speech’ on social media ahead of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman’s visit to the country. Some observers said that ‘hate speech’ was merely a pretext employed by the government, and the real motive was to crush any and all forms of dissent against Saudi Arabia before the Crown Prince’s arrival. Critics of the military have already been on the receiving end of this clampdown for long.

News organisations were reportedly advised against criticising Mohammad bin Salman. These are all signs of an authoritarian culture. A controlled democracy where dissent is met with hostility, online abuse and sometimes brute force.
What is worse is that the civil society and media despite being pushed against the wall are disunited and seem to have accepted a new form of censorship.
The PTI had made tall claims of breaking the begging bowl prior to the elections. But Imran Khan’s government put money before integrity and acted against its own people to please a Saudi monarch who is accused globally of human rights’ violations.

This article was updated for clarity and accuracy on 22 February, 2019.

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