Invisible and unheard – By Ghazi Salahuddin

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Ominous times, these are. And it is becoming increasingly difficult to make sense of what is happening to this country – and to us, as individuals. Yes, this dark mood is dictated by the exigencies and uncertainties of Covid-19. But there has also been a particular onslaught this week of pain and distress that affects our mood and our capacity to stay calm. Is it something in our stars?

That I am a journalist certainly does not help. There is this professional obligation to keep abreast of all the major events and developments that lurk just beneath the surface. This means that I do not have the option to shut out the world and its obtrusive vulgarities.

Ah, but there is a catch here. I am not able to write all that I know, see, feel or think. Ironically, it is so in a world of media epidemic of its kind where they wear masks and creep in shadows. Against this backdrop, suppression of the professional and independent media is bound to promote national incoherence and ideological deception.

Now, there is more than one reason why I am distracted, in the midst of the pandemic, to talk about the media. In the first place, today – Sunday, May 3 – is the World Press Freedom Day. May 3 was so declared by the UN General Assembly and the idea was to raise awareness of the importance of the freedom of the press.

Over the years, the free media has suffered so much at the hands of authoritarian regimes that this Day is not at all a celebration and the ceremonies are becoming more elegiac. This year’s theme is: ‘Media for Democracy: Journalists and Elections in Times of Disinformation’. Its concept note acknowledges that “today, the contribution of free, pluralistic, independent and safe journalism is under unprecedented stress”.

For us, in Pakistan, there is this deepening anguish about the continued detention of Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman, editor-in-chief of Jang and Geo Group. What this means has become very evident. Jang/Geo is the largest media group in the country by a wide margin and its struggle for freedom and technological as well as editorial innovation is universally recognised. But what is at stake here is more than one media group’s independence. Essentially, it is an attack on the democratic evolution of Pakistan and its national sense of direction.

Then, there is this mysterious report about veteran journalist Sajid Hussain, who had also worked in this newspaper. He was missing from the Swedish city of Uppsala since March 2, where he was given political asylum. It is now confirmed that his body was discovered from a river.

In addition, I would like to mention the launch on Thursday of the annual report of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), with specific reference to its chapter on Freedom of Expression. HRCP’s annual reports on the state of human rights in Pakistan are universally cited as a very credible document. It is also very extensive, covering almost all the areas that relate to human rights.

With reference to curbs on free speech, HRCP Secretary General Harris Khalique said: “The last year will be remembered for systemic curbs on political dissent, chokehold on press freedom and grievous neglect of economic and social rights”.

Numerous journalists reported that it had become even more difficult to criticise state policy. Zohra Yusuf, former HRCP chairperson, said that this, coupled with the erosion of social media spaces and a deliberate financial squeeze on the media, had led to Pakistan’s position slipping on the World Press Freedom Index.

Warning that the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic will worsen the human rights record of the country, HRCP spokesperson I A Rehman said that 2019 was the year of widespread social and economic marginalisation that left the weakest segment of society invisible and unheard.

At this point, I would like to shift to a rather enigmatic statement made by Prime Minister Imran Khan about how the elite had readily imposed a lockdown to deal with the pandemic without thinking of the poor. We are familiar with the prime minister’s lockdown dilemma. His concern that a strict lockdown will deeply hurt the poor and the daily wage earners is surely valid.

However, his assertion that the elite had made the lockdown decision to subvert the interests of the poor raises a number of questions. Isn’t he himself at the helm? How could the elite overrule him? And if they did, how would he deal with them to defend the rights of the poor and the underprivileged?

If the deprivations of the poor are meant to drive the social and economic policies of this government, the HRCP report is a certification of the state of the “weakest segment” of the society during 2019, when the present government was in power. Imran Khan had made some other remarks during his speech at COMSTECH headquarters in Islamabad about the development priorities of the previous governments and the division of the national resources. Will Pakistan now be a welfare and not a national security state?

To be fair to Imran Khan, questions about the power of the elite – the ruling elite? – need to be seriously explored. One wonders if he has ever given much thought to the vested interests of the individuals he has gathered in his large cabinet. Actually, it is as good a representation of the elite of this country as you can draw together.

Besides, if the intention is to empower the poor and to respect their human dignity, the entire system will have to be made more equitable. To understand this challenge, a beginning can be made with a careful study of the HRCP report and a tutorial may be held for the cabinet, with someone like I A Rehman as the tutor.

To conclude, let me quote Dom Helder Camara, who was Brazil’s Catholic Archbishop and was known as an advocate of liberation theology. He said: “When I give food to the poor they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist”.

The writer is a senior journalist.