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Editorial | Year-Ender: Onslaught On Freedoms And Authoritarianism

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The year 2020 has been nothing short of a roller coaster ride for the world. The coronavirus pandemic exposed vulnerabilities that nations face and how unexpected crises can wreak havoc in no time. In Pakistan, too, these unprecedented times revealed the government’s inability to handle a crisis of this scale. Although Pakistan’s Covid situation is noiw thankfully better than most of its neighbours, the pandemic brought to light many fault-lines in governance.

On the political front, the last part of the year has been a happening one thanks to Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM)’s no-holds-barred drive against the PTI government. Whether or not the PDM’s plan of action will be able to deal a blow to Prime Minister Imran Khan or his government is yet to be seen. However, the stance taken by PDM leaders, particularly former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, against the establishment’s alleged interference in politics holds immense significance. Also noteworthy is the nervousness with which the government appears to be tackling the opposition’s aggression. Federal ministers’ below-the-belt attacks against leaders of the opposition alliance showed how the PDM’s agitation had the government in panic mode. One hopes that the tensions diffuse in the days to come and that the year 2021 brings political stability in Pakistan.

Three particular issues have been a major cause for concern in the outgoing year. The state of freedom of expression which was already dismal in Pakistan, became even more worrisome in the year 2020. The trend of targeted attacks and harassment against journalist and activists saw an increase. Media was increasingly censored and pressured by the powers-that-be, and the ruling party adopted a policy of zero tolerance towards criticism. Journalists and activists critical of the government faced online bullying with ministers and PTI officials joining the trolls in singling out and attacking journalists. The state’s absolute disregard for alternative views and their attempts to control the media reeked of fascism.

Second, hate speech and incidents of religious extremism also witnessed an increase in 2020. Members of banned terror outfits held rallies in major cities of Pakistan in September. The government, as usual, acted as silent spectator. What was different this past year is that several blasphemy cases were registered against members of the Shia community for participating in Muharram rituals. These cases followed organized sectarian campaigns by banned outfits on both social media and ground in the lead up to Muharram.

Finally, the state of women rights in Pakistan remained bleak and several cases of sexual violence against women, including the recent motorway rape incident, served as a reminder of the impunity that the perpetrators continue to enjoy. Lahore CCPO Umar Sheikh’s statement blaming the survivor of motorway rape for the crime generated countrywide protests and calls for his removal, which fell on deaf ears. His statement led to a feeling of vulnerability among women of the country who generally feel unsafe while exercising their right to free movement.

Moreover, gender-based attacks on women journalists, commentators and activists on social media accelerated in the year 2020. Women in the media had sexual slurs and threats of sexual violence thrown at them merely for doing their job. Further, the issue of sexual harassment continued to be downplayed. President Arif Alvi’s act of awarding sexual harassment-accused Ali Zafar with Pride of Performance sent out a message that much like the society at large, the state does not take allegations of sexual harassment seriously.

With the hope that these issues will be addressed by the stakeholders in the year 2021, we wish our readers a very Happy New Year.

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Naya Daur