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Former Pakistani prime ministers Nawaz Sharif and Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, along with Dawn journalist Cyril Almeida, have been summoned by the Lahore High Court to appear in a treason case brought by civil-society member Amina Malik. The court has issued non-bailable warrants against Almeida as he was not able to make it to the court for the previous hearings against himself and Sharif.

The case is based on Sharif’s controversial statement in an interview to the Dawn journalist regarding responsibility of non-state actors and banned outfits on Pakistani soil for the 2008 Mumbai attacks.

The Dawn interview sparked a backlash in Pakistani establishment circles. Abbasi, who was prime minister at the time, was alleged to have leaked information to his deposed predecessor from a National Security Council (NSC) meeting held in the wake of Sharif’s statement on the Mumbai attacks.

Politicians have always been subject to contempt and treason charges by Pakistan’s military-judiciary alliance to keep them in check, but it seems now that even journalists are not spared.

Politicians have always been subject to contempt and treason charges by Pakistan’s military-judiciary alliance to keep them in check, but it seems now that even journalists are not spared

Treason and contempt charges have proved to be the most effective weapons of the establishment for psychological warfare against dissent. These weapons have been used against popular leaders like Fatima Jinnah, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif to keep them from riding a wave of popularity and dethroning the invisible rule of establishment, but they never yielded the desired results, as dissent continued to flourish.

Even with the present controlled media and controlled democracy, and with Sharif battling for his survival, these tools are not getting the desired results for the invisible forces. Perhaps the inability of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government to lead and govern the country has pushed the establishment into an abyss. Other than forcing Sharif into survival mode and imposing curbs on freedom of expression, the establishment has not achieved anything substantial so far.

On the other hand, the treason case against Sharif and Almeida is causing quite an embarrassment to the establishment and the judiciary as it is raising questions on why General Pervez Musharraf and other accused criminals were never brought to justice. The former dictator Musharraf, who abrogated the constitution of Pakistan twice, who was implicated in the assassination of the popular Baloch leader Akbar Bugti, and who sold Pakistanis to the US for just a few dollars is still roaming freely in London and Dubai.

Even Rao Anwar, an ordinary pawn of the invisible forces allegedly involved in the extrajudicial killings of almost 450 people, has been granted bail by the court and nothing substantial has been done to bring him to justice.

Property tycoon Malik Riaz built the country’s largest real-estate empire with the help of the retired and serving civil and military bureaucracy, but he is still untouchable, and the law of the land seems helpless before him.

It is almost as if the law is tailor-made to exploit political opponents of the establishment along with dissident journalists. The undeclared curbs and censorship on mainstream media are worse than in the era of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. Zia at least was upfront about imposing curbs on the media and victimizing his political opponents, but in the recent times, the establishment has been doing this from behind the scenes, and this actually makes the situation more complex.

For Pakistani journalists and writers, the risk of being fired, being banned from mainstream media or even joining the list of missing persons is very high. Those who want to report or write objectively and with freedom are in a constant state of fear.

The same is the case with politicians who are not ready to accept the hegemony of the military establishment. Sharif’s case is an example, as he was thrown out of the office of the prime minister on charges of corruption and was sent to jail along with his daughter, while his party, Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), was denied a level playing field and, as a result, lost the July general elections to Imran Khan’s establishment-backed PTI.

The Imran Khan-led government seems uninterested in making sure the media are not controlled or pressured by the invisible forces and instead is helping the establishment by singling out media groups and journalists as traitors while serving Western power interests. Khan has been accusing both the Dawn Media Group and GeoMedia Group of treason and working on a foreign agenda.

His inability to accept criticism has actually helped the establishment to put undeclared curbs on the media. His approach of taking political rivalry as personal enmity is also helping the establishment to victimize Sharif and his aides in the name of accountability.

In spite of all the censorship and victimization, the question has arisen as to who will define the “national interest,” and whether dissidents will always be labeled as traitors and blasphemers for straying from the prevailing narratives of the state.

Will the people of Pakistan be allowed to define the national interest through the ballot by selecting in free and fair elections legislators who eventually can make necessary amendments to the constitution by differentiating between dissent and actual treason? Will the national interest be defined always by a few individuals and institutions while questioning them continues to be termed as a treason and contempt?

Will dissenting journalists and politicians always be asked to get a certificate of patriotism by certain elements of society? This question needs to be answered very soon, as the treason and contempt cards played by the establishment and political opportunists have actually undermined the social and political fabric of Pakistani society, resulting in the demise of the genuine democratic system.

It needs to be understood that freedom to express dissent always determines whether a society is free or not.

As the British historian Jacob Bronowski once said, “Has there ever been a society which has died of dissent? Several have died of conformity in our lifetime.” Treason and contempt charges were effective in medieval ages but expecting them to work in this modern and globalized world is not practical. The sooner the powers in Pakistan learn this the better it will be for the progress of the nation.

Imad Zafar

Imad Zafar is a journalist and columnist/commentator for newspapers. He is associated with TV channels, radio, newspapers, news agencies, and political, policy and media related think-tanks.

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