To tighten its grip on the game that Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) is gradually losing on the power chessboard, it has announced the establishment of media tribunals to curb even further the already shrinking space for dissent and freedom of expression in Pakistan. The announcement triggered a severe backlash from the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and civil society, and as a result the special assistant to the prime minister, Dr Firdous Ashiq Awan, had to issue a statement that the PTI government would consult with journalist organizations before actually establishing the special tribunals.
However, given the track record of the PTI, one can easily predict that another U-turn in this matter will be taken, and all of a sudden the already spineless media will find itself at the mercy of these special courts. Mainstream media in Pakistan since 2014 have been subject to many invisible restrictions imposed by the deep state, first to topple former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and, under PTI rule, the media have been enslaved even further. Television and print media have been pushed back to the eras of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq and Ayub Khan when dissent and free expression were considered treason.
Now this country whose social fabric is built on the false narratives of religious supremacy and self-created morals and ethics, and where political discourse is engineered and the state is overseeing the demise of literature and journalism, may be witnessing the last nail in the coffin of a failed doctrine that has dominated the past six decades. This doctrine started with the martial law of General Ayub Khan, who through strong propaganda made the masses believe that politicians were corrupt and press freedom was a threat to the national interest. But the definitions of corruption and vague “national interest” keep changing as per the requirements of the establishment in Ayub Khan’s era.
It was also propagated that Parliament or elected leaders could not define or defend the ideological narratives and it was only the security establishment that could safeguard both the geographical and ideological boundaries of the country. This indoctrination of society was so strong that even after the fall of East Pakistan the masses did not question the legitimacy of this doctrine.
Later, General Zia’s Islamization not only wove religious fundamentalism into the social and political fabric of the nation but also laid the foundation of a press that was incapable of thinking beyond the religious and vague “national interest” theories. Still later, General Pervez Musharraf defined the national interest and patriotism according to his own needs, and after the fall of Musharraf, the security establishment kept dictating to the media and the rest of the country with its own self-created narratives of patriotism, religion, and national security and kept interfering in the social and political discourse through the effective use of propaganda.
The deep state in Pakistan used the same formula of “choice blindness” that has been used by the big corporations to sell their brands to consumers. Swedish philosophy academic Petter Johansson has demonstrated that this formula can be used to make people believe that what they are buying – be it a product or an idea – is based on their own judgment and needs, when in fact it is not.
Since the narratives created by Pakistan’s invisible forces were laid on weak foundations and were far from the reality of the modern world, both the social and political fabrics of the country have almost failed. As a society, people are divided according to ethnicity, sects and castes, and intolerance of criticism of their beliefs is now common practice. While engineered political discourse has resulted in an unprecedented polarization of Pakistani society, now intolerance even over political differences is increasing at an alarming rate.
The economy is bleeding while the important pillars of the state such as the judiciary, Parliament and civil administration have been almost destroyed, only to fulfill the vested interests of the deep state. However, the media under strict curbs and society devoid of critical thinking and modern education cannot raise even the simple question as to why the businesses controlled by the security establishment, from the real-estate sector to financial institutions and from selling corn flakes to cement, are not being hit by the bad economy. How is it that the business empire of the establishment continues to grow under these circumstances?
As well, even the political parties are silent and not asking what happened to the narrative that Kashmir is the jugular vein of Pakistan. Over the last 70 years billions of rupees were spent in the name of Kashmir and millions of minds were indoctrinated with the notion of an armed militant solution for the Kashmir problem, but the deep state is not answerable to anyone. In fact, as a consequence of raising such questions, journalists go missing, are fired from their organizations or are prohibited from roaming freely in the country.
But controlling the media and masses through fear has never proved beneficial and it will not be useful in the future either. Since the prevailing religious, political and security narratives were shaped by the establishment, it has to accept its failure and should go back to its constitutional role of being subservient to the elected government. So poor is the state of the country now that while our neighbor India is trying to reach to the moon, we are busy in debates like whether covering women’s bodies is essential to save them from sexual harassment, and who is a perfect Muslim or patriot and who is not.
For generations, Pakistanis have been fed the narratives of Saudi monarchs’ brand of religion and self-created “national security” concerns and hate toward dissent. The question arises of who will change this mindset, as it will take decades of honest efforts, and whether the deep state will allow this to happen, as its business empire stands on a society that is incapable of thinking and living in the 21st century.
The way forward for Pakistan – in fact, its very survival – depends on a new social and political contract between the establishment and the citizens. The end of the current engineered political dispensation, holding fresh general elections and setting the media free, and giving the elected government the power to shape social, political and foreign narratives, can take Pakistan in the right direction, and gradually will be able not only to change the mindset of society but also change Pakistan from a security state to pluralistic welfare state. A theological or security state has no chance of survival in the modern era, with neighboring war-torn Afghanistan the best example.
The deep state is already losing the battle on the political chessboard and it should realize that a respectable retreat could be face-saving, while giving Pakistan a chance to move forward in the modern world. Otherwise, there will come a point when the journey of moving in blind circles will sink the country. One hopes that sanity will prevail among the establishment and the political forces and new social and political contracts between the state and the citizens will be shaped.