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Surviving As A Writer In The Era Of Censorship

Media in Pakistan is only partly free because there are certain red lines that writers and journalists cannot cross. Being ‘partly free’ means the powers-that-be cannot be criticised over issues related to security of the country, writes Shabana Mahfooz.

So we had a day celebrated the world over for freedom of press, and just like any other day, most Pakistani journalists lamented the lack of this very principle in their country. Although that day has passed, I thought of pitching my two cents nevertheless.

On World Press Freedom Day this year, where a Kurdish journalist and artist was released after a sentence of three years in jail in Turkey – the highest number of journalists imprisoned, another journalist who founded a community radio station in an indigenous region was shot dead in Mexico – which is said to be one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists.

At least 95 journalists were killed across the world last year during the course of their work, according to the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ). One killing which attracted global attention was that of prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered after going to the Saudi consulate-general in Turkey.

In Pakistan, there is a complicated relationship between journalists and press freedom. In its 2018 Press Freedom Index, Reporters without Borders ranked Pakistan number 139 out of 180 countries based on freedom of the press, while Freedom House in its latest report listed the media in Pakistan as “partly free”. The latest figures reveal that at least 14 journalists were killed in 2014.

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As the senate reaffirmed its ‘strong’ commitment towards freedom of speech in the country, Chairman of an opposition party Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari said that “an undeclared censorship” is “stifling the freedom of expression” in Pakistan, and journalists are coming increasingly under threat from “state and non-state actors”.

So what do they mean when they say that media is ‘partly free’? As journalists, we are made to define our red line, which we are not supposed to cross while expressing our opinions on various matters.

I am widely praised for a piece in which I give a piece of mind to our arch rival, India. It can be any issue – lynching of Muslims, brutality in Kashmir, brazen attacks on the border or their ruthless clampdown on water sources. At the same time, I’m also expected to retort back with fierce patriotism, if the guns of criticism are pointed towards Pakistan. Here, there is no acceptance or room for reasoning, even in a situation where the criticism may be justified.

Being partly free means that I can deplore the social, economic or even political conditions of Pakistan, but I cannot criticise an issue related to the security of this country, if I feel the need to. It means that I can raise hell if a woman is harassed at her home or in her workplace, by her relative or any man holding an official position, but I cannot touch the subject if there is an issue of blasphemy involved.

It’s not that I have not commented on issues linked with blasphemy. I expressed my fury when Khadim Hussain Rizvi incessantly blocked the roads over a change in electoral law which may have given some privilege to a community estranged for beliefs linked with blasphemy. Here the issue was the trouble and the chaos the country had to suffer. I was also well received when I questioned the inhumane outrage over Aasia Bibi’s release, when the court had categorically ruled that there was no evidence of blasphemy. But had I delved into the blasphemy law of the country, probed some clauses and suggested to leave room for innocent victims to escape wrong allegations, I may have been under the spotlight, for the wrong reason.

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I have shared in print my regret over the ‘resignation’ of Atif Mian from the Economic Advisory Council, just because he belongs to the same community which has been ostracised from society over its beliefs. For that matter, I have more than once, conveyed my sorrow over the pitiful ignorance we show towards Pakistan’s first Nobel laureate, a genius mind with great contributions in the field of science but sadly, holding beliefs not acceptable to the constitution of this country. In this case, my point of view was how Pakistan fails to gain from its brilliant talent, only on the basis of belief. But if I dare to show any sympathy towards the traumatised ‘non-believers’, I would surely be sidelined.

I can pursue and develop an extensive career in writing and expressing opinions, if I stay within my ‘limits’ and do not infringe on sensitive issues. My byline can stay in print, if I am covert in my style and do not raise unnecessary hue and cry. I can garner respect and acceptance from publications and audience alike, if I am bold enough only to the limit which is easily digested and use my literary skills with care and cautiousness. But my stint in writing can also tumble with a muffled crash, if I cross the line.

I can choose to push the limit and risk being secluded, questioned and as some believe, even threatened. But I do not intend to stay out of the picture and stop writing. I would, instead, like to create small ripples in the ponds of intolerance, bigotry and ignorance in our society, which have a resounding effect. I want to play by the rules, yet provoke thoughts. I opt not to hurt sentiments, but still, convince and not force minds, to start questioning inwardly. For if a change comes from within, one day it can smoothly glide over barriers.

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Therefore, I choose, neither grudgingly nor fully agreeably, to be ‘partly free’ in my writings, for a guarded voice is better than silence.

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