Tragically silenced – Abbas Nasir

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THREE men of excellence in their fields have been told by the educational institutions they were teaching at that their ‘contracts will not be renewed’; the chief editor-owner of the country’s largest media group has spent more than a 100 days in custody without bail and is yet to face any charge.

Against the backdrop of a media that has largely been clubbed into silence, or worse still into toeing the line, as a weekly columnist (admittedly, of no real consequence) I am so grateful for the liberty this newspaper affords me. But for how long, I often wonder.

You must have noticed that Dawn and, literally, no more than three or four TV shows are now tiny dots, still upholding traditional journalistic values, of asserting their right to shape their editorial policies, of speaking truth to power, on the vast canvas that represents the media in our land.

But for this defiance which, honestly speaking, is at best token there is a heavy price to be paid. Those who toe the line seem to be thriving with adequate revenues even during the Covid-19-driven economic slowdown. The defenders of the current hybrid dispensation often argue that the media is crying out, out of a misplaced sense of entitlement towards government advertising.

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Either they don’t know or deliberately ignore the fact that the private sector advertisers are also being arm-twisted into altering their priorities. A senior advertising industry executive informed me from Lahore that he’d been told in no uncertain terms who was not to be given adverts.

When he tried to explain that often it is in the hands of the advertiser who chooses the recipient of their ads, given the market they are targeting, he was told: ‘Then you must tell them that all of us have to live and deal with each other here.’ And that was a polite warning.

The same intolerance is being evidenced in educational institutions. It is hard to blame those at the helm of these institutions.

It is not surprising then that, for example, Jang-Geo CEO and chief editor Mir Shakilur Rehman (MSR) has been behind bars for some three and a half months without charge and bail. He is in the custody of NAB whose draconian Musharraf era laws were left unchanged by both the PPP and PML-N.

It is also public knowledge that the NAB chairman came under huge pressure after a video emerged of his engaging in conversation in an entirely inappropriate manner with the wife of someone accused by his organisation of criminal activities.

It is no secret that that video was released to a cha­nnel owned by a special assistant to the prime minister. When the controversy started to rage, the SAPM was promptly ‘sacked’. Then, unimpeachable sources say, the woman who featured in the video and her spouse were housed at a very secure official address in Islamabad and kept under close surveillance.

These developments were followed by an end to criticism of NAB by senior government functionaries who had often complained that the watchdog was not moving fast enough or did not seem interested in going after the opposition figures with the vigour they would have desired.

And many of NAB’s actions since then, including the arrest of MSR for the purchase of land reportedly from a private party some 35 years ago in Lahore, give the impression that the anti-corruption body has overdosed on Red Bull.

The only exception since has been the grant of bail to politicians who were seen as accommodating towards powerful personalities and institutions at a key juncture during the very final days in office of the last chief justice of Pakistan. Their bails seem to have received indefinite extensions.

If opposition politicians and independent media, or whatever remains of it, were being brought to their knees it was bad enough; now the same intolerance is being evidenced in educational institutions. It is hard to blame those at the helm of these institutions.

Anyone who has even second-hand experience of the third-degree methods, the pressure the state is capable of employing to get its way, will know how the finest of men and women can be worn down and left feeling they have no option but to do as they are told.

What is desired is no challenge to the officially orchestrated and propagated narrative. All diversity is a threat to the fragile national security state and hence needs be silenced. And if in the process the youth of the country is deprived of enlightened teachers, so be it.

We don’t need people who have excelled and won accolades at MIT and Cambridge for example. Yes, I remember the impact of someone like Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy and Dr Ammar Ali Jan briefly coming in to teach at the Karachi University when I was there from 1980-84.

Such teachers stood out in the sea of mediocrity and were truly inspirational. Thirty years on, FC College Lahore has taken away from the students their Dr Shahid Zahid, a Cambridge Tripos and a Stanford Phd at 26, who taught me economics of planning in B.A. (Hons).

What a loss it was when he left Pakistan to take up a position with ADB in Manila after having faced continued physical violence by those seeking an Islamic revolution. One of their mediocrity-steeped nazims later headed the department.

Mohammed Hanif did an M.A. in creative writing at University of East Anglia, a prestigious programme that is by invitation only, ahead of the publication of his A Case of Exploding Mangoes. Just look up who among eminent writers have attended the programme. He was transferring his experience and education and learning to students in Karachi.

All these teachers have impeccable credentials. Their views are the problem. They have spoken out for equal rights to all ethnicities and to women in society; they have called upon the security state to curb its excesses against its own citizens. I am sure you catch the drift. This is the security state telling us all what it thinks of such views advocating pluralism.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

abbas.nasir@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, June 28th, 2020